Could Israel Be the First Fur-Free Nation?

In February 2009, an investigation by Israeli TV Channel 10, in cooperation with the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals in Israel, revealed that two top retail fashion chains in Israel were selling coats, sweaters, and accessory items that contained real animal fur, while assuring their customers that the items were made from synthetic fur. The investigation included a thorough laboratory examination, which proved the speculations of a few customers that the clothing contained dog, cat, and rabbit fur. In reaction to the televised investigation, the chains immediately removed the furred items from the shelves and promised to better enforce their synthetic fur orders.

The production of fur for fashion is one of the cruelest practices towards animals, especially in fur farms in China where there is no national animal welfare law. Millions of small animals like dogs, cats, and rabbits are raised on Chinese farms, first and foremost, to produce fur, and are killed solely for an indulgent purpose: fashion. Moreover, they are kept in atrocious conditions, are fed very poorly, and are barely given any water. Other animals - like foxes and raccoons - are captured through foothold traps causing the trapped animals to bleed to death or wait in dire stress and pain until the fur-farmers "rescue" them. When time comes to give up their "to die for" fur, they are killed by lethal gas, electric shocks, and, more often than not, are skinned alive to better preserve the quality of their pelts. This cruelty, documented by the International Anti-Fur Coalition, is apparently even cheaper in China than producing synthetic fur.

Whereas China has been expanding its fur farms in recent years due to growing world demand, the vast majority of fur farms are located in Europe and in the United States. However, owing to animal friendly social movements and activists, these countries are continuously amending legislation to limit unjustified cruelty towards animals. The United States, for instance, passed a law in the year 2000 - The Dog and Cat Protection Act - prohibiting any trade of dog or cat fur. The European Union passed a similar law that went into effect in January 2009. But no country so far has passed a comprehensive law against trade in animal fur.

Ninety-five percent of Israel's textile products are imported from China and real furred items are occasionally mislabeled as fake fur, deceiving both the retailers and the consumers. A survey, commissioned by the International Anti-Fur Coalition and Let the Animals Live, conducted immediately after the February 2009 media investigation, showed that 86% of Israelis believe killing animals for fur is immoral. Moreover, nearly 80% back a bill calling for ban of fur trade in Israel. This media exposure and public support, together with the long-standing joint efforts of the International Anti-Fur Coalition and the Israeli organization Let the Animals Live, recently pressured Israeli Members of Knesset to endorse a law that would limit or eliminate the fur trade in Israel.

In December 2009, the Knesset preliminarily approved a bill that bans trade in nearly all animal fur. The bill, first introduced by MK Nitzan Horowitz (Meretz) and reintroduced by MK Ronit Tirosh (Kadima), is now being extended by Agriculture Minister Shalom Simhon (Labor Party) together with the Minister of Environmental Protection Gilad Arden (Likud). The bill prohibits producing, importing, exporting, and trading in all animals' fur. However, it excludes fur and hides from cattle, camels, sheep, and goats, as these animals' skins are considered to be by-products of the meat industry. As a sensitive act towards the religious communities in Israel, the MKs who introduced the bill agreed to also exempt the import of fur for religious traditions, mainly for the Shtreimel fur hats - typically made from fox or sable fur - used by a small minority of the ultra-orthodox Jewish community.

Brigitte Bardot, the world-famous French actress and a long-time animal rights activist, sent a letter on Tuesday to the chairman of the Knesset Committee for Education, Culture, and Sport to support the new bill. This committee is responsible for preparing and approving the bill for the second and third readings, as required by the Israeli legislative process before it is finally passed into law. However, the ultra-orthodox communities - despite the exemption - are now blocking the bill (which they preliminary approved) due to fears that it would raise questions about the kosher slaughter of animals outside of Israel.

The Significance of the Bill It is unclear if Brigitte Bardot or any other European or American activist will have the power to promote the Israeli law and bridge the gap between the ultra-orthodox and the MKs who favor the bill (including the chairman of the Committee for Education, Culture, and Sport - an orthodox Jew himself). But the majority, who are in favor of the law, must insist on advancing it, even without the approval of the ultra-orthodox, given its significance.

First, the bill shows that most Israeli Knesset Members from across the political spectrum can unite around a humane and Jewish idea of stopping wanton cruelty towards animals for the sake of indulgence. Judaism places great importance on the proper treatment of animals. In the Bible, those who cared for animals - such as Jacob, Moses, and King David, who were all shepherds and took care of animals - were perceived as heroes. Furthermore, unnecessary cruelty to animals is strictly forbidden, and in some cases, animals are accorded the same sensitivity as human beings: animals rest on the Sabbath; a person must feed his animals before he feeds himself; and it is forbidden to muzzle an ox to prevent it from eating while it is working in the field.

Second, although the near sweeping ban is not expected to harm the Israeli fashion industry since fur products in the Mediterranean climate draw little demand, it is an important statement and precedent emerging from the Israeli legislative body. This will make Israel the only country, hitherto, to impose a near total ban on fur trade.

And finally, this law, and the set of values derived from it, could appeal to other nations and potentially advance their legislation on fur production and trade, with the ultimate goal of ending needless animal cruelty. In fact, three leading activists from the United Kingdom and Canada visited Israel in February of this year in order to closely follow the legislative process and learn from it. Being the first nation to promote such a humane and comprehensive law illustrates an aspect of Israel's soft power and could be a first step to reaffirming Israel's once proclaimed goal of being a light unto the nations.