Lessons from the Israeli haredi boycott of Angel Bakery - analysis

The boycott ended just over a month after it started and after sagging Angel sales and a 3.5% drop in its stock price.

 Challah bread from Angel Bakery in Israel (Illustrative). (photo credit: Wikimedia Commons)
Challah bread from Angel Bakery in Israel (Illustrative).
(photo credit: Wikimedia Commons)

After about a month's hiatus, Angel Bakery’s bread is once again kosher for haredim.

Why? Did the bread behemoth suddenly change its recipe? Did it start greasing its pans with an ingredient that did not meet the mehadrin requirements of the ultra-Orthodox?

No, of course not. Angel Bakery's ingredients are as kosher now as last month and the month before that, going all the way back to the bakery's founding in 1927.

The bakery itself has always been kosher. It's just that last month, Omer Bar Lev—the newly appointed chair of Angel's board of directors—took part in a protest near the home of Rabbi Gershon Edelstein, the spiritual head of the Degel Hatorah faction inside the United Torah Judaism Party, who passed away last week at the age of 100.

Haredi political and community leaders viewed this as a show of enormous disrespect to the rabbi, the Torah, and the haredi community itself and launched a grassroots boycott of the bakery. There were calls in the haredi community for Bar Lev to be fired and for Angel Bakery to apologize. And until that happened, the haredi community would not eat Angel’s challot on Shabbat, their yeshivot would not eat Angel’s sliced bread during the week, and thousands of haredi families would buy their daily bread from competing bakeries.

 Omer Bar Lev at the Knesset, May 31, 2022. (credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM/THE JERUSALEM POST)
Omer Bar Lev at the Knesset, May 31, 2022. (credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM/THE JERUSALEM POST)

At first, Angel and the general media dismissed the boycott, with some in the press ridiculing it, saying that since the haredi market generally buys the price-controlled basic white bread and challah from Angel rather than the more expensive whole grain products, it is not clear how much profit the company will lose, since industrial bakeries claim they produce these products at a loss. This turned out to be hollow spin, however,and as the boycott wore on, it had significant effect on sales of the publicly traded company.

On Sunday, Bar Lev, the former public security minister, went to the shiva of Rabbi Edelstein and left a letter of apology. Yaron Angel, one of the owners of the company, did the same, and within hours one prominent haredi journalist after the next was photographed holding bags of Angel bread.

The boycott ended just over a month after it started and after sagging Angel sales and a 3.5% drop in its stock price.

Several lessons can be learned from this incident.

Lessons to be learned from the Angel boycott

First, think before you protest, especially if you are the head of a company protesting against a demographic that buys a great deal of your product. Bar Lev, perhaps innocently, thought that he was demonstrating in Bnei Brak as a private citizen. After all, he was no longer a minister or even a Knesset member.

Nevertheless, as the chairman of the board of a major company, he is seen as a representative of that company. Just as it is always good to think before you tweet, it is also wise to think—when you are the head of a business—before you demonstrate. Think about where you are protesting and whom that protest may offend because there may be ramifications.

In other words, show some sensitivity. Do people chanting anti-judicial reform slogans and in favor of haredi conscription have the right to march in Bnei Brak? Yes, they have the right. Is it smart or sensitive or wise? No. How does that saying go? Not every right has to be exercised.

The second lesson is more general: never be afraid to admit a mistake.

Wittingly or unwittingly, Bar Lev made a mistake by demonstrating near the home of the 100-year-old rabbinic sage. After it became apparent that the haredi community was deeply offended and insulted by the move, Bar Lev and the owner of Angel could have apologized and saved themselves a month of financial loss rather than digging in their heels and saying there was nothing to apologize for.

The argument could be made that Bar Lev was demonstrating as a private individual and that Angel neither condoned nor agreed with it, and therefore it was wrong for those behind the boycott to penalize the company and its 1,200 employees for Bar Lev's action.

That all might be true, but it is also beside the point. Were people offended? Yes. Did they take actions that would hurt the business? Yes. So just admit that an error was made and move on.

And the third lesson from this saga is one for the Israeli public: consumer boycotts work. As a result of a coordinated effort by a large group of consumers not to buy a company's product, that company altered its course.

This shows the power of collective consumer action even against giant companies, something to be remembered at this time of soaring prices.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu chaired the first meeting of the newly created ministerial committee on the fight against the cost of living on Monday.

"Prices in Israel are significantly higher than similar or identical products in most developed countries. There is no objective justification for these gaps," he said. Netanyahu mentioned that there are layers of impediments to competition in this country that drive up prices and added that "recently, importers, manufacturers, and distributors have simply lost their restraints."

Like others that have been set up in the past, this committee will come up with various recommendations to decrease regulation and increase competition, but many of them will just sit on the shelf. However, if consumers band together and boycott those importers, manufacturers, and distributors whose price rises are not the result of increased cost but rather a rapacious appetite for high profits, that could have as much an impact on the high cost of living as the recommendations of yet another ministerial committee.

The general public, the counter-argument runs, is not as unified and disciplined as the haredi public and would not maintain a boycott against a huge food conglomerate capriciously raising prices.

That may be the case. But that doesn't disprove that consumer boycotts, if coordinated and followed, can be effective.

Don't think so? Just ask Angel Bakery.