Amirim, Israel: The world’s first vegan village
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Interview with Dr. Ohn-Bar, one of the inhabitants
Haolam: Dr. Ohn-Bar, thank you very much for agreeing to participate in this interview. You were born a daughter of a vegan mother. You live in the vegan village of Amirim, Israel. Together with your husband, you run a guesthouse in Amirim which attracts eco- tourists from all over the world including Germany. How many inhabitants does your village have? Is it a municipality in itself or a kibbutz?
Dr. Ohn-Bar: Amirim is a vegetarian village, not a kibbutz. There are about 160 families here, around 600 people, including children. Just to let you know – as you can see in our website – I am a therapist, with a PhD in natural health sciences and a masters degree in educational psychology, rehab. counseling , psycho-physiology and biofeedback. I am a mother of 5, and a grandmother of 4 – all of us are vegans.
My grandfather started with vegetarian living at the age 9, in Russia – as he did not want to have a graveyard in his stomach. He immigrated with his family to the United States, where he met my grandmother, and they decided to raise a vegetarian-Zionist family, so my mother was born vegetarian and spoke Hebrew at home. She picked up English only when she played with the kids in Cleveland, Ohio. She met my father at the Juilliard School of Music in New York, and then they made “aliya” – came to Israel, where I was born, the only vegetarian girl in their kibbutz, which was near Jerusalem. My parents had 7 children, and we are all vegetarians. My 4 granddaughters are 5th generation vegetarian. Thus it began from a humanistic aspect (not wanting to take part in killing animals), my parents added the health aspects (preventing illness through a healthy life style), and my children added the ecological aspects of vegan life (not taking part in the pollution of the meat industry, etc).
Haolam: Tell us a bit about the history of Amirim and its founders. When was it founded and why in this particular place?
Dr. Ohn-Bar: Amirim was founded by a small group of vegetarians who wanted to raise their families in a healthy lifestyle. They looked for a place, and found this mountain, which some new immigrants from North-Africa had just abandoned due to difficulties in settling here. So they started, in spite of the difficult conditions — rocks, no water, winds, but what a beautiful view to Lake Kinneret (the Sea of Galilee), and they pitched their tents, and started growing gardens, and then more people came, and built their homes, and the place grew nicely.
We came in 1976 from Jerusalem, as a young couple with a baby (Ofek, who is now 37, and he is the one who created our website). Please Google Amirim to see more details of the place s history. You can find more information at www.amirim.com
Haolam: Veganism, as I understand it, is a way of life that opposes any use of animal products such as meat, leather, milk, honey or soap. There are a variety of reasons why people go vegan: compassion for animals, health benefits of a plant-based diet, sustainable management of resources such as crops and – specially important in the Middle East, of course: water. Nearly half of the water being used in the US goes to raising animals for food. What was the main reason motivating the settlers who founded Amirim?
Dr. Ohn-Bar: As I wrote before – all the reasons are good. It began with love for animals and caring about their right to live. And then the health reasons began to be in focus, and people who had healed themselves from deadly diseases through a vegetarian diet, looked for a place to raise their children this way, and joined the village, and in later years, with the rising awareness of global warming and pollution from the meat industry, now more and more people all over the world are becoming vegan.
Haolam: Tel Aviv features a number of superb vegan restaurants. Do you think it s fair to say that Israel is a forerunner for animal rights in the Middle East?
Dr. Ohn-Bar: I don t know for sure, but it seems that Israel has more active people in the ecological and environmental movements, trying to keep the earth clean and educating people about sustainable management of natural resources. We still have a long way to go, as far as air and water pollution is concerned, but I think not many people care about these issues in Jordan, Egypt, Syria or Saudia Arabia, etc.
Haolam: A number of Jewish personalities have dedicated their lives to the defense of animal rights. When reading about their motivations a recurring theme seems to be their own experiences or those of their parents during the Holocaust. Among those was short story novelist and Nobel Laureate Isaac Bashevis Singer who in his short story “The Letter Writer” has the protagonist say: “In relation to animals, all people are Nazis; for the animals, it is an eternal Treblinka.” For us Germans this sentence is hard to swallow as it could be misconstrued to equate animals with the Jews when indeed it focuses on the suffering experienced by the animals. However the experience of being treated as subhuman by the Nazis lead some victims of the Shoah to cultivate a sort of “x ray vision” as far as cruelty against animals is concerned. Where others just see a sirloin steak they hear the death cries of animals. Where others do not wish to think about the cruelty carefully concealed in the killing factories where society gets on with its business of “meat production” they have developed a sense of awareness and compassion for those classified as “below human”. Do you believe that some of Amirim’s founders have been motivated in any way by what happened to the Jews in Germany and Europe?
Dr. Ohn-Bar: My kids get upset when anyone uses animals for fur, shoes, bags, etc, and are against any abuse of animals. Without thinking of the Holocaust, they would not kill a fly or even a scorpion. My grandfather taught us how to put a cup over an unwanted insect in the home, putting a piece of paper under the cup, so we can take it outside, without hurting it, because every creature has a right to live. And this is how we raised our family. Whenever we see chickens in their crowded cruel cages, or on a truck, half dead bodies one on top of each other, going to the slaughter house, we say – here is the concentration camp. The association is there, all the time..
By the way, i belong to a theater group “The Secrets of Sound”, which has a main goal: to memorialize the Holocaust. We are a movement theater – no words are used, so there is no need for translation. We performed in Latvia and Romania, in international theater festivals, in “Yad Vashem” and in many memorial services for the Holocaust throughout the country. We perform in front of students and youth groups who go to Poland. People are very touched by our show, not one eye remains dry. We will be happy to perform in Germany if you invite us. Please visit https://sites.google.com/site/secretsofsound/ where you can see some of the audience responses and some video excerpts.
Haolam: Let s talk about Judaism. The Torah has formulated some rules for the protection of animals. On the other hand the Torah also established the idea that humans were created in the image of God whereas – scientifically speaking – other animals were not. In his 2001 book “Judaism and Vegetarianism”, Richard H. Schwartz (emeritus, College of Staten Island) argues that vegetarianism was the diet best fitted to basic Jewish values. A number of publications by Jewish writers is available on Amazon such as “Vegetarian Judaism: A guide for Everyone” or “The Jewish Vegetarian Year Cookbook”. What role has the Jewish religion played as a motivator for the founders of Amirim? If you are religious at all what do you believe the Torah has to say on meat eating?
Dr. Ohn-Bar: Amirim is a non-religious community in general, but there are some religious families here, who of course are also vegetarians. I think that if you kill animals, you are inhuman, no matter what the Torah said. People wrote the Torah, not God, and people have weaknesses and addictions, and they decide about rules which they find suitable for them. In the beginning, according to the Bible s Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden, did not eat meat – only fruits and vegetables, seeds, wheat, etc. Only later in the Bible, when human beings became corrupted, they began eating meat. The famous great Rabbi Kook said, that if people would stop killing animals, and live as vegetarians, they wouldn’t kill each other, and perhaps there would be no more wars in the world. He advocated a vegetarian life as a way to achieve peace.
And if you go to the prophet Isaiah (Yishayahu), his vision of the “last days” (acharit hayamim) was, that a wolf would sit peacefully next to a lamb, and a tiger would sit with a lamb, so vegetarian living is something to wish for, even among animals.
Haolam: In western society, vegans and vegetarians are often laughed at and looked down upon by society as “extreme” or “radical”. How has the Israeli public welcomed your village when it was first founded? Have there been developments since then?
Dr. Ohn-Bar: Yes, I guess people always looked at different life styles as “weird”. When i was a little girl the kids in my class would laugh at me for eating lettuce, and made fun of me, as if I was a rabbit, but I just laughed with them, and was always proud to be different, and special, and I have not eaten any meat throughout my entire life (60 years now). I did not care what other people think, and in Amirim, you will find that people believe very strongly that this is the way we should all live, and try to educate others about it, influencing them tol change their life style.
As a therapist I see too many people become victims of their own habits, bad nutrition, smoking, etc. and when they see our ways and learn more – they become vegans and feel better, not only physically but also emotionally and mentally. There are so many proofs that the vegan way is the healthiest way of life, we do not look at it as radical or extreme, as you say, but closer to nature.
Haolam: Amirim is beautifully located high up in the hills of Galilee overlooking the Kineret. For vegans the benefits of spending a holiday in Amirim are obvious: no hassle finding a health food store to get something to eat, no “green salad without the dressing” for lack of vegan options at the restaurant but rather an opportunity to discover vegan cooking the Israeli way and the freedom to choose from the menu without a care in the world. Non- vegans might benefit from spending their summer holidays in Amirim, to try out a new way of life or to make the transition for good. What tourist attractions other than vegan food does Amirim and the area have to offer?
Dr. Ohn-Bar: In addition to the great food, we have health spas, and health treatments, as well as workshops and lectures Also, in the summer we have musical concerts in nature, and guided tours in the natural trails around Amirim, and in the natural forests.. Please look at www.amirim.com to see all the attractions in the area.
Haolam: Do you get a lot of tourists from Germany?
Dr. Ohn-Bar: Yes, many young tourists from Germany come to stay here, and also from other countries. Our website has almost all the languages, and people now are looking for more ecological tourism.
Haolam: What types of accommodation does Amirim have to offer? Are there guesthouses ranging from economic to luxury? Is there a camp site for those who wish to spend the nights in their tent?
Dr. Ohn-Bar: No, there is no camping here, but there are many camping sites in the area around Amirim, in the forests of the Galilee. You can see our guesthouses at our website. There are different kinds of rooms, for couples and for families, to suit any budget.
Haolam: How does one get to Amirim? Is it recommended to hire a car at Tel Aviv airport? Is there a bus connection?
Dr. Ohn-Bar: As you can see on our website, you can rent a car and drive to Amirim, or you can go by train from the airport to Akko and take a bus from there. It is very easy to get here, and we have all the instructions on the first page.
Haolam: What is the best time of the year to travel there in terms of the weather?
Dr. Ohn-Bar: It is beautiful and green all year round. Even in the winter we have many sunny days, but when it is a little foggy or rainy, you can still drive around and see the Galilee, or spend some time in the hot tub, get a massage, sit in one of the restaurants or watch movies (we have a great collection of 2000 DVD s).
Haolam: Dr. Ohn-Bar, thank you so much for responding to our questions.
Ohn-Bar guesthouse: http://www.amirim.com
Video: Meet your Meat: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=UFNFvOyTJd8
The interview has been conducted by Cheerful Coyote
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all hail this little oasis of kindness and compassion.
make this THE way, not just a temporary fashion
Karen Lyons Kalmenson