The Vegan Revolution. Saving Our World, Revitalizing Judaism
by Richard Schwartz
Lantern Publishing & Media, 2020.
Reviewed by Keith Akers
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.
“We have come along way from vegetarianism to vegan revolution”
For those familiar with Richard Schwartz’s writings, this book will instantly invite comparisons to one of his earlier books, Judaism & 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: Schwartz is still trying to apply Jewish values to the basic arguments for veganism. But he has 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.
“Israel is a democratic country, Israel is changing, and so can the rest of the world”
In Judaism and Vegetarianism, Schwartz 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% calling themselves vegetarians,” notes Schwartz.
Israel is leader in “cultivated meat”
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.
“Meat industry is on the defensive”
Moreover, even this “five 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.
“Almost completely new material” on climate change
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 is 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!
Not a blueprint, but an example
Schwartz concludes on page 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 have known Richard Schwartz since the 1980s, but lost touch with him some decades ago. Now I feel that I have met him again. One of the many charming features of this book is that it includes his own life story. I have 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.
Denver vegetarian advocate Keith Akers, perhaps best known for compiling A Vegetarian Sourcebook (1983), earned his B.A. in philosophy in 1970 at Vanderbilt University. Akers turned to computer programming to make a living, but never forgot his philosophical interests. Decades of meticulous study later, Akers in 2000 authored The Lost Religion of Jesus: Simple Living & Nonviolence In Early Christianity, a rare easily read work of scholarship which has only risen in stature in the 20 years since first publication.
Vasu Murti says
In past decades, the stereotype of “religious vegetarians” was that they’re all followers of the ancient Eastern reincarnationist religions: Hinduism, Buddhism, Jainism… believing, for example, you might be reincarnated as a cow in your next life if you’re not careful. Hinduism and her sacred cows. A belief in karma and reincarnation as the basis for seeing all living entities with equal vision, rather, than, say, Darwinian evolution as the basis for the kinship of all life.
In past decades, it was the followers of the Eastern religions who had all the vegetarian restaurants: the followers of the Hare Krishna movement, the followers of Sri Chinmoy, the followers of Yogananda’s Self Realization Fellowship, the followers of Muktananda’s Siddha Yoga, the followers of Maharishi Mahesh Yogi’s Transcendental Meditation or TM.
Now, people are becoming familiar with Jewish vegetarianism. But most Christians are unaware of the long history of animal advocacy, concern for animals, and vegetarianism in Christianity. And to argue, as some Christians do, that animal rights and vegetarianism are solely “Jewish” concerns, is comparable to an 18th century Christian saying, “Slavery is only wrong for Quakers,” failing to see it as a universal ethic for all mankind, including atheists and agnostics.
Jews, like Hindus, Buddhists, Jains, etc., are merely one voice in a larger chorus of voices. Norm Phelps, Spiritual Outreach Director for the Fund for Animals, even authored a 2007 book, The Longest Struggle: Animal Advocacy from Pythagoras to PETA.
Merritt Clifton says
Thank you, Vasu Murti, for your observations and this opportunity to mention our extensive review of The Longest Struggle: Animal Advocacy from Pythagoras to PETA, with extensive further discussion by author Norm Phelps and myself.