23 March 2021

The Historical Link between Meat and Colonisation in Israel

In her PhD thesis on the historical role of Tel Aviv under the British Mandate for Palestine, Efrat Gilad shows that while Zionist technocrats promoted a diet of little to no beef, urban settlers enjoyed their steaks and stews. Furthermore, their love for meat led them to play a key role in the colonisation of Palestine. 

In your thesis you studied colonisation in Israel through attitudes towards meat consumption. What gave you this idea and why was it a worthwhile one?

There were various indicators that meat would be a useful entry point to the history of Jewish settlers in Palestine. One indicator had to do with a surprising statistic I came across. In 2019, according to OECD statistics, the world’s leading beef consumers were Argentina, the United States, and almost tied for third place were Brazil and Israel. Israel is an anomaly on this list. The other countries that tend to lead in meat consumption are also global meat producers and exporters. Their meat industries evolved over centuries, beginning with European settlers who used cattle to colonise. As cowboys or gauchos drove livestock across vast territories dominating the land, producing and consuming meat became linked to national identity. 

Israel, however, does not produce the majority of the beef it consumes; rather, it mostly relies on imports. While colonisation is part of Israel’s past and present, Jewish settlers did not drive herds of animals to dominate Palestine’s landscape as did the cowboys and gauchos of the Americas. The ecologies and economies of livestock in Palestine were vastly different than in the above-mentioned countries. This does not mean there is no historical link between meat and colonisation in Israel – my research actually shows that there is – but that the historical trajectory that led Israelis to consume as much beef as Brazilians was different, and thus required further investigation. My dissertation is the first comprehensive history of meat in Palestine/Israel grounded in extensive archival research. 

Can you describe your research questions and the methodology you used to approach those questions?

As a historian, my methodology involves archival research and analysis of historical documents. Early on I noticed a gap between two types of sources. On the one hand, there was a clear correlation between the growing numbers of European Jews settling in Palestine in the 1920s and 1930s and the soaring demand for meat. This was evident in many sources including data on livestock imports and slaughter, newspaper articles on the price of meat and its availability, the building of new slaughterhouses in Palestine’s cities, and multiple disputes between consumers, butchers and cattle dealers. On the other hand, when reading through sources produced by Zionist technocrats – such as economists, agronomists and nutritionists – I noticed a vastly different attitude to meat. While urban settlers were preoccupied with gaining more access to meat, Zionist technocrats seemed determined to convince Jewish settlers to adopt a diet of little to no beef.

My work then focused on three interconnected questions: Why did Zionist technocrats oppose meat consumption? How did urban settlers create systems to allow them access to meat in a country of limited supply (and in defiance of national experts)? And finally, how did urban settlers – in creating those systems – promote the colonisation of Palestine?

What are your answers?

First, I found out why Zionist technocrats opposed meat consumption, and this was entangled in ideas about climate, nutrition and economy. Zionist technocrats adopted an idea rooted in colonial medicine according to which consuming meat was harmful in Palestine’s heat. This was a significant finding because it highlights European Jewish settlers’ alienation from Palestine’s environment, and resonates with histories of other settler colonies, allowing us to think comparatively and transnationally about colonisation. The second layer in the discourse against meat was linked to the settler colonial economy. Beef consumption depended on Palestinian breeders and regional Arab livestock merchants, and increasingly also on overseas imports. This threatened Zionist leaders’ aspirations for a self-reliant Jewish settlement, which they believed was essential to its expansion. Thus, technocrats believed, high levels of beef consumption obstructed Zionist goals.  

My second major finding shows how urban Jewish settlers ignored technocrats by generating a booming meat economy. Settlers first supported Palestine’s existing meat economy but gradually also created separate systems of import and slaughter. Because local supply chains of beef were deemed insufficient and firmly in the hands of Arab and Palestinian merchants, Jewish butchers and cattle dealers tapped into their connections to the European trade and created new networks of overseas cattle import. In creating their own meat infrastructures, especially in Tel Aviv, settlers worked to dominate Palestine’s meat trade. Whereas the literature often focuses on ideologues or rural “pioneers”, I show how urban settlers are historical agents who were perhaps oblivious or defiant of national ideologies pertaining to the meat trade but who nevertheless played a key role in a national endeavour: the colonisation of Palestine. 

Will you further explore this fascinating subject in your post-PhD life?

Certainly. I’ve just joined the Institute of Jewish Studies at the University of Bern as a postdoc, leading a project on “Jewish Studies, Ecology and Sustainability”. My focus there is threefold. In terms of research, I am looking more closely at ecologies and economies of cattle in Palestine and the region from the Mandate period into Israel’s first years. I will also teach courses on Jewish settlers’ environmental encounters with the land of Palestine, focusing on topics like climate, agriculture, animals, food, hygiene, and the body. 

In addition, I am planning an event or a series of talks that build on my historical research to engage with a current debate: the future of meat. Startups from the US to Singapore to Israel are currently racing to produce and mass-market lab-grown meat. In addition to the scientific effort involved, there are vast cultural, historical, religious, environmental and economic incentives that intersect here. My goal is to create a platform, open to the public, where academics from a wide range of fields – history, anthropology, biology, chemistry, economy, veterinary – can inform, engage and reflect on a debate that affects us all: the future of animal husbandry, lab-grown meat and meat alternatives.  

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Efrat Gilad defended her PhD thesis in International History in February 2021. Professor Cyrus Schayegh presided the committee, which included Professor Davide Rodogno, thesis Director, and Ms Lisa Haushofer, Senior Research Associate at the  Institute for Biomedical Ethics and History of Medicine of the University of Zurich.

Full citation of the PhD thesis:
Gilad, Efrat. “Meat in the Heat: A History of Tel Aviv under the British Mandate for Palestine (1920s–1940s).” PhD thesis, Graduate Institute of International and Development Studies, Geneva, 2021.

Good to know: members of the Graduate Institute can download Efrat’s PhD thesis from this page of the Institute’s repository.

Interview by Nathalie Tanner, Research Office.
Banner picture: excerpt from an image by PhotoStock-Israel/