Vegetarian Origins

Oct 28, 2009.

When I was 18, I began serving in the Israeli army. I had no desire to be in the army, but I had no choice. By Israeli law, all citizens must serve in the army after graduating from high school. At the time I turned 18, men served three years and women served two. I was a pacifist and didn’t want to have anything to do with the army, but I had no alternative. Being a conscientious objector was not a valid reason to be excused from service.
In an effort to avoid a military service that would involve the typical responsibilities of soldiering, I volunteered for a special army program that allowed participants to fulfill their obligation by combining military duties with agricultural work. This decision meant that I had to sign on for an extra six months, but it allowed me to serve with a group of like-minded pacifists whom I knew from high school.

The program started with six weeks of women’s basic training. In those exercises, we learned many skills, including how to shoot three types of submachine guns: an Uzi, an M16 and a Galil. Since the other soldiers and I shared the same philosophy, there was a supportive atmosphere of camaraderie; as a group, we could rebel a little against some of the things we were compelled to do during the training. At target practices, there were tears, protests and resistance from our side. When you learn how to shoot a gun, you’re being taught how to kill. We didn’t want to have anything to do with that kind of malevolence, but in the end, despite our resistance, we had to obey orders.
When we completed the training, we went to live and work on a kibbutz, a communal agricultural community. Here, we didn’t have to wear uniforms; we worked in the fields planting and harvesting, and we took care of animals. We did our jobs and, in return, we got meals, a place to stay, and free time in the afternoon and weekends. There was a pool where we could swim and lounge in the sun. We became part of the kibbutz community. Essentially, we had the freedom and peace of a civilian life, while still completing our army service.

I worked in the fields, then in the laundry. Eventually, I got a year-long position in the cowshed, milking cows and taking care of them. I liked this life – it felt peaceful. Working with animals, surrounded by trees and fields, a world apart from the military way of thinking. That’s what I thought then.

Now I see how I was somewhat blind to the impact of the work we did, and I wonder why I didn’t wake up to it—perhaps, subconsciously, I didn’t want to acknowledge what I was doing.
I accepted the status quo, without questioning it. Using machines, the caretakers milked the cows three times daily to keep them lactating constantly; to aid this process, the cows were artificially inseminated to get them pregnant as often as possible. Once born, calves were taken away from their mothers immediately. Female calves were raised for milking, and males were sent to slaughter once they had grown to be one year old.

The cows on the kibbutz weren’t chained, beaten or confined to small cages. But they lived in shaded open-air communal pens whose floor was composed of layer upon layer of their own waste. During their entire lives, they never had an opportunity to roam freely, choose their own food, socialize with the other sex, or raise a family. Yet whenever I approached the milking cows, they were always sweet, shy, kind. They might be afraid at first, but eventually they would lick my hand.

I was already vegetarian at that time. I decided to stop eating meat about a year earlier when my sister had a disturbing experience while eating a McDonald’s hamburger. She took a bite and felt that it was living, moving flesh. She put the hamburger down and hasn’t eaten meat since. Inspired by her, I followed, without really articulating why. It just felt right.

I didn’t consciously make the connections that led me to veganism until years later. Now I see that while I was living a peaceful existence in the country, the cows were imprisoned, experiencing fear and suffering daily. I didn’t see it because I hadn’t yet gained that level of understanding and insight about the ramifications of my actions; certainly my own unwillingness to closely examine the impact of my decisions played some part in this blindness, as did society’s attitude as a whole.

Yoga teaches us to not harm other beings and encourages us to act quickly to prevent their suffering.” When I opened my eyes and saw the misery and destruction caused by the dairy industry at large, and specifically my part in it, it was difficult to come to terms with my inaction. It was challenging to accept my role in this, but it was also empowering to act on this insight. I became vegan, and changed my life—and hopefully my world—for the better.

“Compassion is an essential ingredient of ahimsa (non-harming). Through compassion, you begin to see yourself in other beings. Compassion trains the mind to see beyond outer differences of form. You begin to catch glimpses of the inner essence of other beings, which is happiness.
You begin to see that every single creature desires happiness. When you recognize that cows, pigs, and chickens, as well as all animals raised for food, want happiness just like you do, you recognize kindred souls. The distinction between you and other beings wears thin as awareness begins to dawn.”
–Sharon Gannon, from Yoga and Vegetarianism: The Diet of Enlightenment

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