Middle Israel: When Ronald McDonald met Ya’acov Litzman

“What’s McDonald?” asked a former backbencher from Shas.

Health Minister Ya’acov Litzman  (photo credit: Courtesy)
Health Minister Ya’acov Litzman
(photo credit: Courtesy)
 It was Ronald McDonald’s finest hour.
What began several weeks earlier with the fall of the Berlin Wall now became communism’s declaration of surrender as the iconic, red-haired clown surveyed from the newly opened Pushkin Square McDonald’s the snaking line of cheeseburger cravers that braved Moscow’s frost, while putting to shame the dwindling line outside the nearby Lenin Mausoleum.
There were other signs of communism’s collapse, but this was the most emblematic, because McDonald’s, humanity’s second largest provider after the Creator, was laden with everything the disgraced communists failed to deliver: food, flavor, wealth and believers.
Seen from that winter’s vantage point, Ronald McDonald was the God that rose on its feet while others fell on their knees.
With sales that by then had passed $10 billion and later exceeded $25b. in some 36,000 outlets in more than 120 countries, McDonald’s seemed unable to do wrong – globalization’s invincible inventor, practitioner and epitome.
That is certainly how McDonald’s itself saw things those days, exuding an arrogance that surfaced when it arrived in the Land of Milk and Honey.
“What’s McDonald?” asked a former backbencher from Shas, future welfare minister (and convict) Shlomo Benizri, with whom I, a young reporter for the San Francisco Chronicle, was discussing the fast-food giant’s impending invasion.
And after I explained to the black-hatted lawmaker what McDonald’s was, and that its flagship product was a hamburger sandwiched between slices of hard cheese, he closed his eyes, stroked his beard and said: “Oy vay.”
Journalistically this led to a nice front-page story about an impending clash between commerce and faith. Politically, however, it anti-climaxed when the religious parties made a sheepish retreat, realizing McDonald’s was even stronger than they.
And since McDonald’s rejected flatly Israeli demands that it take the cheese out of the burger, all the outlets it soon opened here served the exact same menu it was serving those days elsewhere.
It was a culinary colonialism that sought to impose a foreign culture while siphoning local funds in disregard of native tradition, sensitivity and taste.
That was in 1992.
Since then the roles have been reversed, as Israel saw this week when Health Minister Rabbi Ya’acov Litzman derided an apologetic McDonald’s not because it isn’t kosher, but because it spreads, as he put it contemptuously, “junk food.”
THE FAST FOOD empire that once thought it would tell the whole world what to eat has since done some serious repentance.
First, it learned to respect local tastes, in a process that actually began here. Having realized that most Israelis keep kosher, it launched an experimental kosher outlet in Mevaseret Zion in 1995, which soon mushroomed into 55 of 180 Israeli outlets.
McDonald’s now reflected another side of the American character, besides enterprise: pragmatism. The new localization was carried to India, where more than halfa- billion people who don’t eat meat were offered a vegetarian cutlet, an adjustment that soon produced other localized dishes, like McRice in the Far East and McKebab in the Middle East.
This was humbling enough, but in recent years McDonald’s was challenged exactly where Litzman now struck: health.
With younger people increasingly aware of the hazards of fat, sugar and carbohydrates, the company learned its clientele was aging and its numbers were sagging.
The turning point came two years ago, when global revenues dropped 2.5 percent to $27.4b., and American young adults’ visits to McDonald’s fell by 13 percent as they flocked to more health-minded, fast-casual alternatives like Zaxby’s, Culvers and Panera Bread.
McDonald’s response to this evolving emigration was to learn what the people want and try to deliver it by cutting in half the fat in its meat, cutting its fried foods’ saturated fat by two-thirds, and reducing sugar and sodium in other products, as its alarmed and insulted Israeli office said this week following Litzman’s broadside.
The validity and effectiveness of these statements is for the clients to judge, but there can be no arguing that McDonald’s has come a long way since its era of unbridled colonialism, when it stormed the world with a constitutional refusal to change.
Ironically, Jewish ultra-Orthodoxy journeyed at the same time in the exact opposite direction, until its improbable encounter this week with the largest producer ever of non-kosher food.
UNTIL RECENTLY ultra-Orthodoxy was McDonald’s inversion.
When the restaurant chain raised its periscope and set out to conquer the world, ultra-Orthodoxy entrenched within its ghettos’ thick walls, eager to avoid eye contact with the outer world. And when McDonald’s set out to study the other and serve it, ultra-Orthodoxy remained suspicious of otherness, and fearful of its sway.
Yet ultra-Orthodoxy also changed. So, much like McDonald’s, it too was compelled to learn to respect the outer world’s needs and demands. After decades of keeping its males away from the workforce and the military, it began opening colleges where its men and women earn modern professions, and it began sending thousands of boys to serve in the IDF.
Most symbolically, ultra-Orthodoxy shed its historic refusal to appoint a minister in the Zionist government, a vestige of its anti-Zionist origins that was abandoned as it appointed a minister: Rabbi Litzman.
And unlike previous ultra-Orthodox politicians, who used their legislative and executive offices mainly to look after the ultra-Orthodox ghetto’s needs, Rabbi Litzman dedicated his time to the entire public, seeking ways to deliver more doctors and nurses, multiply hospital beds, expand the basket of free medications, and reduce the prices of hospital food.
Many Israelis oppose ultra-Orthodoxy, but all respect its representative’s choice to serve the entire public regardless of backgrounds, much the way McDonald’s learned to respect non-American taste, and non-lethal food.
That is how a globalized Rabbi Litzman this week met a localized McDonald’s, not in the narrow context of its encounter with Jewish observance, but in the broad context of its attitude toward human health. Considering McDonald’s declarations of culinary repentance, it may be the beginning of a beautiful relationship.