Israel's consumer discontent: Goodbye cottage cheese boycott, hello pasta protest - comment

Up until now, consumer discontent has been relegated largely to complaints on Facebook pages. But there is no guarantee it will stay that way.

Supermarket shoppers and workers without masks in Tel Aviv. (photo credit: AVSHALOM SASSONI) (photo credit: AVSHALOM SASSONI)
Supermarket shoppers and workers without masks in Tel Aviv. (photo credit: AVSHALOM SASSONI)
(photo credit: AVSHALOM SASSONI)

In the beginning, Bnei Brak resident Itzik Alrov started the cottage cheese boycott.

That was back in June 2011, when Alrov took to Facebook to protest against the high cost of cottage cheese, that staple of the Israeli diet, which had skyrocketed to about NIS 8 a tub, an increase of some 45% in three years.

Alrov’s call for a cottage cheese boycott went viral, and within weeks, protests spilled off the computer screen and merged with and morphed into the “social justice” protests that saw tent encampments set up in Tel Aviv, and – by August – 450,000 people rallying in streets and squares around the land.

By then, they were not only protesting the high price of cottage cheese, but also the high cost of housing and about everything else, as well as the country’s endemic, wide economic disparities.

After that came the great “Milky” pudding protest. This began in September 2014, when Naor Narkis anonymously launched a Facebook page encouraging Israelis to move to Berlin because the chocolate “Milky” pudding, almost as beloved in Israel as cottage cheese, was two to three shekels cheaper in Germany than it was in the land of its origin. And it wasn’t only the pudding, Narkis’s site trumpeted that an average grocery bill in Berlin was three times cheaper than it was in Israel.

Cottage cheese (credit: courtesy)Cottage cheese (credit: courtesy)

His answer: Move to Berlin. The page was flooded with “likes” and requests and messages of people sympathizing with his message. The page closed down a few months later, however, when Narkis announced he was coming back to Israel. People, it seems, need more in life than cheap pudding.

Here we are now, eight years later, and yet another Facebook consumer protest has been launched: the pasta protests.

Guy Lerer, the host of Channel 13’s news show Ha’tzinor (The Pipeline), which deals primarily with social media, wrote a post on Sunday, saying: “Maybe we will stop being apathetic? Maybe we’ll show them that this time it will not work?… Do you want to break the high cost of living? Do you want to show the companies that they cannot celebrate at our expense all the time, without there ever being a reaction?… Let’s start here and now. Stop buying Osem pasta. It’s that simple.”

And why should the consumer stop buying Osem pasta? Because a standard-sized bag of its pasta costs NIS 5.90, more than double the cost of an equivalent bag from two of its local competitors. “Enough,” the post read. “Why should we continue to be suckers?”

Within 20 hours, the post garnered some 37,000 “likes,” was shared more than 17,000 times and triggered 5,600 comments, most of them in the spirit of one Haim Gozali, who wrote: “They don’t understand that families are collapsing, that the situation is really bad. Shame on Israeli companies who are destroying the little man.”

While Osem pasta is the target of this particular campaign, this is about more than Osem’s noodles. This is about a steady rise in prices across the board – food, housing, gas – that is only going to get worse starting February 1. As of midnight Monday, gas prices leaped to NIS 6.71 a liter, their highest level in seven years. Housing prices continue to soar, and the prices of food staples continue their upward climb.

A Ynet report last week, before the expected February 1 round of price increases, showed that the price of Osem Bamba has risen by 4.6%, Pringles potato chips by 7%, Sugit rice by 8%, Barilla spaghetti noodles by 12% and Sano paper towels by 14%.

Those who responded to Lerer’s Facebook post had a theory as to why the companies were raising their prices at such a sharp rate: simply because they could. And this was the rationale for the boycott calls: to show them that they cannot.

IT’S ONE thing, however, to call for a boycott and vent against price rises on social media, and quite another to take to the streets. And so far, the public has not shown any indication that the winter of 2022 will be like the summer of 2011, with tens of thousands joining protests around the country.

Many are the reasons why not.

First of all, there is the Omicron. With parents fretting daily over whether their kids will test positive for coronavirus – and have to quarantine at home – there seems little energy left over now for a major protest movement. Everyone is too preoccupied, at least at this time, with COVID-19 and its effects.

Second, the times are different. The protests in 2011 took place amid a wave of protests that first swept across the Arab world, and then – to a lesser degree – other countries as well. Revolution was in the air and seemed infectious, and to some degree, the “social justice protests,” as they were called at the time, seemed a copycat of what was going on around us.

Third, former prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu is not in power. As Maariv and KAN journalist Kalman Liebskind wrote at the time, the social justice protests were not as spontaneous as they might have seemed. He wrote that two months before the first tent was pitched on Sderot Rothschild in Tel Aviv, left-wing activists, guided by US political strategist Stan Greenberg, put together a plan to retake the government from the Right, and this plan included mass protests.

There was a political dimension and agenda behind these protests, and no similar agenda seems to exist right now. If it’s not Netanyahu, it’s not interesting – or at least not interesting enough to take to the streets.

Though it would seem that the Likud could reap benefits from mass protests right now over economic issues, the party is currently otherwise engaged and preoccupied with leadership posturing for the day after Netanyahu.

FINALLY, the Bennett-Lapid government is appearing to be more responsible and empathetic than the Netanyahu government was when the cottage cheese protests first broke out. Finance Minister Avigdor Liberman said at his Yisrael Beytenu’s faction meeting in the Knesset on Monday that while there are legitimate reasons why gas prices have risen – having to do with steep increases in the cost of oil and maritime shipping – importers and food manufacturers are cynically using this as a reason to unjustifiably raise prices.

Liberman and Economy Minister Orna Barbivay sent a letter to leading food companies and importers, chastising them for price increases at this time and warning that their ministries will take steps to “ensure a competitive and fair economy” if their warnings not to raise prices are not heeded.

Although they did not spell out the steps they would take, this could include encouraging competition, taking measures to end the concentration of a huge slice of the market in the hands of a very few firms and regulating the prices of basic foodstuffs.

Up until now, consumer discontent has been relegated largely to complaints on Facebook pages. But there is no guarantee it will stay that way. As the coronavirus fades, if the government does not act to stem the price hikes, if the public anger rises – and if the Likud smells weakness in the government and can focus on something other than the day after Netanyahu  – then things could quickly change, and the pasta protests of 2022 could move from the computer screens to the streets, à la 2011.