Tal Gilboa: ‘We can shout and scream but all we achieve is offending people’

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Israeli vegan animal rights activist Tal Gilboa on advising prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu, winning Big Brother and her approach to activism.

Hailed as ‘Israel’s Angriest Vegan’, Tal Gilboa is an activist with a difference.

In 2019, following a decade of animal rights activism, she was appointed by the Israeli prime minister as his advisor on matters of animal welfare. Some saw it as a political manoeuvre on Benjamin Netanyahu’s behalf, but to Gilboa, it was simply “a historic day for animals”.

“There is no Left or Right in the fight for animals,” she explained. “If it advances animals’ welfare and alleviates their suffering, it is the right thing to pursue.”

Her decorum may have been refined to better suit the corridors of power but Gilboa has not traded in her walking boots and camera for a comfortable office seat — this warrior is on a mission that will last to her dying day.

The mother of three’s foray into animal rights activism happened by accident when in 2009 she stumbled upon footage of a slaughterhouse that shocked her to the core. “I will never forget how my heartbeat when my eyes met the animal’s eyes,” she recalls.

There was no turning back. In 2013, Gilboa founded the Israeli Animal Liberation Front and went on to organise marches and campaigns that put animal rights on the national news agenda.

She shot to fame in 2014 when she won Israeli Big Brother. Over 1.7 million viewers saw the victorious her emerge from the Big Brother house wearing a dress that read: ‘Meat Is Murder. Go Vegan.’ Tal Gilboa became a household name.

“The whole purpose of entering the Big Brother house was to spread the vegan word, and it worked,” says Gilboa. 109 days later, carnists became vegans, many vegans turned into fierce activists, and some reports point to 60% of viewers — that is half a million people — changing their eating habits.

The first phone call Gilboa received after exiting the house was from her hero Gary Yourofsky, who congratulated her on a game-changing win that instantly placed veganism at the heart of popular culture.

It was Yourofsky’s struggle that inspired Gilboa for years and the two have met on several occasions. “Gary’s landmark 2012 visit to Israel has transformed so many people’s lives,” says Gilboa. “It is a lot thanks to him that Israel is the vegan capital of the world; he breathed life into the vegan movement in this country.”

Meat consumption is said to have declined following Yourofsky’s visit, and the blossoming trend of vegan weddings spread like wildfire.

“The fight for animal rights is tough,” reflects Gilboa. “The constant exposure to pain and suffering is emotionally and mentally draining, but I am a mother and a partner and it is important for me to keep a positive attitude to life. I live with the frustration of my inability to alleviate the immediate distress of the animals, but also the frustration of knowing that the solution is a mere touch away.”

I ask Gilboa what to her would mean success: “When I first started advocating for animals,” she replies, “I naïvely thought that all I need to do is expose people to the horrific reality of the food industry and they will follow the vegan way. I now realise it is more complicated and that it is hard for people to change habits of a lifetime, also that they need to believe that they themselves are capable of changing.

“It is easier to break an egg and fry it in seconds than to think about a tofu recipe but once you are on that path, there is no turning back. Success to me is converting as many people as possible to veganism, but every person shunning animal products is a blessing.”

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Photo: Roee Shpernik

Gilboa is heartened by acts of empathy to the animal world — it can be a tweet from a group telling her they are ditching the traditional BBQ in favour of a vegan option, a Haredi boy volunteering to walk a dog during lockdown or someone opting for non-leather shoes.

“You have been building bridges of communication within the corridors of power,” I tell Gilboa. “You should see how pleasantly surprised ministers are when they meet me,” she replies. “They expect the loud, in-your-face Tal from Big Brother but instead they see a rather pleasant person advocating for helpless animals.”

And there lies Gilboa’s strength — her ability to gauge the public mood and cleverly assess what approach is right for what era. “I know many fellow activists who failed to move on from the ‘90s. They are hitting their heads against the wall still using tactics that simply do not work,” she explains.

The activist has abandoned that approach, instead learning to make her case with accuracy and knowledge. “We can shout and scream but all we achieve is offending people,” she notes. “We need to present our case in a solid way and show that we are trustworthy and credible, so that when I walk into the prime minister’s office as I did last week, I know I am not wasting his precious time and that he will listen.”

Gilboa’s voice softens somewhat when speaking of the Netanyahu clan. “What Netanyahu’s administration did for animals is exemplary,” she says. “This should be happening all over the world — operating within a reigning government rather than waiting for small animal-rights niches to form; these niches do not work.”

Within four months in her new role, Gilboa has achieved more than she ever dreamt possible. Her wins for animals include the ban of the trade in fur and the hunting of certain species of birds. She also helped secure Kaya’s Law (named after Netanyahu’s own dog), where vaccinated dogs suspected to have bitten someone can be quarantined at home rather than being forcibly taken from their owners.

Gilboa founded glass-walls.com and her YouTube lecture has clocked 2.5 million views, meaning that over a quarter of Israel’s population has heard and watched her message. A gigantic signpost has recently been erected at Israel’s busiest highway, Netivei Ayalon, bearing a horrific photo of a slaughtered sheep. Clearly visible from a great distance, the bloody scene is guaranteed to shock.

“I want people to be shocked like I was years ago when I saw a cow whose calf was taken away from her,” says Gilboa. “I stood there as she bellowed gut-wrenching screams of a mum who wants her baby back. I want to open people’s eyes to the suffering and pain behind the food industry and make people look their food in the eye.”

Animals go through hell “from the moment they are born until the knife cuts their throat“, Gilboa explains. “People should know that. They should know that male chicks are ground up simply because they cannot lay eggs, which renders them commercially useless. People need to know the process that leads the miserable, godforsaken animals to our plates, she notes, adding: “It is our moral duty to inform people of this horrific reality, it is our way of standing up for the defenceless — ‘It’s a matter of taking the side of the weak against the strong, something the best people have always done,’ as Harriet Beecher Stowe famously wrote.”

Hannah Gal
Hannah Gal
Hannah Gal is a London based journalist and filmmaker. Her credits include The Guardian, The Independent, The Huffington Post, The Knowledge, Al Araby, Photo District News, The British Journal of Photography and The Jerusalem Post among others. Hannah seeks great coffee and reason wherever she goes.