Animal Protection > Activist Interviews

Interview with Yossi Wolfson, Anonymous for Animal Rights, Israel

"Israeli Supreme Court outlaws the force-feeding of geese and ducks." So went the uplifting August 2003 newspaper headline. Yossi Wolfson and Anonymous for Animal Rights have spent years working to have the force-feeding of ducks and geese banned in Israel. At last they can boast a major breakthrough: on August 11, 2003 the Israeli Supreme Court ruled that force-feeding in Israel, one of the world's major producers of patι de foie gras, is a violation of the law.

Patι de foie Gras is made from the grotesquely enlarged livers of ducks and geese who have been cruelly force-fed. It is usually regarded as a "delicacy".

The decision has resulted from years of investigation and campaigning by animal protection organisations in Israel and worldwide. Anonymous for Animal Rights activists documented the dreadful cruelty to geese and ducks all over their country. Their affidavits – and the shocking video they showed in the courtroom – were essential to the success of their petition. No less important was the public atmosphere, supportive of such a decision, which was created through long and intensive grassroots work.

Claudette Vaughan spoke to Yossi Wolfson about this big win for the birds.

Claudette: Congratulations on a tremendous win with the banning of the force-feeding of geese and ducks in Israel. How did it come about – do you think the Israeli Supreme Court holds an enlightened attitude when so many in law do not?

Yossi: The court decision did not come out of the blue, and I don't believe that it would have been the same a few years ago. It came after a campaign that was done "by the book". It started with the collecting of information – searching for the laws in countries that banned force-feeding, compiling all scientific information, reading anything published on the subject in the industry's own publications, and extensively filming in force-feeding facilities. This, of course, was not enough. We believed that the court, as well as the parliament, would reflect in their decisions the trends of public opinion. At our starting point even animal rights activists did not know much about force-feeding. The goal was to make it a common perception in the entire population that force-feeding equals animal abuse.

We had to go with our information to the public: demonstrations, vigils, education tables, banners, production of educational videotape (which was also shown on community TV) and a short TV ad, using celebrities and working with the media... all were part of the campaign. We also blocked a force-feeding facility, which got a lot of attention. I think that no one could escape our stickers: "Foie Gras – how much cruelty can one swallow?" which were everywhere, nor our leaflets, which were distributed overnight on cars and in mailboxes in whole neighbourhoods, including those where the judges lived. We also won the support of important rabbis who influenced the religious public and parties, and of top chefs who announced that they would not use Foie Gras in their restaurants. Financially, it was the help of the World Society for the Protection of Animals that enabled the campaign to continue. On the ground, it was a combination of a lot of hard grassroots work and successful lobbying efforts.

In the State Attorney's Office they are used to defending unjust cases, but this was the only case where the attorney representing the State told me that the entire office was against him and hoping that he failed – and I am not sure that he did not hope so, as well. Force-feeding became a symbol of cruelty everywhere.

Claudette: How long has Anonymous for Animal Rights been working on this issue?

Yossi: Force-feeding of geese and ducks was always on our agenda, but I don't think that we started any real targeted campaign on this issue before 1999, when Noah – the Israeli Federation of Animal Protection Organisations – filed their first petition to the Supreme Court. To succeed, these legal procedures needed the back-up of much evidence, and a change of public consciousness. The extensive investigations in force-feeding facilities were crucial in achieving this. It was very important that we film in as many places as possible (I think that we eventually had pictures from most facilities). Then we could safely state that our videos reflected the general picture and not just the exceptionally bad practice of some farmer or another. The footage shown in court had clear influence on the judges, and refuted the claims by the State that the suffering of geese and ducks was minimal.

Interestingly, it was not an undercover investigation. No special equipment either: only young people, equipped with video cameras, going from place to place. Most workers in these facilities are work-immigrants or Palestinian workers, who get very small wages. They usually enjoyed the attention, were ready to be filmed and many times also to be interviewed. These interviews supplied us with important information. People are not aware of the cruelty they commit when it becomes their daily work. They just seem not to see what others see, and thus, they don't feel that there is any risk in being filmed doing what they do.

Only when the issue got more attention did we face attempts by the owners of facilities to drive us away. In some cases it became violent. In one instance the owner of a force-feeding facility and some of his friends surrounded the car of our activists and tried to take away the video cassettes using force and threats. It was quite frightening, but eventually the activists managed to drive safely away. In one of our vigils near a force-feeding facility a celebrity who came with us was beaten, and so was an activist who tried to hide away in the bus baggage compartment with his camera. In the final court hearing the State showed a video showing happy geese in a farm. A force-feeder, sitting in the courtroom, proudly told his friends that it was filmed in his farm. Within a week our team produced new footage from the same place showing how it truly looked.

Claudette: What has the general public's reaction been like regarding the outlawing of force-feeding?

Yossi: The public's reaction was quite predictable. The public had expressed their opinion before: a 2002 public opinion poll found that 69 per cent thought that force-feeding of geese is animal abuse. Recent data from the Ministry of Agriculture shows that the Foie Gras sales in Israel fell about 30 per cent in 2002 relative to 2001. These were the years when our campaign picked up. Accordingly, the response was very positive. The media embraced the court's decision, and so did the public. It was the "positive story" of the week.

Claudette: How much money will the industry lose, and have you had any more trouble with the abusers?

Yossi: According to the Ministry of Agriculture, the industry's production value for 2002 was around $AU20 million. But exact calculation of their loss should include figures for the yearly expenses, on the one hand, and on the investments they had made and the investments needed to change their occupation, on the other hand. It is quite open to manipulation, and during the court's procedures many different, highly imaginative numbers were thrown around.

Did we have trouble with the abusers? A little violence, many lies that we had to expose, and some declarations in the media that were so insensitive they actually supported our cause. And of course, the argument that we are taking their livelihood, preferring animals over humans. Some force-feeders contacted us seeking cooperation in finding ways for them to move to other professions. Others are still hoping for something to happen that will allow them to continue their practice after the transition period ends in March 2005.

Claudette: What other issues does Anonymous for Animal Rights work on?

Yossi: The main issue is to persuade people to get rid of meat, eggs and milk, and to change to a more compassionate diet. More than any reform, this is what can save the largest numbers of animals from the most torturous fate – and it is in the hands of each of us to do it and to influence our friends and relatives to follow. We also campaign for reforms in current factory-farming practices: issues such as the veal industry, battery cages for hens and sow stalls. Two important campaigns that we are now engaged in are the campaign to ban live transports of calves and sheep from Australia and a campaign against the abuse of animals in circuses. The last campaign is an old one: we had already achieved a ban on wild animals in circuses. We are now trying to broaden the ban to include all animals, and to underpin it with clearer legislation. Our website is mostly in Hebrew, but there is also an English section that you might find interesting: www.anonymous.org.il/english.htm

Claudette: We never hear enough about what is going on in Israel, such as the current state of vivisection.

Yossi: Unfortunately, Israel is the centre of a lot of vivisection, in universities, in biotechnology industries and in the military. There is a law governing the issue, with some good phrases but with a mechanism that puts all regulation and inspection powers in the hands of vivisectors. There has been a lot of activity going on in this area since the early '80s. In the same week of the court's decision regarding force-feeding, another court decided that the Vivisection Board should publicise statistics on the experiments done on animals in Israel. In 1997 we succeeded in preventing the construction of a breeding facility for monkeys destined for vivisection, but another facility is still functioning despite a rigorous campaign. Brain experiments on monkeys are also high on the agenda since the release of dreadful footage from a Jerusalem lab. There is a great gap between public opinion – which tends to favour the animals – and the reality, where laboratory torture continues.

Claudette: Is there anything we can do to help you?

Yossi: I think that both the force-feeding and live transport campaigns are great examples of international cooperation. The demonstrations in front of Israeli consulates and letters to Israeli authorities were important in the first. (This is an opportunity to thank the many activists in Australia who took part in this campaign!)

The exchange of information, ideas and video footage is most important in the second. The animal abuse industries are becoming more and more global, and so should the efforts to fight them. World Trade Organisation rules may undermine any achievement in one country, as the industries can easily move to places with lower standards, while any restriction on imports on animal welfare grounds will be deemed "unjustified" by the WTO. Opposing these new rules and the economic forces behind factory farming seems something we all should cooperate in.

As to immediate help: our present concern is that the Ministry of Agriculture might try to go around the court decision, and bring forward regulations that will allow force-feeding to continue while pretending to significantly reduce suffering.

We would like people to write to Israeli decision-makers and encourage them to follow the court decision in word and spirit so that force-feeding is actually ceased as soon as possible.

A Call for Action. Please write to:

Mr Yisrael Katz, Minister of Agriculture, POB 30, Beit Dagan 50250, Israel Fax: +972-3-9485835 Email: sar@moag.gov.il
Member of Knesset Mr Ilan Shalgi, Chairperson of the Knesset Education and Culture Committee (this is the committee in charge of animal protection), HaKnesset, Jerusalem
Fax +972-2-6753158 Email: ishalgi@knesset.gov.il

Mr Avraham Poraz, Minister of Interior (Mr Poraz passed the Animal Protection Act back in 1994 – the same Act under which the Court found force-feeding to be in violation of the law. Before he became minister Mr Poraz had proposed a bill to ban force-feeding. We hope that he will help our efforts from his current position.): Ministry of Interior, 2 Kaplan St, Jerusalem Fax: +972-2-5666376 Email: aporaz@knesset.gov.il

Dr Oded Nir, Director of Veterinary Services: POB 12, Beit Dagan, Israel. Fax: +972-3-9681641
Email: nir_oded@int.gov.il

Dr Dganit Ben Dov, Officer in Charge of the Animal Protection Act, The Veterinary Services, POB 12, Beit Dagan, Israel
Fax +972-39688901 Email: dganitb@moag.gov.il

Yossi Wolfson can be contacted at: Anonymous for Animal Rights, POB 11915, Tel-Aviv 61119, Israel
Email: info@anonymous.org.il
Website: www.anonymous.org.il/english.htm
Yossi wishes to acknowledge all animal advocacy groups worldwide that have lent their support to Anonymous for Animal Rights in this important campaign.