Milking a crisis

To use a good British term, the people are cheesed off with the rising prices of standard dairy products. Unusually, they are actually doing something about it.

cow farm 311 (photo credit: Liat Collins)
cow farm 311
(photo credit: Liat Collins)
Many consumer choices contain inherent absurdities, so I wasn’t surprised when I found at the supermarket checkout last week that I had a bill of more than NIS 50 for various cheeses, from Roquefort to Camembert, having steadfastly refused to pay NIS 8 for a tub of cottage cheese. I’m a vegetarian, but I’m not a freier, the worst of Israeli sins: a sucker. If the country has gone to town over cottage cheese prices, I’m not going to be the one who breaks the extraordinary consumer boycott. If we can’t eat cottage cheese, let us eat Cheddar.
To use a good British term, the people are cheesed off with the rising prices of standard dairy products.
Unusually, they are actually doing something about it.
It is hard for those who don’t live here to fathom the depths of passion that can be raised by the humble tub of what is simply and fondly known locally as “cottage.” It is probably the ultimate Israeli comfort food, the healthier equivalent of peanut butter in the American home.
When Zehavit Cohen was appointed to chair the board of directors at the huge Tnuva dairy concern, she announced how proud she was that every Israeli home had a tub of cottage cheese in the refrigerator.
It’s a staple food. Israeli kids grow up on cottage and a finely-chopped salad. Indeed, years ago, when the price of tomatoes rose to outrageous levels, I refused to buy them and found myself having passionate discussions by the supermarket vegetable stands with consumers who asked in shocked tones: “But what are you going to do? How can you manage without tomatoes?” Cottage cheese has become the unlikely symbol of what is now being dubbed Israel’s version of the Arab Spring. The empty shopping basket is the weapon of choice. The rebellion has spread to other Israeli favorites, including soup almonds and Milkies. One of the best known Israeli commercials is “Hakrav al HaMilky” – the battle for the Milky – in which two consumers armed with shopping carts speed down the aisles to grab the last chocolate-flavored dairy dessert.
No more. The ripples of the dairy fight have spread to this and other once-popular products.
It all began, as befits an uprising in this age, with a Facebook initiative to boycott cottage cheese for two weeks starting on July 1. The mutiny was reportedly the idea of Yitzhak (Itzik) Elrov, a 25-year-old hazan from Bnei Brak who found the high price of cottage cheese hard to swallow, and started the campaign being run by a group called “Boycott Food Products.”
Fueled by a tremendous amount of media interest in what is known as onat hamelafefonim, “the cucumber season” – the summer period when hard news is put on the back burner as much as possible – the boycott calls began to have an immediate effect. Thousands signed online petitions pledging not to buy the pricy, cheesy product. Not only did they promise their support, they appear to have been true to their word: Sales have reportedly plummeted. The media have been milking the topic for all its worth, and as a result the subject has been debated in the Knesset (where Kadima MK Ronit Tirosh offered her recipe for homemade cottage cheese and presented the prime minister with a pot of the "luxury" item). It was also on the agenda at a meeting of the country’s top industrialists.
Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu, realizing that this was potentially as awkward for him politically as the options surrounding the unilateral moves toward Palestinian statehood, called on the cabinet to find creative ways to fight the spiraling prices of dairy products.
Reasons given for the ever-rising prices range from increased production expenses to the drop in milk production during heatwaves. Suggested solutions include a threat by Finance Minister Yuval Steinitz to import cottage cheese, and calls to put cottage back on the list of products with government-controlled prices (although I bet that the price would be frozen at the current high rate, not the NIS 4.50 it was not so long ago).
Incidentally, while certain supermarket chains did drop the prices of their dairy products, I have not been tempted to break the ban – I suspect they are making up for the difference in the prices of other products which have not yet come under the scrutiny of the social media.
The Facebook group now promises (or threatens) to initiate similar mutinies against different overpriced products, such as coffee and even real cottages – or at least real estate. While most Israelis, if desperate, can find a way to buy a tub of cottage cheese, it is extremely hard for the average Israeli to purchase an affordable home.
As Pinchas Landau noted in his Global Agenda column on June 17: “This is not about cottage cheese, but rather much bigger and fundamental issues, which presage dramatic changes in Israeli economic policy and, down the road, sociopolitical platforms and the composition and orientation of future Knessets...
“Suddenly – thanks to aggressive investigative journalism in Globes and The Marker – the public has become aware that it is being ripped off systematically by a panoply of monopolies and cartels that dominate a wide range of business sectors in the small and often still-isolated Israeli economy. This state of affairs has existed for years and – because of the overtly probusiness policies of this and the previous government – has been getting steadily worse.”
Hence the cottage cheese revolution could have a long shelf life.
It reflects dissatisfaction not just with the price of cheese, but also the cost of gasoline – and, for that matter, popular concern that the ordinary citizen is not going to benefit from the discovery of gas reserves off the Israeli coast. In short, cottage cheese is the symbol for all that has gone wrong with capitalism and over-privatization – especially for a middle-class that feels the wealth is being spread too thin; it’s like having to scrape out what’s left in a tub of cottage cheese after someone else has spooned the contents onto his own plate.
Part one the success of the Cottage Cheese Rebellion can be attributed to the relative ease of participating.
There’s no need to go out and demonstrate in the town square; all you have to do is pass by the relevant dairy products when you’re doing your regular grocery shopping.
For all the hype about this being Israel’s version of Egypt’s Tahrir uprising, consumer boycotts of the cottage cheese kind are in themselves a luxury form of protest – no effort or risks required.
Ultimately the test will be the maturity not just of local consumers, but also of the country’s politicians.
Some months ago, when French students were rioting, I read an opinion piece by an Israeli student on why similar demonstrations do not take place here. The answer is politicization. All student protests in Israel are arranged by political bodies – hence all those affiliated with a rival camp remain on the campus lawns and in libraries, far from the action.
And it is true of almost every other issue – no matter how deserving. That is why the war on traffic accidents, the struggle for better education, the fight for affordable housing, and even the campaign for the release of abducted soldier Gilad Schalit cannot be turned into political tools.
With all due respect to MK Tirosh’s recipes and Landau’s predictions, as soon as the cottage cheese issue becomes identified with one political party, it will become as attractive to everyone else as a tub of cheese that has passed its sell-by date.
The writer is editor of The International Jerusalem