Year 5 to the Cottage Cheese Protest: Did It Work?

Five years after giant protests, Israelis are better off, though their self-appointed reps would like you to think otherwise.

Israelis holds-up banners as they march in the centre of the coastal city of Tel Aviv on July 30, 2011, to protest against rising housing prices and social inequalities in the Jewish state.
AFP

Five years ago this month, Bnei Brak resident Itzik Alrov kvetched on his Facebook page about the high price of cottage cheese. It went viral, and then the protest poured out into the streets.

Tent encampments were erected in city parks and on Tel Aviv’s ritzy Rothschild Boulevard. Informational meeting and stroller marches were held, and rallies were staged, peaking in September 2011, when 450,000 people gathered to protest in city squares around the country.

By that time, the protest wasn't just about cottage cheese, but about the high cost of living generally – for instance, housing, or why the secular middle class was carrying the burden of working, paying taxes and serving in the army.

Those were heady times. The Arab Spring was in full force, the Occupy Wall Street movement was about to coalesce in the U.S. and the 15-M anti-austerity movement in Spain was at its peak.

Just as suddenly, the protests evaporated. The September rally was the swan song of the movement; soon thereafter, the tent cities were taken down.

By the time the committee which Netanyahu had formed to a typically panicked response to the protests reported its recommendations, in late September 2011, the movement was dead. A few protest leaders (like Stav Shaffir) were springboarded into political careers; others, like Yair Lapid and Moshe Kahlon, even built political parties on the back of the middle class angst of the protestors.

But efforts to reignite the street protests repeatedly flopped.

Tal Cohen

Of course, cottage cheese was never the real issue. Like the Bastille of the French Revolution, which turned out held only a handful of prisoners, most of whom were criminally insane, the cheese was a more symbol than a real problem.

Cottage cheese is and was a staple of the Israeli diet, which means that the typical shopper is alert to every change in its price and becomes thoroughly resentful when it rises. But its impact on Israelis’ standard of living is fractional, to say the least.

What do protesters want?

Five years ago, when the protests began, the Israeli middle class was facing real, though by no means catastrophic, problems.

It was shrinking in size. Income inequality was growing, wages weren’t keeping up with the rising cost of living and cartels were engaged in price-gouging. On the upside, though, Israelis didn’t feel the impact of the deep recession occurring in the U.S. and Europe. For all its faults, Israel must have been doing something right at a time when American banks were going under, homes were being foreclosed on and unemployment was soaring.

Did the protesters get what they want? That’s kind of hard to say because most of them didn’t quite know what they wanted to begin with, and were certainly in no position to offer policy prescriptions if they did.

What they definitely got was a wave of populist demagoguery that insisted it was speaking in their name. The protests’ self-appointed leaders, a herd of nongovernment organizations, a gaggle of the social media, the headline-grabbing mainstream media and attention-seeking politicians represent themselves as the voice of the “public.” They scrutinize every official and every piece of legislation for any signs of selling out to special interest, expose allegedly nefarious relations between big business and big politics and taunt tycoons, big business and Netanyahu.

Israelis camp on Rothschild Boulevard in protest of high housing prices, Tel Aviv, Israel, August 10, 2011.
Liron Almos, Flash 90 / JTA

Israelis are suffering and it is only going to get worse, they say.

Somebody isn't listening

Is this populism really vox populi? Most certainly not. The people get their unmediated chance to speak when they vote. Strangely enough, they have returned Netanyahu to office twice since the social-justice protests. They also lifted Lapid and Kahlon to power, but neither has won more than 15% of the vote.

In any case, their agendas don’t involve shaking up the system as the populists often aspire to do; at most they aspire to politically middle-of-the-road tinkering with cellphone rates, housing prices and banking reform.

When TheMarker asked Israelis a few weeks back what they thought of their personal economic situation, 59.1% described it as satisfactory or very satisfactory. That was up from 52.7% in 2013.

The average person getting a phone call from a pollster may not have a clue about banking policy or how Israel should respond to the French peace initiative, but he certainly knows whether he has enough money for the things in life he wants.

A few may be too embarrassed to answer they are struggling. Far more are likely to say their situation is worse than it is. After all, kvetching  is the national pastime, especially when it comes to business and money.

Tnuva cottage cheese on display in a minimarket fridge.
Tali Mayer

Five years ago, the average middle class Israeli might have been excited about joining the parade of mothers with strollers, or attending a big rally where all their friends were going to be. But nowadays, they may complain, but they really think things are fine.

One reason is that the government has taken steps to make the life of the average Israeli easier. Cellphone rates have plummeted, as have airfares, thanks to government initiatives. The tycoons who once held sway over the economy have fallen victim to their own business ineptitude and face a deadline to divest much of what is left of their empires. 

These and scores of other tiny reforms, like raising the ceiling on duty-free personal imports, can be traced to policies that were undertaken in the more pro-consumer atmosphere that arose from the social-justice protests.

Mark you, the last five years have not seen Israel transform itself into a consumer paradise. The cost of living remains high relative to other developed economies and the price of housing has soared: It now takes an average of 146 monthly salaries to pay for a home, versus 130 when the protests erupted.

But real wages have risen 12% in the last five years, unemployment is at record lows even as more and more people are entering the workforce, inequality and poverty have been falling and food prices are falling. The economy these days is being sustained by a boom in consumer spending, although that often gets lost in headlines about how awful everything is.

Oh, and by the way, the price of cottage cheese is now 17% below what it was when Alrov’s Facebook protest lit the flames of rebellion.