Interview with Santiago Gomez, an activist who has been part of the 269 initiative from the beginning
CAN YOU BEGIN BY SAYING A FEW WORDS ABOUT YOURSELF?
HOW DID YOU COME TO EMBRACE VEGANISM?
I went vegan around the ripe old age of 20, I think, after half a decade of floundering through my ovo-lacto inconsistencies. Having no significant natural affinity for animals as a child, my awakening to their rights was basically conceptual, and came worded in the lyrics sheets of imported British anarcho-punk albums. This followed—and in fact complimented—a more general politicized upbringing, the result of my parents’ involvement in resisting Argentina’s military dictatorship during the 70s.
Sadly, even though Israel’s animal rights movement was a late-bloomer by western standards, veganism was still not on the table, literally, when it all began. Things revolved more around the issues of fur, circuses, captive dolphins and meat. Looking back on it, though, it seems natural that a movement’s trajectory would follow that of the average individual activist, concerning itself with the simpler and more obvious manifestations of animal exploitation first. Vegetarianism truly is the ‘infantile disorder” of our movement – there’s an obvious child-like simplicity to associating meat with death, and it’s certainly more instinctive and all-around easier than straining one’s eyes to turn the whiteness of dairy or eggshells into symbols of black-hearted cruelty and blood-red violence. So for a good first few years (late 80s/early 90s), while we honestly thought of ourselves as speaking out on the animals’ behalf, our vision of both animal exploitation and the actions needed to end it was significantly blurred by self-absorption. Ultimately, we were less concerned with what nonhuman bodies are put through than with what we put into our own bodies. Our sights were off. And it’s not just a quantitative difference: veganism is more realpolitik, more detail-oriented when it comes to nonhuman experiences, while vegetarianism has a lot of Judeo-Christian “sanctity of life” overtones running its length, which tend to focus not so much on the actual, material lives of animals as on moralistic notions and abstract, conjectural perceptions of “conscientiousness,” in which we, humans, the conscience-holders, are of course a perennial point of reference. This self-centered crap is understandable if you’re either very young or religious to the point of believing Homo Sapiens were created in the image of a divine deity, but through any other prism vegetarianism seems just as arbitrary and inconsistent—if not more—than actually eating animal flesh. At least to me. And this is not said to downplay the importance of symbolism in or as personal politics, not at all, merely to point out that cultural symbols (like meat) are valuable only to those who understand them, which in this case means humans and humans alone. Nonhumans deal in real life prospects, not semiotics.
HOW DID YOU BECOME INVOLVED IN HUMAN RIGHTS STRUGGLES? CAN YOU ELABORATE A BIT ON YOUR EXPERIENCE WITH “ANARCHISTS AGAINST THE WALL”?
I guess I didn’t get into politics as much as was thrown in, headfirst, at the age of three, the night my father became one of the thirty-thousand Argentinian “desaparecidos.” After that you’re pretty much “involved in human rights struggles” whether you like it or not. An older brother’s love of good music introduced me to punk rock and hardcore as a pre-teen, which infused my life forever with countercurrent energies and a loud, acerbic hatred of normative injustice. Shortly after, I began my involvement with anarchist politics, punk counterculture, straightedge, antimilitarist activism (I refused being drafted into the IDF) and the various other facets of a then-burgeoning oppositional movement. You have to remember that this period of time in Israel, between the de-facto end of the first Intifada (the Madrid Conference of 1991) and the assassination of Prime Minister Yizhak Rabin in late 1995, was characterized by a strong sense of euphoric optimism in antiauthoritarian circles, during which new perspectives and new issues began taking precedent over Palestine-centered politics: our very own “movida,” if you will. Israel’s main animal rights organization, “Anonymous for Animal Rights,” started up as part of that surging wave, and was conceived with a much-broader and expansive scope in mind – ultimately trimmed down through the years and demands of mainstreaming and professionalism.”Anarchists Against the Wall” (AAtW) comes into the picture about a decade later, in 2003, and was actually a kind of accidental offshoot of a small anarchist animal rights group called “One Struggle.” I think most people worldwide familiar with AAtW’s record are not aware of the fact that its roots lie in the small animal rights scene.With “One Struggle” we had a two-pronged approach: to engage in animal rights activism from an antiauthoritarian perspective, and to implant animal rights perspectives into antiauthoritarian activism. The campaign against McDonald’s, for example, was a “One Struggle” favorite, for its obvious multi-issue qualities, and we spent many a late afternoon holding tattered placards in front of their stinking restaurants, watching Tel Aviv’s skyline turn Prussian blue.In late 2003, as part of a joint effort with Palestinians, “One Struggle” activists dismantled one of the Separation Barrier’s gates near the West Bank village of Mas’ha, four miles inside the Green Line. Israeli soldiers overreacted by firing live ammunition, severing an artery in the left leg of one of us and shattering his right knee. This was the first time ever the IDF opened fire on Jewish citizens, and in the ensuing media frenzy, the made up & randomly chosen name with which we signed the press release of that action—“Anarchists Against the Wall”—became indelibly etched into the public mind.
“One Struggle” is long gone as an actual group, but it’s been over 10 years and AAtW is still going strong, although personally I’m no longer involved.
CAN YOU TELL US ABOUT THE CHANGES IN YOUR PERSPECTIVE REGARDING THE “ONE STRUGGLE” CONCEPT?
It’s funny because in retrospect, although I’ve always been of the veganarchist “one struggle one fight!” persuasion, I can now sort of make out little question marks and faint doubts popping up along the way. It’s almost like trying to remember a dream: there are all these bits an’ pieces, fragments of sentences and situations that intuitively add up to some kind of logical narrative only as you start telling it.
There’s one instance I vividly recall which kept me up for, well, more than a couple of nights. We were on our mailing list, planning some upcoming action against Israel’s blockade of the Gaza Strip, and an animal rights activist who was somehow on the list despite never having subscribed to our brand of politics sent a very calm, polite and above all rational message questioning whether folks who consider themselves animal liberationists—especially if they support violence against animal abusers—really ought to oppose the blockade. This was, I think, about a year after it was put in place, and there were all these FAO reports and news stories coming out, detailing how Israel’s military had “caused the near collapse of the Gaza fishing industry,” inflicted extensive damage on nearly all of Gaza’s poultry barns, feed stores and farms, and even how “meat and animal protein” were “generally unavailable” throughout the strip (due also to Israel’s refusal to allow cattle in) – that kind of stuff. I of course immediately pressed the reply button and sent him an indignant rebuttal, composed of the same bullet-points most of you probably have flashing in front of your eyes right now in bold red letters: it’s morbidly inhuman to applaud the starvation of 1.7 million people, military aggression will not bomb us into a vegan world, war hurts animals too, armed conflicts decrease societies’ tendencies towards compassion, et al. And yet, beneath this lake of fire, beyond the best defense mechanisms my ideological currency could buy, something got to me, and it was actually my friends’ response. Because, you see, the original message was not sent by some racist hatemonger or a snarling, mustached Dickensian villain rubbing his hands together. It was sent by a fellow animal rights activist, using rational, apolitical argumentation and pointing out what he saw as a conflict of interests between two oppressed sectors, animals and humans (who happened to be Gazan). And yet his question, the very fact he dared speak its name, was felt by everyone (myself included) to be offensive, somehow out of bounds, almost heretic. So one of us removed herself from the list, mortified that such a message could even appear on it; others responded with insults where arguments would normally be, and ultimately the skeptic, the heathen, was cast out of the list.This was not the reaction of people whose politics had just been questioned in a sensible manner, but of people whose very identity had been put on the hot seat. It got me thinking and eventually helped me reexamine my own words and deeds and core beliefs… was this concept of a “one big struggle,” this notion that human and nonhuman liberation are inextricably linked, an outcome of real-world political analysis, of studying the nuts and bolts of oppression and the diverse dynamics of liberation? Or was it, instead, an ideological conclusion superimposed on reality, erasing complexities and contradictions in favor of a more manageable, homogenized blanket stance? Had we confused wishful thinking with strategic thinking? Unity with uniformity? Axioms with praxis? How things are with how they ought to ideally be?It was quite a rude awakening, and in a way I felt like I had just stepped back from through the looking glass, y’know? The very idea of recognizing this supposedly intrinsic link between the rights of the perpetrator and the victim, butcher and butchered—humans and nonhumans—suddenly seemed politically coarse and incredibly self-deluded, if not downright self-serving. An allegiance to fleshed-out concepts over flesh-and-blood creatures.In the realm populated exclusively by theories, perhaps, in the dizzying heights of the hypothetical, of ideologies and philosophies an’ good, spiritual vibrations – sure, human and nonhuman liberation are indeed one and the same. Much like the liberation of even, say, Josef Mengele and his tortured Auschwitz survivors, or that of rapists and rape victims, also fuse into a singularity of “human rights” in such a realm. But back on the rocky terrain of planet earth, the different freedoms of different groups, oppressed as they may be, can of course end up diametrically opposed and force us to pick sides. I began realizing that this “one struggle” thing was in fact a form of neutrality disguised as all-inclusiveness, a hiding place where conflicting realities were paved over by ideology—consciously or not—in order to avoid painful ethical dilemmas. In other words, it was not politics but a political identity, something you are as opposed to some things you do.The concept of “normalization,” borrowed from the Palestinian issue and applied to human/nonhuman interaction, was another peppery eye-opener towards the end of my time as a human rights activist. For those not familiar with the political parlance, “normalization” refers to any organization, group or program that brings together Palestinians and Israelis under vague and nonpolitical banners of “coexistence,” without direct and explicit acknowledgement of the occupation, apartheid, histories of displacement and the overall oppression of the former by the latter, as well as the need to combat it. It is essentially a way to whitewash oppressor/oppressed relations through the creation of a false sense of symmetry and sameness. And I maintain that the concept of a “one struggle” is a mechanism which basically serves the same purpose.
Any linkage, however tentative and however good natured, in theory or in practice, between exploiter and exploited (in our case humans and nonhumans), which is not based on unequivocally exposing, addressing and opposing the power imbalance at the heart of the dynamics of exploitation, is a linkage that ultimately works to both obscure and perpetuate that imbalance and that exploitation, by normalizing them. The oft-repeated argument that the animal rights movement should concern itself with human rights because “humans are animals too” would be a prime example of such a linkage, as would any reference to the low wages or dangerous work conditions of those poor slaughterhouse workers. The chant “human freedom, animal rights, one struggle, one fight!”—an ahistorical, apolitical, decontextualized and across-the-board flawed syllogism if there ever was one—would be a close third.
Santiago as the slaughter man in the very first 269 solidarity burn demo
CAN YOU SHARE SOME OF THE DILEMMAS AND DIFFICULTIES YOU ENCOUNTERED DURING YOUR GRADUAL SHIFT FROM HUMAN- TO NONHUMAN-CENTERED POLITICS?
I think the most difficult part was, and still is, the “reversal of perspective,” to dust off that old term – finding out how deep the rabbit hole goes and how many dead rabbits there are at the end of it. After all, redefining concepts can at times be harder than learning them in the first place, no? Take radicalism, for example. A young Marx once wrote that “to be radical is to grasp the root of the matter. But, for man, the root is man himself” – anthropocentrism exemplified, but also, and more importantly, the very same definition of radicalism that militants at both ends of the political spectrum carry in their hearts, including most of our veganarchist comrades. In its place, I would advance a different definition, for instance the one articulated by Professor Norman Finkelstein (a familiar name to any westerner involved in the Palestinian cause), when he stated on camera that, to him, radicalism is defined by “through whose eyes you choose to see the world.” That’s a definition I can really get behind as an antispeciesist. In practical terms, this means that anyone who truly chooses to make nonhumans his focal point, his raison d’être—whether mainstream or alternative, violent or pacifist, new welfarist or abolitionist, lifestylist or activist—embodies a stance that is at its core radical (even if half-assed), whereas the most daring Antisistema or Exarcheian rioter, fiery molotovs and anti-capitalist rhetoric notwithstanding, is actually a moderate, a conservative even, from a nonhuman perspective. To put it differently, there is more radical analysis in one summer afternoon of walking around your neighborhood leaving out water dishes for stray cats than in all the antifa, decolonialized, genderqueer post-leftist direct actions this world has to offer. Another concept I began redefining in my head was the Single Issue, eternal foe of the One Struggle. The notion that animal rights is a single issue rests on a kind of optical illusion, a forced perspective. Think about it: we see an extremely diverse array of nonhumans either hurt, exploited and/or killed by very different means, for very different reasons, in very different circumstances and using very different justifications, and yet we lump ’em all into the same narrow political category; this, despite the fact that their particular needs, specific rights and even paths to liberation all differ vastly as well! When it comes to humans, on the other hand, every aspect of our existence is broken down into ever-smaller insular issues: from housing to healthcare, abortion to ableism, electoral processes to electrocuting prisoners, white guilt to gay pride, and of course imperialism and sexism and the other million and a half ‘isms’ we have tucked under our collective belt. But all of these are simply one single issue from the perspective of a hen locked in an Australian battery cage, a monkey forced to pick coconuts in Southeast Asia, a bottlenose dolphin harpooned in Danish waters or a coyote poisoned with sodium cyanide by Canada’s Wildlife Services. Again, it’s all about whose eyes you choose to see the world through, how truly radical you dare to be. Species are born into, perspectives are broken out of .I was driving up to the village of Ni’lin for the first time, near Ramallah, attending a joint demonstration against the Apartheid Wall, when my friend Sarah, who had already been there, turned to us from the front seat and warned me about two makeshift abattoirs along the village’s main road. “Just make sure to avert your eyes when we pass them,” she suggested. And I remember a feeling, sharp, like fingernails scraping a chalkboard… I mean, weren’t we on that very road, at that very moment, physically and metaphorically and also politically, precisely because we did not want to be the kind who “avert their eyes”? More or less around the same time—and this may sound lifted from a Larry David script but it did actually happen to me—I had another sudden, painful moment of clarity, at an animal rights stand in central Tel Aviv. Some military operation was going on at the time (there’s certainly no shortage of these ’round here), and a very scruffy-looking settler started screaming at us, his Tzitzit tassels flapping wildly, for having the chutzpah to concern ourselves with “head of cattle” while young Israelis are being killed in the occupied territories. Not five minutes after he stomped away angry and muttering, a middle-aged woman in a wide-brimmed hat walked over and began yelling at us for having the gall to cry over “livestock” while young Palestinians are being killed in the occupied territories! And the way these seemingly archenemies—Left and Right, like day and night—said the exact same thing, in the same harsh tones, even using the same phrasings, adjectives and predicates, it just blew my mind! It honestly felt like I was caught in a candid camera skit.
I should also probably add that some seventy-odd years ago, George Orwell had a kinda-sorta similar moment, watching a child whip a cart-horse in the British countryside. “I proceeded to analyse Marx’s theory from the animals’ point of view,” he reminisces in the preface to the Ukrainian edition of “Animal Farm”; “To them it was clear that the concept of a class struggle between humans was pure illusion, since whenever it was necessary to exploit animals, all humans united against them: the true struggle is between animals and humans.” Now replace “class struggle” with “Israeli-Palestinian Conflict” and watch the room spin, your Poli-sci books spontaneously combust, and your heart sink as former comrades begin denouncing you for your a) racism b) privilege c) misanthropy d) all of the above and more to come.Of course, alongside these rather conceptual difficulties there were also concrete, real-life obstacles raised by the rampant speciesism of my political allies. Ta’ayush, for example (a far-left organization), once tried to mobilize us into rebuilding battery cages demolished by Israeli soldiers in the Palestinian village of Hirbet Jbara. I recall sending them an online petition against it with a few dozen signatures – not bad for the size of the milieu. Another similar organization, Gush Shalom, later organized a solidarity action with Gazan fishermen that did in fact take place (as opposed to the Ta’ayush one), despite the most grueling e-critiques our trained vegan fingers could type, copy and forward.
There’s a picture from around that time which I used in one of my fanzines, of ISM (International Solidarity Movement) activists with harsh expressions visible through partially-masked faces, linking arms in order to prevent a small Palestinian battery-cage structure from being destroyed by an advancing Israeli hydraulic excavator. Can you imagine a more absurd, twisted, compartmentalized love of freedom or justice—or for that matter “solidarity”—than this?!? Boy am I glad I split that whole “Homo Sapiens Über Alles” scene…
CAN YOU TELL US A LITTLE ABOUT YOUR RELATIONSHIP WITH SASHA? HOW AND WHEN DID YOU FIRST MEET? HOW ABOUT SOME OF THE OTHER PEOPLE INVOLVED IN THE ISRAELI BRANDING EVENTS?
We were never really in the same activist or social circles, Sasha and I, but I remember him showing up at the “Anonymous” animal rights center when he was very young, a long time ago obviously. As time progressed he became part of that organization’s street-stall crew, which is still remembered for its intensive, seven-days-a-week information stall marathons around the city—from the Dizengoff shopping complex to the seashore promenade and everywhere in between—equipped with what at the time was a ridiculously big TV set being pushed around in a wobbly shopping cart. I also have a vague recollection of arguing anarchist politics with him and his friends long into the night outside Bar Ilan University, about ten years ago, while waiting to try and block the first batch of monkeys from being delivered into the recently-inaugurated Multidisciplinary Brain research Center. To make a long story short, he’s been around and active for a long time—although until very recently our paths did not frequently cross—and he is definitely one to think outside the box.
Ohad Cohen, one of the three people whom I branded in the second 269 branding event, is another activist I’ve known for a long time. These past few years we’ve actually logged hundreds upon hundreds of hours standing side by side, leafleting for SHEVI (acronym for “Animal Liberation Israel”). I did not really know the other people involved in 269 prior to the first action in 2012, but got the impression right from the get-go that these were serious and dedicated activists. I doubt I’d have taken part in 269 events otherwise.
WHAT PRIOR KNOWLEDGE DID YOU HAVE OF THE 269 INITIATIVE? WHAT PART HAVE YOU PLAYED IN 269’s PUBLIC EVENTS? WHY CHOOSE 269?
My involvement began quite incidentally, to be honest. Organizers of the event were having an impossible time finding a volunteer to brand the activists, and I happened to be the only one willing to even consider, albeit hesitantly, burning people’s flesh with a red-hot branding iron.
I don’t know to what extent this hybrid between movement, organization and campaign that is 269 was already developed back when we were rehearsing the first branding up on Sasha’s roof, but I, for one, certainly wasn’t fully aware of it. All I knew—all I needed to know—was that this was a radical animal rights action with the potential to open quite a lot of people’s eyes, which it did, mixing theatrical violence with the all-too-real severity of second degree burns.As for 269 as a whole, I don’t think it has any specific characteristic that’s 100% original, something you couldn’t possibly find anywhere else in the animal rights multiverse. But in a way it’s all about the delivery, the right combination, and what you accentuate. I like the hybrid nature I mentioned earlier, the concept of fluidity. I also especially like the commitment to pushing the envelope – hell, to being ready to fill the damn thing with figurative razor blades or metaphorical ricin powder, if that’s what’s needed. Left to its own devices, our struggle recedes all too easily into abstracts, into rounded numbers, principled stances; the gut-level realization that we’re dealing in pounds of flesh and rivers of blood has an ingrained tendency to fade away into the intangible, luring us there.
The need to constantly push the envelope is real because desensitization is real, because complacency is real, on a societal as well as personal level. The crude, soy and potatoes sloganeering of Conflict’s “Meat Means Murder” used to be enough to drain the colors from my day – nowadays it’ll take Chris Hannah’s poignant lyrics about the cosmic purpose of his dying cat’s suffering to move me. Kale-for-brains food fetishist vegans either don’t get the evolutional need to up the ante, or they’re simply content with polishing their own lil’ reflections in their shiny aluminum kitchen utensils.I don’t know whether this comes across in other countries, but here in Israel I feel 269 radiates an energy that runs counter to what Karen Davis once identified as a “rhetoric of apology” in the animal rights movement. It speaks volumes about humanity’s megalomania when merely limiting your scope to nonhumans, without apologies or apron strings, is interpreted in and of itself as “anti-human.” For all the faults you may find with 269, it is at least free of that pernicious political inferiority complex which plagues animal rights activism, in that it is definitely not about seeking validation through pathetic attempts at riding the coattails of “more pressing” (read: human-centered) causes. And that’s pretty rare in our movement. I mean, you either gotta laugh or cry when the armed-revolution advocates, as well as the nonviolent abolitionists—two factions usually at each other’s academic throats—are both equally adamant about hitching the animals’ wagon to other struggles and agendas. I know there’s been some drama about it before, so even though I’m not representing 269 or anythin’, just speaking my mind here, I want to clarify: it’s not about being anthropophobic or misanthropic or somehow averse to people being free and happy – it’s about fighting for nonhumananimals, point blank and period, end of story. There should be a rebellious, truly radical refusal to engage human-centered politics, to be ceaselessly drawn into them. “Oooh, you’re animal rights activists from Israel? Where d’you stand on the occupation?”, that kind of nonsense – just pull it out by the roots, take a hatchet to it. Even twisting my tongue with this clarification is itself a distraction. However, that refusal should not be based on a kind of ethical blindspot (or worse yet, schadenfreude), but on an understanding of how deeply problematic human rights narratives are, structurally speaking, and on realizing the importance of setting one’s own priorities, as opposed to simply choosing sides on issues as they’re prioritized (i.e. presented) by society at large; the latter results in a kind of guilt-by-association speciesism, of which I think 269 has distanced itself quite successfully. It’s disingenuous, even lazy, for the average animal rights activist to denounce things like Heifer International (which sends cows, goats and chickens as aid to people in developing countries), when the painful truth is that that project, despicable as it may be, is merely a crystallization of a much bigger dissonance, one we usually have to painstakingly autosuggest out of our system. You see, for the past, well, 250 years or more—basically since the industrial revolution, along with the shift from subsistence farming to urban-oriented agriculture, and rapid human population growth—the overall increase in people’s quality of life has meant an overall decrease in nonhuman quality of life (particularly those exploited for food, of course); and when I say ‘meant’ I may as well be saying ‘necessitated’. This is true whether you are measuring gross/national domestic product, per capita real income, human development index, GPI (genuine progress indicator) or any of their friendlier, “greener” versions. Keeping in mind the above is only a statistical, factual statement, devoid of any interpretations, can an animal rights advocate really struggle for human rights too—essentially a struggle to raise human quality of life in the here and now, not only “after the revolution”—without grappling with, or even as much as acknowledging, this dissonance?! India and China, the largest countries in the world in terms of population size, and among today’s fastest growing economies, are a very clear and immediate example of this magnetic polarity between human and nonhuman quality of life, if you follow the news. Then again, perhaps what’s-his-face was right in assessing that none are so blind as those who will not see… I’m not saying there is only one viable solution to all this, and I’m definitely not saying it should lead us on a “kill all humans!” bender (pun intended); I, along with 269 I believe, am only suggesting we shouldn’t gloss over this problem with low resolution, feel-good politics – that’s all. Amos Oz might’ve hit the nail on the head harder than he realized when he wrote, “My definition of a tragedy is a clash between right and right.”If ‘rights’ are a social construct and ‘freedom’ is socially-defined—as they obviously are—and if 99% of society defines it to be within its rights and freedoms to brutalize animals—as it most certainly does—then fighting for human rights and human freedom in such a society is necessarily going to be tricky, very tricky indeed (some would say impossible) for anyone equally committed to the rights and the freedoms of those animals being brutalized. It’s just common sense. You might find temporary, partial or very specific circumstances in which to get around that glaring contradiction, and you may wish to open up those circumstances, expand and build on them as much as possible (and rightly so), but ultimately that contradiction is blocking all the paths and holding all the keys, and sooner or later you’re gonna come up against it.Here’s another angle on that human/nonhuman magnetic polarity worth considering (although, admittedly, it doesn’t prove or disprove anything): a lot of you have probably heard of a book published a couple of years ago by renowned Harvard evolutionary psychologist Steven Pinker, which argued that, contrary to popular belief, we are living in the most peaceful time in our species’ existence, and that violence has been steadily decreasing throughout the ages. Pinker’s explanation for why this is might be your usual optimistic liberal nonsense, and has been pretty much criticized into the ground, but the 700 pages of data proving his theory remain, in the end, rather convincing. That is, of course—and here’s my whole point—unless you happen to count the violence inflicted on nonhuman animals as well, in which case the flow of historical violence is actually reversed, and we end up living in the most violent era the earth has ever known!Once more: it’s all about the reversal of perspective, whose eyes you choose to see the world through.As a final side note and friendly reminder to the Intersectionality crowd, I’d like to point out an anomaly in their analysis, one so big people can not only drive trucks through but also sublet apartments in. Israel, a country rightly referred to by a pioneer local 80s punk band as “one big military camp on the shores of the Mediterranean,” has been repeatedly named the world’s most militarized country in the Global Militarization Index released by the BICC (an independent, non-profit organization which calculates the degree of a country’s militarization by, amongst other things, comparing military expenditures with economic indicators such as health coverage or number of physicians). Israel also has the second-largest gap between rich and poor among industrialized nations, and its income gap, too, is among the widest in the west – at least according to the OECD. Furthermore, in every single poll conducted here in the last fifteen years, democratic values, tolerance and cultural diversity have been continually taking a backseat to ultra-nationalism, xenophobic sentiments, religious fanaticism and a craving for “strong leadership,” as evidenced in parliamentary politics by the hard turn to the right.Naturally, human freedom & animal rights being one struggle an’ all, as most activists would tell you, you’d have no choice but to conclude that an intolerant, predatory, violent, chauvinistic, war-scarred colonial settler-state could never be a conductive environment to the notion of animal rights. And yet, reality seems to fly in the face of that prized conventional wisdom.The most recent (and only) comprehensive poll, conducted around 13 years ago by the Ministry of Health, found an astounding 8.5% of Israel’s adult population describing itself as either vegetarian or vegan—11.6% among teenage girls—impressive figures by any standard (and bound to have gone up significantly since then), higher than most western countries, including several liberal European nations which have not seen military conflicts since the 16th century! Tel Aviv, for instance, not a particularly big city by western standards, currently has eight fully vegan restaurants—not counting the many vegetarian ones, of course—and if you think this is in no way related to ethical concerns, you’d be wrong. Again.
I may not share Gary Yourofsky’s chimerical vision of Israel as earth’s first vegan nation—far from it, to be honest—and I would certainly like to avoid painting too rosy a picture of this hellhole, but it’s as clear as it is amusing that a thousand veganarchists typing on a thousand typewriters for a thousand years would still not be able to come up with an explanation for this.
WHAT ARE YOUR HOPES FOR THE FUTURE OF THE ANIMAL LIBERATION MOVEMENT IN GENERAL, AND 269 IN PARTICULAR?
As for the movement in general, well, this won’t exactly win me any friends (perhaps even drive Hans Ruesch’s ghost to poltergeist me), but the first thing that comes to mind is a wish for antivivisection campaigning to be cut down to something even remotely resembling it’s correlative size – or, if you prefer the nicer way of saying it: we need a brighter, stronger, sharper focus on the food industry. No one enjoys the heart-numbing coldness that comes with a differential reduction of misery to dry zeros and decimal points, to faceless body-counts piled up against each other for measurement (no wonder Singer’s utilitarianism never really caught on…), but even death, that ultimate demise, has to be quantified sometimes, because every now and then this reveals gaps wide enough to merit serious strategic adjustments. And on that note, let us join hands and remind ourselves that the number of animals tortured and killed yearly by vivisectors around the world is not even a third, a quarter, a fifth or a tenth of the number of animals killed for food; it doesn’t even amount to 1%, or to half a percent for that matter (using the most “favorable” estimates it might reach one quarter of one percent, 00.25%). Just for the sake of perspective, the number of migratory birds killed in collisions with office building windows in the US alone is four times(!) higher than the highest estimate of animals killed worldwide by vivisection.I think this runaway fixation of ours with vivisection should be understood first and foremost as excess historical baggage. After all, antivivisection campaigning has had a substantial head start—well over a century—and so it figures it would exert such a deep-seated, disproportionate, almost mythical influence over today’s animal rights movement. Still, next time you copy-paste that Gandhi quote about vivisection being “the blackest of all black crimes,” or use a Mark Twain quote on the subject, please remember those words were written half a century before factory farming, before the amalgamation of high-tech industrialization, bioscience, globalization and a hyper-consumerist junk food culture turned food production into the behemoth it currently is. Those quotes survive today only frozen in time, sad ornaments, like Han Solos in carbonite. That Gandhi quote I just mentioned, for instance? The full version almost foresees this very problem: “Animal experimentation is the blackest of all the black crimes that man is at present committing” (my emphasis of course). Then again, truth be told, that was far from being the case even when Gandhi actually said it. And speaking of living in the past, here’s another thing worth remembering: the notion that pain inflicted intentionally (as in vivisection) is inherently worse than pain inflicted incidentally (as in food production) reeks of a formaldehyded strain of moralism we could very well do without. Implicit in there—consciously or not—is a belief that intentional pain is “dehumanizing,” meaning harmful to the person or persons or society inflicting it; only from that viewpoint could it be considered intrinsically worse than incidental pain. The victim, the nonhuman, is almost inconsequential (got anthropocentrism?). In a way, it echoes aaaall the way back to the teachings of Thomas Aquinas about our indirect duties to animals.
A third and last thing worth keeping in mind, one that can shed further light on the weight and prevalence of vivisection in our campaigns, is the fact that during its formative period in the late 1800s, animal experimentation was actually an arena where two opposing narratives—not about animals or their plight but about people, about human society—were battlin’ it out for control over the European psyche; this gave the whole issue, pro or con, an added oomph.Continuing the Cartesian model of the body as a machine, vivisection was heralded as “the new medicine” long before it produced any actual results, simply because Enlightenment philosophes sought to test in the field of medicine the efficacy of their faith in science, progress and, ultimately, in the creation of a new humanity. Academic animal research became both a primary model and a symbol of the Enlightenment’s scientific revolution, an embodiment of the break with the old world and all its demons. By this I mean that vivisection in and of itself—regardless of any merits it may or may not have—was enlisted in the progressive cause of science as a way to expunge past sentiments, as well as sentiments for the past. Figures like renowned physiologist Léon Clément Le Fort even said so explicitly at the time: “Speaking for myself and my brethren of the Faculté, I do not mean to say that we claim for that method of investigation that it has been of any practical utility to medical science, or that we expect it to be so. But it is necessary as a protest on behalf of the independence of science against interference by clerics and moralists. When all the world […] no longer believes in God, the soul, moral responsibility, or any nonsense of that kind, […] then and not till then, can science afford to dispense with vivisection.” Pretty crazy stuff, huh?On the opposing side stood the “Sanitarians,” who more or less parallel today’s environmentalists. These were people (most notably women) who, foreseeing the transformation of medicine into a technocracy, understood all too well the peril of such an amoral drift; who saw health as a common social asset, and public responsibility for health as a social good, not only as an individual achievement. Contrary to the deterministic, reductionist germ theory taught by vivisectionists, Sanitarians advanced a theory of disease which emphasized the social and environmental aspect of its causes. The novel “Doctor Pascal,” for instance, written around that time by Emile Zola, is a good depiction of this struggle, personified by the characters of the doctor and his niece.Issues of gender (as in women’s struggle to become doctors) or class (as in London’s Brown Dog affair), clashes between spiritualism and materialism, as well as between holistic and domineering approaches to nature – all these tensions and more were “Present absentees,” as we say in Hebrew, in the historical debate over vivisection. They were the subtext and undertones through which experiments on animals ballooned into the charged, symbolic and polarizing issue it still is. It is interesting to note that the more militant factions of our movement in particular (of which I’ve always considered myself part), have been disproportionately drawn to vivisection since the beginning: from the Band of Mercy’s arson at a Milton Keynes laboratory in ’73 to the Undersea Railroad’s liberation action at a Hawaii laboratory in ’77, all the first high-profile actions, raids, arsons and lengthy prison sentences, in both the UK and the US, revolved around animal experimentation. This was the case even here in Israel, with property destruction at university laboratories in Jerusalem and later on Tel Aviv, followed by the liberation of rabbits from Haifa’s Technion University some twenty odd years ago. And this trend continued well into the new Millennium: “since 1999,” wrote Kevin Jonas in 2004, “nearly 80 percent of the ALF attacks that have taken place in the US and the UK have been aimed at closing down HLS [vivisection-related].” One possible explanation for this (caution: gross generalizations ahead) might be found in the highly volatile mix between the urgency of radical political analyses and activism as self-actualization, i.e. our shared need for conflict, for a cathartic release of those highly-toxic negative emotions that swell up inside us when overwhelmed by the reality of an ever-present, socially sanctioned animal hell-on-earth.Think about it: the center of gravity in food-related campaigns is the public, who needs to be sympathetically engaged by positive, patient, inviting and educative means. The center of gravity in antivivisection, however, is usually not the average person but institutions, university laboratories, pharmaceutical research centers, breeding facilities, governmental entities or corporate headquarters – even vivisectors themselves, as private citizens enjoying the comfort of their homes. Generally speaking, then, food-related campaigns target the demand, while vivisection-related ones target the supply. This is because there is no proactive, resolute public demand for animal experimentation as there is for animal-derived foods. The public accepts vivisection and will defend it, yes, as well as support it economically by consuming animal-tested products; but animal-testing is neither an integral part of those products nor of the reason why they are consumed. No one buys Xanax or Tide because they’re animal-tested (if anything, they do so in spite of it). Most animal-derived foods, on the other hand, are bought specifically because, and only because, they actually came from the bodies of animals.So while militant and aggressive tactics might force corporations into abandoning vivisection, as proven quite thoroughly by SHAC, they will never intimidate people into abandoning dietary habits. Therefore, if you accept my premise that us militants have a need, not in strategic but in psychological terms, to “actualize” conflict and opposition, to spit some of the world’s venom back at it, to put on balaclavas, hold up signs with blood-splattered imagery and charged language, point fingers, scream curses and aggressively denounce animal abusers, it’s only logical that campaigns against vivisection will lend themselves easier to such needs than campaigns having to do with food production. Now, I’ve heard it said occasionally that in the grand scheme of things, antivivisection has certain strategic or tactical advantages over food-related campaigns (for example as a “gateway issue”) – but I must admit I just don’t see it, try as I might. And it certainly doesn’t correlate with my own activist experience. In fact, quite the contrary: I’ve always found that convincing people they can lead good healthy lives on vegan diets has always been easier (not easy but easier) than getting them to believe scientific experiments on animals have never, can never and will never yield anything of medical value to them, or to any other human being alive.But enough about vivisection. Regarding 269 specifically, I think what I wish most for it to represent is not answers but questions – or rather the resolve to ask questions we, as activists, don’t really sense the need for. Vegan education, in fact conventional activism as a whole, is a great example, because sacrosanct as it may be, it’s still built on certain assumptions which are, uh, not as rock-solid as we all like to pretend. Can the awareness of animals’ rights and ethical veganism be said to be gradually expanding? Sure. Can you extrapolate from this that, given enough time, it will eventually spread to the entire human population—a “vegan world if you want it”—or at least reach some sort of critical mass? Hardly; that’s a bit like reasoning that since training enables you to gradually jump higher and higher, you will, with enough physical training, eventually be able to leap tall buildings in a single bound.Animal rights outreach, in all its current forms, is directed at a mere fraction of the global populace. Even if we insist on pretending our target demographic is not significantly reduced by factors such as age or socio-economic status, we still have to face the harsh reality that most people are simply not swayed by rational argumentation. I’m sorry, but we don’t need to commandeer Plato’s winged horses or dissect Kant’s Ratio Decidendi here, it’s not neuroscience, much less rocket science: just walk a mile in your own damn pleather shoes, take a stroll down any street for Christ’s sake! Anyone who thinks the majority of human beings make fundamental decisions based on cognitive traits—let alone ethical considerations!—is simply living in a bizarro world (where, incidentally, there is no animal holocaust anyway, since that’s what’s going on in this one). What if the furthest vegan education could ever take us is doubling or tripling our numbers in the centuries to come, leaving us still a tiny minority, still a loudmouthed single-digit percentage in an ever-growing global population, barking incessantly at the caravan as it rolls past us? What if tonight you were woken up by the sound of a DeLorean crashing into the trash cans outside, and Marty McFly himself pounded on your door, screaming that he just got back from the future and all our outreach and meticulously crafted arguments were simply not enough? What would you do then? How little is too little, is what I’m asking, and what’s really the difference between us liberationists and the Temple Grandin welfarist types, if we’re both content with knowingly lowering the bar down to a reduction in animal suffering?
Of course, you may be wondering what the alternatives are. You may even suspect I want to replace educational efforts with direct action, with the initials ALF or ARM or JD or RCALB – or perhaps, scariest of all, with a brand new, Southern Californian Vegan Reich…Well, in one word: no. I don’t have any such long-scripted plans. I don’t know what the alternatives are. But I do know this, and with one-hundred percent certainty: those alternatives will never be found so long as we remain auto-piloted, retracing old footsteps inside comfort zones, praying to the gods of exponential growth and the passing of time to work their white magic and make it aaaall better. Only when we finally summon the courage to admit that the road we’re on is a dead end for animals—literally—will we be able to make out the twists and turns of new roads opening up in the horizon. “Wanderer, there is no road,” explained the great Spanish poet Antonio Machado, “the road is made by walking.” That’s what I hope for 269.
Oh, and needless to say, when it comes to the actual living, breathing, snow-colored calf whose gaze started it all, my only hope is that he goes from symbolizing animal exploitation to symbolizing animal liberation, if you know what I mean. In fact, this is something I’m counting on more than hoping for. We will free 269, “speedily in our days, Amen,” as Jewish folks say.
ANY FINAL COMMENTS? SOMETHING YOU’D LIKE TO ADD?
Alright – here’s three little afterthoughts.
One: nonviolence is a nonissue. If someone cannot comprehend how violence might curtail greater violence, they don’t have a problem with violence – they have a problem with complex thought processes, and ultimately with reality, history and life itself. Sorry but that’s the way the cookie (violently) crumbles. Two: the moment you hear the word “capitalism,” you know whoever’s speaking is not addressing the root cause of animal exploitation. That should be your cue to tune out.
Three: complacency is complicity – remember that, always, right down to your muscle memory. “The sun inside you” should be burning your gut constantly, as Bukowski once wrote. Or as another long gone poet asked it: If I do not burn / If you do not burn / If we do not burn / How will darkness come to light?