The Vegan Revolution. Saving Our World, Revitalizing Judaism. By Richard Schwartz. Lantern Publishing and Media, 2020.
Any other book titled The Vegan Revolution, if one didn’t look at the subtitle, would not necessarily seem to have anything to do especially with Judaism or Israel. But from page 1 forward Richard Schwartz starts talking about why Jews should be vegans. Surprise! The title is accurate. He really is talking about a world-wide vegan revolution. The vegan revolution taking place in Israel and among Jews is, in effect, the model for the world-wide vegan revolution. Judaism and Israel just provide the spark.
For those familiar with Richard Schwartz’s writings, this book will instantly invite comparisons to one of his earlier books, Judaism and Vegetarianism (1982, 1988, and 2001). That book made the basic case for Jews to be vegetarians: all the basic arguments for vegetarianism in the light of Jewish teachings. We have come a long way in getting from Judaism and Vegetarianism to The Vegan Revolution; specifically, from “vegetarian” to “vegan,” and from “Judaism” to “the world.”
You can still see some of the logic of the old book in the new. This much has not changed: he’s still trying to apply Jewish values to the basic arguments for veganism. But he’s gone considerably beyond this now. He has incorporated quite a bit of material that is completely new — on cultivated meat, on climate change, on fish, on animal rights, and other topics. Even the subjects that were covered in the previous book have been reworked and completely updated. In Judaism and Vegetarianism, he says that Israel was one of the world’s major exporters of foie gras (fatty goose or duck liver, fattened through force feeding); but in The Vegan Revolution he notes that the Israeli supreme court has now outlawed foie gras. Israel is a democratic country, Israel is changing, and so can the rest of the world.
We are no longer just talking about ways that Jews can be better Jews. Schwartz sees Israel as a “light unto the nations” (Isaiah 49:6), and this verse — also quoted by some of those endorsing the book — is the key to understanding the connection between Israel, Judaism, veganism, and the world.
Does it make sense to make modern Israel a model for the vegan revolution? “Israel has (at 5 percent) the highest national percentage of vegans in the world, a number that has more than doubled since 2010, with an additional 8 percent calling themselves vegetarians,” notes Schwartz. Some readers might quibble with these statistics (what about India? what about Taiwan?), but these other countries are relying on traditional culture to promote veganism, so their model for advancing veganism can’t be as easily replicated elsewhere. In India and China, traditional plant-based diets are continually undercut with the progress of technology, which always seems to bring with it an increase in meat consumption. But in Israel, a thoroughly Westernized country, the progress of technology seems to support veganism. Israel is a leader in the technology of “cultivated meat,” which hopes to provide animal protein without the animal, to which Schwartz devotes an entire chapter. Schwartz notes that cultivated meat is still controversial and not truly “vegan,” but no one doubts that cultivated meat eliminates the slaughterhouse from the equation.
Moreover, even this “5 percent” figure understates the influence of veganism in a rapidly changing country, as concern for animals has penetrated Israel to some depth. The meat industry is heavily on the defensive, as the kosher certification process is widely recognized as corrupt, and this has further driven Israelis towards veganism. Not only has the supreme court outlawed “foie gras,” the head of the Israeli Armed Forces is vegan, and so is the President of Israel, Reuben Rivlin — who incidentally has endorsed this book.
The Vegan Revolution has a distinct international flavor, which comes out in several of the new chapters. In the chapter on “The fishes of the sea,” he speaks of “fishes” rather than “fish,” using an unusual plural, to emphasize that traditionally these animals have not been spoken of as individuals, but as a giant amorphous blob of biomass. To save ocean ecosystems, we need an international approach. The sea, notes Schwartz, is lawless, and fishing often involves piracy and slavery.
Climate change, also obviously an international problem, is given its own chapter of almost completely new material. Israel is even more vulnerable than most countries to many of the effects of global warming. It’s close to the sea, and importing 90% of its grains and legumes. Israel’s survival in a world of global warming obviously depends on worldwide international action and cooperation. And meat consumption obviously also contributes to mass extinctions, energy shortages, food wastage, water pollution, and world hunger. Yet in response to this insanity, many people want to see meat production expand!
Schwartz concludes (p. 134) by saying that he hopes his book will provoke discussion not just in the Jewish community, but beyond, and that this discussion will lead to a world in which “they do not hurt or destroy” (Isaiah 11:9). He doesn’t include a blueprint for getting to a vegan world, but the example of Israel certainly gives us a lot to think about.
I’ve known Richard Schwartz since the 1980’s but had lost touch with him some decades ago. Now I feel that I’ve met him again. One of the many charming features of this book is that it includes his own life story. I’ve now filled in a lot of the details that I had previously only heard in snatches — most notably, that he had moved to Israel in 2016. I hope that he will be remembered through this book, because it really summarizes his life (so far!). It was a life constantly adapting, constantly refining, consistently just enough ahead of the rest of us so that he could show us the way, even though he hadn’t completely figured out the ending himself.
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Check out more writings by Richard Schwartz here.
This review originally appeared in Animals 24-7.