The Great Cottage Cheese Uprising

Our well-mannered dairy revolt illuminates the forgotten side of the Israeli economy – the sectors that are being left ever further behind.

cottage cheese 311 R (photo credit: Marc Israel Sellem)
cottage cheese 311 R
(photo credit: Marc Israel Sellem)
We knew the Arab spring was coming. We are still bracing for its eruption in a neighborhood close to home. But where we’ve been expecting unarmed Palestinian marchers converging on West Bank settlements or rallying in east Jerusalem, what we have got is a storm in a tub of cottage cheese.
As with the eruption of protests in so many of our neighboring states, this too is popular insurrection galvanized and fueled via Facebook. The Great Israeli Cottage Cheese Uprising of June 2011, our improbable, impeccably behaved, domestic version of Tahrir Square, began when Itzik Elrov, an ultra-Orthodox man from Bnei Brak, popped out to his local grocery store and was so incensed at the jacked-up price of cottage cheese that he went home and set up a Facebook protest page about it. Let’s boycott cottage cheese for a month, from July 1, he urged. His audience pre-empted him.
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Elrov’s challenge to the authorities is anything but as incendiary as the self-immolation of Mohamed Bouazizi, 26, in Tunisia last December 17. The impoverished street vendor’s fiery suicide, after the authorities confiscated the scales he used to weigh the vegetables he was trying to sell for some desperately needed cash, ignited revolution in his own country, Egypt, Yemen, Libya and beyond after it became the Facebook focus of mass Arab disillusion and bitterness.
Itzik Elrov and his 97,611 (at time of writing) supporters are not seeking the ouster of the Netanyahu government. They are not alleging tyranny and murderous abuse of power by the leadership of Israel. Their challenge to the authorities is emphatically peaceful. Far from being a Facebook revolution prompting violence and bloodshed, this is a Facebook revolution that is prompting an earnest rethink – an orderly if impassioned reevaluation of misconceived policies and practices, as highlighted in the best democratic tradition by an empowered electorate.
Yet Elrov has touched a profound and widespread chord, nonetheless.
The speed with which one irritated consumer’s personal boycott effort has spread – landing literally on the prime minister’s desk within days, when Kadima’s media-savvy MK Ronit Tirosh plonked a pot of the overpriced comestible down in front of Binyamin Netanyahu during a Knesset committee debate last Wednesday – underlines the extent of popular dissatisfaction with the unconscionably widening gulf between Israel’s haves and have-nots.
As Itzik Elrov discovered, the price of cottage cheese – at 8 shekels (about $2.30) for a 9 ounce (250 gram) container – really has soared of late. By some estimates, it has risen 75% since price controls were removed last year. But cottage cheese is patently not the real issue here.
Elrov might have objected to the raised prices of any number of consumer staples. He could have focused on the cost of the water coming out of his tap. Previous, smaller efforts at exerting consumer power were concentrated on hiked gas prices.
But the issue runs deeper still. We marvel, rightly, at the astounding resilience of the Israeli economy amid global financial crisis. We celebrate, again rightly, the extraordinary innovation and skill of a hi-tech sector that is so central to that economic resilience.
But the Elrov-led revolt illuminates the forgotten side of the Israeli economy – the sectors that are being left ever further behind: The Israelis who can’t get close to the bottom rung of the real-estate ladder. The Israelis who are watching the demise of our remarkable health service, knowing they could never afford private care if the system fails them. The Israelis who worry that their children aren’t getting a good enough education, but lack the means to supplement it with private tuition. The Israelis who, even if they work their hearts out and come from families with more than one breadwinner, still don’t earn enough to pay the month’s bills. The Israelis who, doing their ordinary weekly shopping, realize that, somewhere along the line, cottage cheese turned into a luxury item they could no longer afford.
As with those Arab spring protests, with their fundamental, regime-changing agendas, the cottage cheese revolution was met initially in the corridors of power by complete bafflement.
Many political and business leaders here are so far out of touch with the day to day challenges faced by ordinary Israelis that, at first, they truly did not understand what all the fuss was about. They certainly didn’t know the price of a tub of cottage cheese. Finance Minister Yuval Steinitz wondered whether it was truly the case that it costs twice as much here as it does in Europe, and then, evidently persuaded that it does, pronounced the situation “intolerable” – as though he were the head of a consumer protection group rather than the top man in a hierarchy that has insistently perpetuated the country’s widening inequalities.
When bafflement turned to fear of the electoral consequences of this rare incidence of the Israeli consumer voicing outrage, the political leadership lurched rapidly into the blame game. Government and opposition figures began accusing each other of creating the circumstances in which the little man is being exploited – via skewed taxation policies, short-sighted deregulation decisions and the overall stewardship of an economy marked by ever-growing centralization of power and wealth in ever-smaller circles.
Incidentally, the dairy firms themselves, usually such experts at self-promotion, suddenly turned silent, in the new tradition of those targeted by Arab spring-style protests: Some of them closed down their own Facebook pages to prevent abuse from all those social-network “friends” who’d now become their vociferous critics. Company owners took days to formulate a response, before acknowledging that, perhaps, they should have been paying greater heed to the mounting consumer discontent, and promising – in the case of Tnuva’s director-general Eyal Malis – to do whatever was necessary to ensure a return to fairer pricing.
Belatedly, attempts are now being made to solve the particular problem – the cottage cheese problem – and thus, it is presumably thought, to take this unlikely regional uprising off the shelf. Eased import regulations are being considered, in order to bolster competition, as are restored regulation procedures, in order to prevent the cheating of the Israeli public by the small group of big dairy manufacturers.
But again, cottage cheese is not the issue here. Where our dairy revolt – though thoroughly peaceable, democratic, and limited in its goals – invites consideration in the context of the Arab spring is in its symbolization of widespread popular discontent over a lack of fairness in the oversight of the economy in general – a lack of fairness that extends to an absence of equal educational and by extension employment opportunity. The unfairness exposed in the rampant rise of the price of cottage cheese, and the indifference or sheer ignorance of those at the helm as to the consequences for ordinary people, emblemize the country’s dizzying shift through recent decades from an exaggeratedly socialist economy to one that embraced capitalism at its most ruthless, without many of the safeguards that prevail elsewhere in the West.
Yet even that is not quite the full picture. The thriving Israeli economy also masks the staggering non-productivity of large parts of the ultra-Orthodox and the Arab sectors – silent, growing burdens on the rest of society that in many cases have neither the will nor the way to provide for themselves or to contribute to the country’s social, economic and physical well-being. And having large swathes of the population being left behind impacts directly on Israel’s overall robustness – its capacity to thrive and to protect itself in the long term.
These are ailments that require a fundamental and long overdue recalibration of government attitudes and policies.
These are ailments that will not be solved by a more sensitive approach to supermarket pricing.
Itzik Elrov has done Israel a great favor in channeling popular discontent into an uprising over cottage cheese prices. He has helped sound a socioeconomic alarm. It is ringing out, and prompting change, in the best tradition of our vibrant Israeli democracy. Let no one delude themselves, however, that cutting the price of cottage cheese will address the root cause of this mass protest – this earnest, well-mannered but thoroughly serious domestic Israeli incarnation of the Arab spring.