What’s wrong with Israelis’ cheesy protest?
A rebellion against cottage cheese prices may seem trivial, but there’s more to life here than the Middle East conflict.
A second flotilla heading to Gaza; the Palestinians planning to appeal to the UN for statehood; clashes between the Israel Defense Forces and Palestinian refugees on the Syrian border… Amidst all these global news headline-grabbing events, what has really got the Israeli public riled up is the rising price of cottage cheese.
The revelation that the cost of cottage cheese in Israeli supermarkets is double its price in Europe has sparked a public outcry here. A call to boycott the cheese, an Israeli staple, for one month began on Facebook two weeks ago after manufacturers announced that the price of a 250g tub would rise to eight shekels (£1.44; $2.35). Cottage cheese prices have jumped by nearly 40 per cent in the past three years. The Facebook page, set up by a 25-year-old cantor from the city of Bnei Brak near Tel Aviv, now has 105,798 members and counting.
As the consumer rebellion brewed, climbing to the top of news bulletins, opposition parties milked the issue of the high price of dairy products. During an hours-long heated debate in the Israeli Knesset on ‘the government’s failure in diplomatic, economic and social issues’, a member of parliament presented the prime minister, Benyamin Netanyahu, with a tub of the incendiary cheese. ‘The cottage cheese boycott is a protest against injustice, against the social gaps that have flourished under your watch’, opposition leader Tzipi Livni told Netanyahu.
It may seem absurd, and there is certainly a big dose of political opportunism at play here. But at the same time, some pundits’ holier-than-thou complaints that it apparently takes a creamy breakfast staple to get Israelis worked up are just plain scornful. It is perfectly legitimate for people to react to real threats to their material standard of living, even if they happen to live in a geographical region that is a global obsession.
Of course, the mass cheese-boycott is about more than the rising cost of breakfast. Many analysts have deemed the protest to be a follow-up on the petrol-tax rebellion that took place in January. The price of gasoline in Israel is one of the highest in the world and when another petrol tax-hike was introduced at the start of the year, the subsequent public outcry forced the government to backtrack.
Also, recent price hikes have affected a wide range of consumer items, from humous and detergents to coffee and shampoo. Many Israeli products are cheaper abroad than in Israel itself. And while the prices of groceries rise, and are often significantly higher in Israel than in other parts of the developed world, wages have not increased commensurately.
But many can’t see what the big deal is, and think that there are better things for Israelis to do than clicking ‘like’ on a Facebook page and resisting the temptation of the supermarkets’ sudden roll-out of two-for-one deals on cottage cheese. ‘If only Israelis cared about more than cottage cheese’, lamented an editorial in the Israeli daily Haaretz. Others have poked fun at how ‘the most apathetic consumer in the Western hemisphere is getting riled about cottage’, when in other parts of the world social-media campaigns have been used to stir up rebellions against authoritarian rulers and to assist disaster relief. Similarly, the Haaretz editorial stated that ‘The revolutions that have swept the Arab world in recent months have highlighted the Israeli public’s political apathy. While our neighbours have taken to the streets and even risked their lives to call for their corrupt regimes’ downfall, Israelis have continued with business as usual.’
For some commentators and protesters alike it has become de rigueur to compare and contrast popular campaigns to the Arab rebellions. Some supporters of the cottage mutiny, which protesters have promised will spread to other food products soon, have also made wild claims that ‘what we are witnessing is a mild version of the kind of popular uprising now associated with Tahrir Square’. Such negative and positive comparisons to ‘the Arab spring’ are equally demeaning. Giving up cottage cheese for a month and using your purchasing power to influence corporate policies is not like risking your life in the pursuit of political freedoms. At the same time, food price rises have been a legitimate contributing factor to protests in the Arab world, too, and there is no reason why Israelis should not care about guarding their economic interests just because they also happen to be embroiled in conflict with their neighbours.
Certainly, in Israel, a growing ‘out of sight, out of mind’ approach, exemplified most explicitly by the imposing security wall, has come to colour the attitude towards how to live, or rather how not to live, with the Palestinians. Yet to outsiders any sign that Israelis are enjoying, or striving to enjoy, the good life is interpreted as a sign that they are selfish, materialistic, apathetic and cruelly unconcerned with Palestinians’ aspirations. For instance, a cover-story in Time magazine last year drew the conclusion that growing affluence among Israelis is an obstacle to peace and is undermining the prospects of resolving an issue that is ‘critical to the world’.
But Israelis and Palestinians do not have a duty either to be the conscience of the world or to live their lives as if the future of the globe depended on them. It may sound cheesy, but it’s not surprising that Israelis want to enjoy the good life. If they believe the good life requires affordable breakfast items, then long live the cottage rebellion!
Nathalie Rothschild is an international correspondent for spiked. Visit her personal website here.
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