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Happy birthday, Israel! Now have some tofu

Paul Goldman / NBC News

Nadav Kataei grills vegetables during a massive vegan barbecue at Yarkon Park in Tel Aviv, on Tuesday. Israeli Independence Day has been nicknamed "Hag Hamangal" -- meaning the "holiday of the barbecue" -- and thousands of families traditionally flock to any free patch of greenery, set up their grills and load them up with meat.

TEL AVIV -- Israel’s 8 million citizens marked the country’s 65th birthday on Tuesday. One group, however, wouldn't be celebrating Independence Day: the animals.

On the Israeli holiday's menu there is meat. Lots of meat.

But this year, not everyone was opting for the critters. Omri Paz is a 30-year-old vegan from Tel Aviv who heads Vegan Future, a nonprofit organization. Paz decided it was time to also take part in the national celebrations, not by grilling meat but by grilling tofu and vegetables.

For the past decade, Independence Day here has been nicknamed “Hag Hamangal,” meaning the "holiday of the barbecue." Thousands of families flock to any free patch of greenery, set up their grills and load them with meat.

The only exercise in sight is the famous ritual of “lenafnet,” meaning holding a plastic plate over the fire and moving it backward and forward to keep the charcoal burning.

Paul Goldman / NBC News

Omri Paz grills at the vegan barbecue, which also included a lecture on cruelty against cattle.

Paz’s goal is to raise awareness of the benefits of not consuming meat. And what better way than conduct a massive vegan barbecue at Yarkon Park in Tel Aviv, the Holy Grail of Independence Day celebration sites?

A huge cloud of smoke rose from the park and the smell of grilled meat was everywhere. Families set up tents and kids ran around while their parents stood over their grills, checking the meat.

Paz’s alternative barbecue took place in the middle of the park, partitioned by the Israeli flag, balloons and posters of a woman hugging animals. “Four-hundred people showed up, and I’m expecting that next year there will be 2,000,” said Paz, who estimates that 2 percent of Israelis are vegan.

Tal Gilboa, 28, bought a ticket and looked happy assembling his veggie hamburger. “The feeling is great,” Gilboa said. “In the past years, I would sit alone at home and now I feel so happy.”

For 28-year-old Stav Levi, the celebrations had traditionally been a nightmare. Thinking about so many animals being killed for Independence Day barbecues was heartbreaking. And then there was the feeling of being left out. “Now I don’t feel different anymore,” Levi said. “This event makes us part of the mainstream.”

In one corner of the event, a lecture was given on cruelty toward cattle. Recycling bins were everywhere, and everyone used forks and knives that biodegrade after two months.

Nadav Kataei came to volunteer and serve grilled vegetables. “It’s a great feeling to serve healthy food,” Katei said. “Now we all feel part of the celebrations. We’re not different anymore.”


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