Israel’s Cottage Cheese Uprising

You’ve heard all about the Arab protests, and maybe even about the Spanish and Greek ones. But have you heard about the Israeli one?

Like the Egyptian protests, the Israeli one began in reaction to a spike in food prices. Six weeks ago, in reaction to a planned cottage-cheese price hike by the dairy cartel Tnuva, a mob threw empty cheese containers at Likud party headquarters.

A couple weeks later the protesters set up a tent city in downtown Tel Aviv and expanded their complaints to encompass Israel’s high housing and commodity prices, neglected infrastructure, and subsidies to West Bank settlers and ultra-Orthodox Jews. One tent dweller flew a sign reading, “I bought my cottage cheese, now all I need is a fridge and an apartment.”

Like recent revolts and attempted revolts around the world, the Israeli protests were organized largely through Facebook and largely involve the young and the middle-class. Only 400 people are actually camping along Rothschild Boulevard, the main drag in Tel Aviv, but last Saturday 150,000 joined them in marches throughout the country. Those present spanned several Israeli spectra—Jew to Arab, secular to religious, left wing to right wing. Since they represent the Israeli bourgeois and are not poor nor Palestinian, the police cannot just beat them into submission. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu fears them; he canceled an international trip to speak to their concerns.

Bank of Israel governor Stanley Fisher said that Israel, whose unemployment rate is only 5.7 per cent, hasn’t had such good economic conditions in 40 years, and acted perplexed at the protesters. A group of Likud legislators dismissed them as “sushi-eaters.” According to a Ha’aretz poll, though, 87 per cent of their countrymen share the protesters’ fury over housing prices, which have doubled in the last twenty years. Rents in Tel Aviv are up 25 per cent in the last two years. This trend has been driven in part by rich American and European Jews buying apartments in Tel Aviv and Jerusalem and only living in them occasionally. Meanwhile, the Israeli welfare state has gradually eroded. Among developed nations, income disparity in Israel is second only to that of America. Traffic in Tel Aviv runs thick and there’s no subway system, discouraging suburban flight. Gas costs the equivalent of $8 a gallon.

The protests were not well covered by the international press at first because journalists assumed no one was interested in Israeli news unless it involved war. “Nothing is going on,” Jerusalem foreign correspondent Reina BenHabib told the Global Post when asked about the protests. “At least, nothing anyone is interested in.”

News outlets began to pick up on the story early this week. The authors of a Monday op-ed in The New York Times suggested that Netanyahu’s best hope for neutralizing the protests was an Israeli skirmish with the Arabs.

Cottage is the most sentimentally-valuable cheese in Israel. According to Business Week, the country consumes $440 million worth of it each year.

On Wednesday evening 5,000 dairy farmers marched in Tel Aviv to protest government plans to lower its price.

Nathaniel Page is a writer who lives in Brooklyn.