Checking in With the Big Cheese of the Cottage Revolution

Itzik Alrov – the man who initiated the cottage cheese boycott last summer – is taking to the streets again to remind Israelis that the cost-of-living protest affects everyone and isn't over.

While masses of people demonstrated last Saturday night in front of the Tel Aviv Museum of Art against the exemption of the ultra-Orthodox from military service, Itzik Alrov – the man who initiated the cottage cheese boycott last summer – took part in another demonstration, against the high cost of living, on Rothschild Boulevard.

This was a far more modest demonstration, with only about 1,000 participants, insignificant media coverage and without a trace of politicians. Alrov and his colleagues have attended quite a number of rallies and protest activities this past year, but they emerged from the last one with a clear-cut conclusion about ultra-Orthodox shirking – not of army service, but of the protests that have swept the country.

"The ultra-Orthodox have made a mistake," says one young Haredi resident of Bnei Brak. "One of the ultra-Orthodox community's concerns about the social protest is the claim that it is hostile, and that it is trying to pit one population against another. All of a sudden when you come to a demonstration on a Saturday night and see masses of people carrying signs reading, 'We are all brothers, undivided,' and shouting 'Secular and ultra-Orthodox refuse to be enemies.'

"Then you say to yourself, 'Maybe part of the ultra-Orthodox sector got it wrong and has fallen into the trap of classifying the protest as leftist and radical and other things that are incorrect,'" he continues. "This has been harmful. Now part of our struggle is to rectify the mistakes of those hallucinatory messages because the protest really is a protest by the people. Most of those who are shouting 'We refuse to be enemies' are completely secular -- people who in my opinion have never met an ultra-Orthodox person but understand that he isn't the enemy. They are realistic enough to understand that it's problematic people who seek to fan the flames in the direction of certain populations."

In June 2011, Alrov initiated the consumer boycott of cottage cheese, the price of which had soared under the auspices of large dairy firms, headed by Tnuva. Within a short time more than 100,000 Israelis who pledged not to eat cottage cheese had joined his group on Facebook, a move that left Israel's dairy industry reeling and played an important part in the tent protest a few weeks later.

Since then, Alrov has been leading other consumer protests. For example, he thwarted a campaign calling for the Osem company to turn the baby featured on packaging for Bamba – a leading Israeli snack – into the "mascot" of the Israeli delegation to the Olympic Games. He also recently compelled former Bank Leumi CEO Galia Maor to forgo a bonus of NIS 3.25 million (about $850,000) meant to keep her out of the banking business following her departure from Leumi. Despite Alrov successes, the consumer protest has not resulted in a long-term drop in prices, and in some areas it has not prevented price increases.

Alrov, 26, is part of a core group of activists including Adi Mel, Yiftach Shaked, Dudi Mahfud and Yaakov Lebi. Their protest has not let up for a moment since June of 2011 and currently their Facebook pages are buzzing with activity.

We met Alrov and Lebi, 30, an ultra Orthodox married man and father of four who lives in Beit Shemesh, on the outskirts of Bnei Brak. Both men went on to study at the ultra-Orthodox branch of the Ono Academic College after their stints at yeshiva. They describe themselves as "Israeli-civil activists" and say "that has no connection to the black skullcap."

The ultra-Orthodox activists, whom the state has exempted from military service on the grounds that "their Torah [study] is their craft," are unfazed by the calls for a universal draft. They do not condemn the protesting reservists' who set up the "suckers' camp." According to Lebi, the cost-of-living struggle is relevant to the ultra-Orthodox sector because it could encourage ultra-Orthodox men to join the workforce.

"Lowering the cost of living encourages people to go out and work," he says. "You're saying to them, 'You can change your lives for the better.' Today, even people who work don't see a light at the end of the tunnel. The cost of living gives people economic incentives to do something, to invest. Today people are passive and focused on themselves."

"There isn't any tension between the struggles," says Alrov. "It's true, the media attention will focus for a month or two on this issue but there is a problem that needs to be solved. A solution hasn't been found yet for those 400,000 people who took to the streets to protest against the high cost of living last summer. This protest is here until the problem gets solved. It could take a year, two years, even five years because as long as the problem exists, the protest exists. Politicians are afraid of just that."

Alrov is convinced that the consumer protest made history but that it still has a bright future ahead. "If we believe the headline of current newspapers, we'll think that we lost," he says. "But if we examine the issue over time, a year later, we'll see how far we have come and how far we still have to go. And we are definitely on the right track."

What leads you to believe you have succeeded? After all, the prices in Israel are still high.

Lebi: "Thanks to the consumer protest we have come to realize that, every day, we make choices, cast votes, influence Knesset members and the public. We aren't passive."

Alrov adds: "Choices are being made on a daily basis, not once every four years. Choices are made about everything, not just in the supermarket. Suddenly you see citizens standing up for their rights. One public persona recently told me: 'Your struggle caused me to switch banks for the first time in many years. It is what gave me ambition.' There are consumer groups in Even Yehuda and Hod Hasharon, and citizens who go out to explain to others about consumer awareness and the struggle. Citizens who are interested and care will make changes. The people will bring about change much more than politics will."

Where have you failed?

Alrov: "The failure belongs to the government, which tries to make the cost of living irrelevant by focusing on other issues. A large part of the Trajtenberg committee recommendations have been watered down. Look at the issue of affordable housing, which was the foundation of the protest. Have prices begun to drop in the housing market? Not at all. In fact, the prices are high and in some places they are only continuing to rise. This is what brought people out to the streets. Instead the focus has turned to short-term fixes with public housing and affordable housing. The middle class, which took to the streets, will not benefit from these proposals at all.

"An average two-earner family (in which both husband and wife work) earns between NIS 10,000 ($2,495) and 15,000 (about $3,740). They can't afford to buy an apartment for NIS 1.5 million ($374,225). They aren't going to qualify for public housing or affordable housing and they won't be able to afford the free-market price. No one is talking about their distress. These are the problems facing the middle class – people talk for them but not about them."

Lebi: "I didn't expect anything from the government so I wasn't disappointed. My disappointment, which is also our failure, stems from the fact that we are focusing our attention on a handful of greedy families. We stand by all the small and middle-sized businesses - we are for them. Small and mid-size businesses, and perhaps even bigger ones that are not part of cartels or monopolies, must make use of us as consumers."

Alrov refuses to accept that Israelis have simply lost interest in the protest and that it has lost steam. "The reason 400,000 people aren't taking to the streets at the moment is that a few bad apples have done tremendous damage by breaking windows, which marked a turning point in the protest. Those same 400,000 people would be glad to return to the streets; those same 400,000 people are still collapsing under the burden of the cost of living. They are voting with their feet, with their money, with their ability to bring about change, but they are afraid to take to the streets because of violent vandals who harmed the social revolution."

Alrov goes on to describe the various groups that comprise the social justice protest movement: "No one is stealing the protest from anyone else. The common denominator of all the protests is love of the state, love of the country, the connection to the place where we grew up and the ways in which we can preserve it for a better future. There are lots of ways and there are lots of groups, each of which thinks differently. Our focus is the cost of living."

Lebi goes one step further: "There are some problematic elements here. Take the students, for example. The protest began last summer: The cottage cheese protest ushered in the tent protest and then along come the students and say this is a just protest, let's join it. They make a fuss about the high cost of living but suddenly they turn their attention elsewhere and the cost of living is no longer the focus. Suddenly all the problems have been solved and we have to tackle issues such as contract workers, sharing the burden equally, the state budget. These are all important problems but they aren't the main ones. These aren't the problems that brought 400,000 people to the streets. People made a sudden leap to politics. Anyone who was at the Histadrut labor federation demonstrations with Stav Shaffir saw this clearly.

"There was a whiff of a specific kind of political party in the air. The Histadrut and social justice? Come on. Can (Histadrut chairman) Ofer Eini, who represents the strong and fat labor unions, preach to us about social justice? We are an apolitical protest. We have specific aims. The cost of living, incidentally, also includes the issue of integrating ultra-Orthodox men into the workforce. This too is part of the struggle. But first we have to achieve our goals."

Alrov: "I'm not the Student Union spokesman and I don't think the cost of living protest has a right to align itself with one organization or another. If the student union alone were leading the protest, we would be in big trouble today because at the moment they are dealing with other issues."

Of Stav Shaffir, who was absent from the social demonstration on Saturday night, Alrov says: "We aren't under the same apolitical umbrella today. She is using the problem of the cost of living to unite people, to gather electoral strength and to divert it to discussions that in my opinion are very radical and are harming the struggle. She represents a particular agenda and represents a small part of the population. The middle class, the weaker strata, the people in whose name we are speaking - the secular, the ultra-Orthodox, the Arabs, the Jews, the immigrants and the veterans - they can't all come under Stav's umbrella. Now Daphni [Leef] is talking about the cost of living. I think she understands that the cost of living is what needs to be the focus."

Have the protest leaders disappeared?

"The moment we talk about the problem of the cost of living, we have a majority behind us. The people who are talking about the cost of living are my leaders. Other people are leaders for other issues."

For the past year Alrov has been living with his wife and daughter in Bnei Brak. He refuses to elaborate on how he supports himself but he says his commitment to the protest has severely damaged his ability to earn a living. During the past year he has rejected political, business and philanthropic offers, even like the one offered to his peer, student union leader Itzik Shmuli.

"[Tycoon] Nochi Dankner didn't stand a chance," says Lebi. "We were at a meeting with Dankner. Alrov was at two meetings with him and there was also a meeting with the heads of Supersol - they understood with whom they were dealing. They wanted to offer us a nice deal that we could have presented as an achievement to the public, including a list of products whose prices would be reduced for two years, and that was just the start of negotiations. But when we realized that they were leaning toward short-term fixes, cosmetic changes, we made it clear that we wouldn’t compromise. Today, when you read their annual reports, it's obvious the consumers' protest had an impact on their revenues. They understand that their situation would be different had they instituted changes long ago. However, it's also painful for us, because at the end of the day their losses are tied to the public's pensions."

"We can't pat ourselves on the back," says Alrov. "Prices are still high and what we did is only one step out of a hundred. On Saturday I watched my daughter playing with Lego: She simply took all the pieces she had and put one on top of another. At a certain stage it all collapsed. I said to my wife, 'Look, this is what is happening to the protest.' You start piling all the economic problems on top of each other and in the end everything collapses and we all lose. But when we focus [on one thing] we can build. Last year we didn't set clear goals for what we want -- for example a 30 percent reduction in housing and food prices. The moment the protest's slogan turned into 'the people demand all kinds of things,' then the tower falls. Am I still optimistic? Yes. Because when the problem is present, so are the people."

Lebi: "We feel like the Maccabees, taking on the most pwoerful forces in the economy, the ones with the influence, the political backing, the money. But the one thing that makes us stronger than them is that we represent the voice of the public. Nothing else matters."