Hakol Chai is calling on Israelis and supporters of its cause abroad to write to the relevant ministers and sign its petition against bringing gambling on horse racing to Israel.An animal rights group in Israel is working to prevent the building of a horseracing track and the introduction of the sport into Israel – the latest initiative in a wave of growing awareness and activism in the country promoting the humane treatment of animals.

“Israel as a democratic state should carry the flag of change and not follow old traditional ideas of horse racing,” declared Merav Barlev, director of the animal rights and animal rescue organization, Hakol Chai (Everything is Alive).

The controversy began last year, when a high-level government panel of financial and social affairs considered the issue and recommended that government permission be given to build at least two large racetracks.

For decades, there has been a strong private lobby to allow gambling in Israel in various forms, contending that casinos and other gambling outlets they will give a crucial boost to the economy and tourism. Until now, they have been unsuccessful against the powerful religious lobby -which contends that gambling is immoral – and social welfare groups that warn of the vulnerability of those who will be susceptible to uncontrollable gambling impulses and its negative ramifications for the society, as well as the potential for strengthening criminal elements.

But Hakol Chai’s concerns about horse racing focuses on the animals – they filed an appeal of the government panel’s decision in Israel’s Supreme Court, claiming that the “unavoidable cruelty inherent in the industry” should keep it out of Israel.

“When we first heard of the government’s decision, we sent letters to the ministers involved,” recounted Tali Lavie, spokesperson and lobbyist for the organization.

In the responses, received only recently, she said, “they indicated that when they weighed all of the factors for and against horse racing, animal welfare wasn’t even considered – only economic and issues of tourism. We view not even considering animal welfare as a huge flaw in the process,” Lavie said.

Indeed, in their petition to the Supreme Court, the group argued that “the ministers in favor of introducing horse racing only considered economic concerns – such as employment gains, and not wider animal welfare concerns – as required by law.”

Lavie says that horse racing has become an item on the agenda of animal rights groups around the world.

“Until a few years ago, everyone looked at horse racing as a glamorous sport,” she told ISRAEL21c. “But in the last few years, animal rights organizations all over the year are bringing it to public attention that things look very different backstage. Animal organizations in England and Australia are now recognizing the fact that the way the horses are treated very, very cruelly. In these countries, racing is a tradition, which has been going on for many years, so it is very hard to take it out it out of their system. But here in Israel, we haven’t started anything yet. We need to know the consequences of entering such a cruel industry and stay away from it.”

The organization is calling on Israelis and supporters of its cause abroad to write to the relevant ministers and sign its petition against bringing gambling on horse racing to Israel.

Hakol Chai is a relatively new organization in Israel, an addition to the growing array of animal welfare groups. They are affiliated with the US organization ‘CHAI – US Concern for Helping Animals in Israel’, based in Alexandria, VA.

In addition to their work lobbying on the horse racing issue and other legal initiatives, they have created educational programs about animal welfare for adults and children, and have set up a mobile clinic to spay and neuter cats and dogs to reduce the population of strays.

Hakol Chai was one of the organizations which were active in rescuing animals and relocating who were left behind in the disengagement process from Gaza, with a mobile unit that worked day and night to pick up abandoned, stray or animals who had escaped during the chaotic disengagement process.

At the urging of the government and with the cooperation of IDF soldiers, many of whom fed the animals with their own rations until help came for them, they took out as many animals as they could before the withdrawal was completed.

With all of its existential political and security concerns, issues like protecting the environment and animal rights have long taken a back seat in Israel, and it has been traditionally hard for advocates to strike a responsive chord with authorities and the Israeli public. But that has clearly changed.

“There’s been a major shift in awareness over the past few years,” says Lavie.

Political scientist Reuven Hazan attributes the increased awareness and activity in Israel regarding areas like the environment and animal rights to a combination of factors.

“First, after 57 years of fighting the existential battle, Israelis have realized that while they want secure borders, they also need to focus on what kind of an environment and society exists within those borders,” said Hazan, a senior lecturer at Hebrew University in Jerusalem. “At the same time, there are many people are tired of the conflict, are tired of the parties, tired of the solutions that aren’t solutions – war hasn’t worked and trying to make peace hasn’t worked – so they are turning to issues that impact their day to day life and in which they can make a difference.”

He sees it as a positive trend. “Certainly, the growth of civil society politics is good. I think it’s to be praised, as I think there aren’t going to be any clear solutions to our bigger problems in the next five years – so more power to them. Obviously, I would be displeased if they are focusing on animal rights only because they are turned off to all of the major political issues. But I would think the Israeli voters can work on multiple dimensions, just as Americans do.”

Another recent sign of the increasing visibility and influence of the animal rights lobby occurred earlier this month when the fashion chain Castro unveiled a fall/winter 2005-2006 collection which included clothing with real fox and rabbit fur trims.

When they learned of the inclusion of fur, animal rights groups were able to mobilize rapidly, organizing demonstrations outside the company’s stores in Tel Aviv and Jerusalem, collecting thousands of signatures on a petition against the use of fur, and bombarding the company with E-mails and phone calls.

In just three weeks, the company’s co-directors Etty and Gabi Rotter surrendered to the pressure, and issued a statement to their customers that the company would refrain from manufacturing any future garments with fur.

With so much left to improve in the treatment of animals in Israel, Lavie contends there is no reason to bring in and new and highly problematic industry like horseracing. She details the abuses in the industry.

“First of all, a very large number of racehorses are slaughtered at a young age. Thirty percent who are born are slaughtered because they aren’t fast enough. In the industry many are bred so they can choose fast ones. Many suffer injuries and are euthanized as a result of their injuries. Many of the horses are drugged – so they can race even when injured and other drugging is for covering up the serious health problems.

“Ninety-fine percent of racehorses bleed in their lungs, which can be fatal, many have chronic stomach ulcers, and some have heart problems which can cause them to collapse in the track. The horses are whipped up to 30 whips in a race. They are continually transported in inhumane conditions – sometimes they can change hands five or six times within a month,” she said.

“The problem here is not the racing horses and it is not the gambling. It’s the combination. Gambling sacrifices the animal welfare. It’s all about money – that becomes what is important: any combination of animals and gambling is very, very bad.”