Storm in a Cheese Tub

Israelis have been driven to protest against the creeping effects of the death of the social welfare state and effects of unbridled capitalist economics.

Cottage Cheese Revolution (photo credit: Nati Shohat, Flash 90)
Cottage Cheese Revolution
(photo credit: Nati Shohat, Flash 90)
In the early afternoon, on a hot Friday morning in late June, the large branch of the popular Rami Levy supermarket chain in the Talpiot district of Jerusalem is crowded with shoppers pushing and rushing to finish their errands before Shabbat. A celebrating, self-congratulating crowd has gathered around the dairy refrigerators.
“We should put up a sign saying, ‘Cottage Square,’ just like they did in Tahrir Square in Cairo. We’re having a revolution, too, just like the Egyptians!” Mazal Meshi, 38, a school teacher, says with only a bit of irony, as she stacks yogurt containers and cheeses into her shopping cart while demonstratively avoiding the tubs of cottage cheese.
“Who says we can’t have a revolution in Israel,” asks Itzik Beeri, 67, a retired mechanic, jabbing his T-shirted chest proudly with his thumbs, as if pointing to war medals. “See, we can protest, too. We’re not freiers [Yiddish for suckers].”
In late June and early July, Israelis joined together in what the press was pleased to dub as “The Great Israeli Cottage Cheese Uprising.” In Israel’s largest-ever consumer revolt, hundreds of thousands boycotted cottage cheese.
Many Israelis are proud of their cottage cheese, which, despite its humble status in the rest of the world, is considered a staple of the local diet. Unlike cottage cheese in other countries, Israeli cottage cheese actually tastes good and isn’t relegated to self-starving dieters. A recent study by the Dairy Board found that 65 percent of Israelis surveyed chose cottage cheese as their favorite cheese.
But since it was deregulated over a year ago, the price of cottage cheese has risen by 75 percent, to NIS 8.00 (nearly $2.50) for a 250 gram (nearly 9 oz) tub. And while cartels and price-fixing are criminal offenses, suspiciously, all three of the large dairy companies – Tnuva, in which the British-based Apax investment fund holds a majority stake; Strauss, owned by the Strauss family; and Tara, owned by CBC (Coca-Cola Israel) – were offering their nearly identical curds and whey for exactly the same price.
And it’s not only cottage cheese that has become expensive. Between March 2006 and early 2011, according to the Knesset research center, the average salary in Israel rose by 2.6 percent but the Consumer Price Index rose by 25 percent. Salaries in Israel are the third lowest of all of the countries in the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), while consumer prices are among the highest.
As much as Israelis love their cottage cheese, they hate being a freier even more.
So when Itzik Alrov, a 25-year-old father of two from the ultra-Orthodox city of Bnei Brak, near Tel Aviv, opened a Facebook page calling for a boycott of cottage cheese until the price came down, tens of thousands “liked” it within two days.
Standing near the stacked tubs of cottage cheese at Rami Levy, Michal Aner, a 36- year-old Jerusalem housewife tells The Jerusalem Report, “Until now, all I did was complain about prices. I whine a lot. And then comes this guy [Alrov], I click ‘like’ – and suddenly, I’m protesting, and it feels good.”
Initially, representatives of the dairy companies arrogantly refused even to respond to the public; then, two days into the boycott, they haughtily announced that they would not, under any circumstances, lower their prices.
The public was incensed. This was the perfect consumer combo – an unexpected, lowly hero; mean-spirited billionaires; a product that’s easy to boycott because it has lots of alternatives; and an instant community of consciousness created by the click of the mouse. Within 10 days, nearly 106,000 people had signed the Facebook petition.
Everyone wanted to get in on the act. In a headline-grabbing demonstration, MK Shai Hermesh (Kadima) brought a cow to the Knesset; when the Knesset security officers refused to allow the bovine to enter, Hermesh tethered it outside the building (causing some to call for the removal of his Knesset immunity so that he could be charged with animal abuse). MK Ronit Tirosh (Kadima) demonstratively plopped down a container of cottage cheese in front of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu during a Knesset committee debate. MKs and some ministers called for reinstating the regulatory system over cottage cheese or on all basic foods; others called for importing milk products from abroad.
By the first week of July, Israel Prize winner, artist Menashe Kadishman had painted three paintings with the cottage cheese motif surrounding his famous sheep images and hung them on display in the King David Hotel in Jerusalem. The works are scheduled to go on sale in late July and the proceeds will go, Kadishman has promised in the press, to feed the poor.
The government, not used to a public flexing its consumer muscles, was in a near panic and quickly established two investigatory committees, one short-term to examine the cost of milk and milk products and another, longerterm, to examine the cost of all food products.
But as the expiration dates stamped on the colorful tubs began to expire, the companies began to rethink their positions. On the fourth day of the strike, Ofra Strauss, chairwoman of Strauss Group, offered a carefully scripted mea culpa to the public, saying, “This is about a lot more than cottage cheese. It’s taken me two days to find my balance and understand what the public is saying – that something systemic is wrong here.”
And so the price of cottage cheese was lowered to NIS 5.90 (about $1.80) – suspiciously, all three companies once again chose the same price – and Israelis went back to their favorite food, feeling victorious and pleased with themselves.
"Cottage cheese is the perfect commodity to boycott,” says Dr. Paul Frosh, senior lecturer in the Department of Communications and Journalism at Hebrew University.
“People love cottage cheese, but unlike protesting against the price of gasoline or something that you would have to make a real sacrifice to boycott, there really are alternatives to cottage cheese,” he tells The Report. “After all, there wasn’t a call for a boycott on all dairy products. A protest like this can be successful because it requires an entirely different level of commitment.”
Furthermore, he notes, the centralized media served the protest well, especially since it started out on a slow news week, when the media was looking for stories. Internet sites and print media, part of the same companies, linked to each other and to the Facebook petition, creating the necessary buzz.
“Political protest has changed,” explains Frosh. “You don’t even have to go into the streets, you don’t have to take risks. The number of people willing to take risks for any cause is usually very small, but that doesn’t mean that the protest against the cottage cheese wasn’t a real expression of public sentiment. It’s actually because it required such low commitment that it could succeed.”
Successful as it was – and the protest has now spread to the high cost of locally produced diapers and other consumer goods – it is clear to all that this trivial product served as a symbol for larger issues and a trigger for a more significant social movement.
Says Dorit Abramovitch, coordinator of campaigns for women’s organizations, “The protest tapped into the underlying, growing rage that the public is feeling. Most of us are gradually coming to realize that the government’s economic policies are drowning us.
And cottage cheese, which isn’t about the Palestinian-Israeli conflict or about the territories, is a consensual symbol that crosses party lines and pulls people together.”
Bnei Brak’s Alrov articulated what consumers like Jerusalem’s Aner had long been sensing: that a majority of households, especially in the middle class, are trapped in an economic rat race, and they are losing.
Although Israelis have never had a collective consumer consciousness, Alrov’s call for a click helped them to see that they were paying the price for neo-liberal, macroeconomic fiscal policies and avaricious oligopolies. Informed by media outlets, the public began to understand that it is carrying a heavy burden of inherently regressive indirect taxation – Israel’s indirect taxation is third-highest among OECD countries, according to a recent report, while a report released by the treasury reveals that its income from indirect taxes constitutes half of its revenues. That is, the country is making money by taking proportionately less taxes from the rich and proportionately more taxes from the poor.
But these are issues that are difficult to protest and don’t make for inspiring rallying cries. After all, Abramovitch says, “‘More direct and less indirect taxes’ is hardly something you can write on a protest banner.”
Initially, the rage was directed at the heads of the dairy concerns, especially Strauss, Zehavit Cohen, head of Tnuva, and Finance Minister Yuval Steinitz, who publicly acknowledged that he was not aware of how expensive cottage cheese had become. “On the one hand,” says Abramovitch, “it’s good that the protest was personified, because it channeled and focused the rage. But, on the other hand, of course, no one person is really responsible – this is a deliberate economic ideology that we are dealing with.”
Much of the rage, says Prof. Yossi Yonah of the Department of Education at Ben- Gurion University in Beersheba, stems from the cultural rifts in Israeli society and widespread disappointment at what is perceived as the failure of the Zionist dream to produce a more moral and ethical society.
“The Zionist project is in deep crisis,” Yonah tells The Report. “The country is so fragmented that it has become difficult to articulate the concept of ‘the good society’ that could unite us. Instead, we have splintered into smaller groups or individualism. The individual has abdicated his responsibility as a citizen to contribute to society. In theory, the self can be self-interested and civic-minded, but only if we can articulate a common good. But we have been unable to do that over any really significant issue. Cottage cheese was a symbol, but we are not able to extend that symbol further.”
Moreover, says Abramovitch, the country is suffering from a sense of despairing malaise. “Activists have taken to the streets to demand change so many times, and we have not been able to stop the tide of increasing conservatism. Sure, we’ve had specific successes – such as the feminist movement’s success in guaranteeing that [convicted rapist] former president Moshe Katsav would be brought to trial. But overall, there is a sense of despair – over the lack of a peace process, over our position in the world, over the legislation being proposed in the Knesset, over the daily struggle to make ends meet. People are too tired to get out and demonstrate.”
Or maybe they are not demonstrating because they do not feel that life is so bad. Statistics, comparative data from the OECD countries, visits abroad – all bring evidence that at least in socioeconomic terms, Israel is doing well financially, but Israelis are not.
Over the past quarter of a decade, Israel has regressed from its original welfare state. Despite their low salaries, Israelis pay more not only for consumer commodities, but also for social services such as health, housing and education than most European countries.
Yet, in a poll conducted by Gallup between the years 2005 and 2009, Israel was ranked in the respectable position of eighth in terms of the country’s happiness index. And in the Better Life Index of the OECD, published in June 2011, Israel ranked among the top ten countries, with the same happiness rating as Finland, even though, the study notes, Israel “performs poorly for many of the 19 quality of life measurements.”
Is this merely a matter of what social scientists refer to as false consciousness, that is, a form of self-delusion? Meira Nemet, 53, a computer specialist, describes the difficulty in coming to emotional terms with her political awareness. “It has taken me a long time to change my political consciousness,” Nemet tells The Report. “I was born here and I am proud to be an Israeli. But I have lived in some sort of a disconnect – on the one hand, I know how self-serving our politicians have been, and I know how disastrous many of their policies have been. I know that this country has changed, and not for the better. I’ve gone to demonstrations, I’ve shouted the slogans against the occupation, against social injustice. But somehow, I’ve never really come to terms, in my heart, at how mean this country has become. I’ve only recently begun to realize that while I love my country and I’m proud, I’m also very angry and very ashamed.”
Furthermore, for years, Israelis have been overtly told by the leaders that social issues have to take a back burner to the existential problems of security. “The Black Panthers were certainly radical,” says Yonah, referring to the Mizrahi protest movement in the early 1970s. “But they appeared during a time when Israel was still high on the victory of the Six Day War and leaders like [prime minister] Golda Meir and [defense minister] Moshe Dayan believed that our situation couldn’t be better or more secure. We are always in a position of having to rank our priorities – and social issues always come last.”
This, accuses Yonah, is also a deliberate policy. “Politicians know very well how to create a sense of panic, as if the Iranians are about to launch the atomic bomb this second or the hordes of Islamic fundamentalists are about to break down our gates. And the media, which is controlled by the wealthy and is complicit in the capitalist economy, plays right along. In the face of such threats, the people will always prefer stability – even the illusion of stability – over democracy, social justice or human rights.
“We buy into this,” Yonah continues, “because of our history. At the Passover Seder we recite, ‘In each and every generation they rise up against us to destroy us. And the Holy One, blessed be He, rescues us from their hands.’ Actually, the Mizrahim, who make up the bulk of Israel’s poor, have not had such a traumatic history, but they have internalized the Ashkenazi trauma. Add to this the trauma of just trying to make ends meet, of day-to-day life, of the actual security threats, and it becomes very difficult to find the energy for social protest. So people can protest against the price of cottage cheese, or even gasoline, but it will be much more difficult to translate this into a wider social movement to come to terms with the kind of society we want to be.”
Daniel Doron, director of the Israel Center for Social and Economic Progress, a neo-liberal think tank based near Jerusalem, also pins the blame for the current situation on the government. But in contrast to social democrats, such as Yonah or Abramovitch, he calls for increased free marketism. “The cottage cheese boycott was nothing less than a historic moment in Israeli economic and social history,” he tells The Report. “After 60 years of abuse by the government and the monopolies, the public stood up and said no. The combination of human capital and concrete capital should have made Israel into one of the richest countries in the world – but until the government gets out of the way, and the market is truly free, there will not be any change.”
The biggest question, Daniel Gutwein, professor in the Department of Jewish History at Haifa University, tells The Report, is why the political system is unable to serve as a vehicle for the expression of these sentiments. “That is what is supposed to happen in a real democracy. [US President Barack] Obama tapped into the sentiments of the American public, which was fed up with America’s economic and social situation. But we do not see any such political activity here.”
This is because, he says, “Israeli political parties are divided into Left and Right according to their stands on the territories and war and peace, but in economic terms, even the so-called ‘left-wing’ parties support what are essentially neo-conservative economic policies because they are all made up of members of the financial elites. The Israeli political system does not provide any alternative, because there is no truly social democratic party.”
So what should we make of the cottage cheese rebellion?
The Finance Ministry, Prime Minister’s Office, and Ministry of Industry, Trade and Labor all did not respond to requests from The Report for comment, nor did the dairy companies.
Yonah and Gutwein are concerned that the government’s current policies could result in systemic violence.
Says Yonah, “There are very good reasons for social revolution in Israel. Some 1.6 million people live under the poverty line, most of them women, Arabs and Mizrahim, so they have collective identities around which they could coalesce. And we have the potential for a just society. But our political leaders have made a pact with the devil: in order to maintain the status quo, they are fomenting a sense of anxiety, a need to maintain a sense of anxiety, and a looming image of the enemy about to kill us. So why are we surprised when the public responds with widespread xenophobia and racism?”
According to Gutwein, the violence is already happening. “We are seeing violence against the symbols of the state and its sovereignty – by the Haredim, by the settlers, by groups that feel disenfranchised. I believe that they are diverting their rage at the economic policies and social injustices to these symbols. Right now we are in a race against time: There are ongoing efforts to establish a broad social-democratic party that will channel the anger towards positive goals,” he says. “But the Right is also competing for these votes.
“And the Right,” he warns, “will not turn the rage against the economic system that raised the price of cottage cheese. It will turn it against democracy itself.”