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Tnuva’s Cottage Cheese

Tnuva’s Cottage Cheese | Monopoly

Imagine – just for a short minute, I don’t want to torture you – that you live in Tel Aviv, Haifa, or any other Zionist stronghold. What would you be worried about by mid 2011? Most non-Israelis would probably say Arab Spring. Mubarak is in exile, Assad is wobbling. Turkey is searching new pastures. Would the protests in Bahrain awaken Saudi Arabians? Would Palestine declare independence this September? How would the accelerating decline of America influence Israel?

Others would put the emphasis on economic issues. Mortgage rates, American dollar exchange rate, the Tel Aviv Stock Exchange, corrupt politicians robbing the people. Others would look at social issues, the racism and systematic discrimination by the state, the ongoing violation of human rights, the lack of religious freedom. Maybe one in a million would wonder why the Ben Gurion International Airport still doesn’t have boarding sleeves.

All those guessing any of the abovementioned topics – or similar ones - is reasonably well informed; yet, this week everything became secondary to a major disaster: the price of cottage cheese.

Even a short stay in Israel is enough to recognize the importance of cottage cheese in the local cuisine. As hummus and olive oil, olives and tomatoes, cottage cheese is ubiquitous. Fat or light, salty or flavored, in the salad or straight out of the cheap plastic bowl, cottage cheese is beloved. Unexpectedly, it became a major news topic; unbelievably, it fits the topics often reviewed by me.

In Israel, Strauss is not related to waltzes, but to the dairy industry. Together with Tnuva and Tara, Strauss forms the oligopoly ruling the dairy and related industries. For once, the Israeli administration agrees with my assessment. The Israel Antitrust Authority has defined Tnuva as a monopoly in the dairy industry since it controls 70% of this market. The dairy, deserts, snacks, chocolate and coffee sections of a large supermarket in Tel Aviv may display hundreds of these products, but practically all of them would be produced – or imported - by one of these three companies.

It reads almost as the story of the state. Tnuva is a cooperative which was founded by the kibbutzim in 1926, which still make up for much of its members. The kibbutz described in The Cross of Bethlehem worked exclusively with Tnuva. It sold all its milk to this company and bought dairy products exclusively from it. Only after I left the kibbutz and reached Tel Aviv, I tasted for the first time Strauss and Tara products. In 1933, Strauss was founded by Germans in Nahariya, and became the urban competitor of Tnuva, mainly due to a successful line of desserts. Finally, Tara – the smallest of the three – was founded in 1942 by farmers in the Tel Aviv area. Over time they diversified and they cannot be treated anymore as belonging exclusively to the dairy industry (for example, Strauss offers also hummus), but the dairy products in Israel are controlled by them.

Also the unofficial part of the story reads like the story of the state. In The Cross of Bethlehem I described the oligopoly in the chemical industry, including a close-up on how an annual deal between Dow Chemical and Gadot Chemicals - at the very top of the market’s rarified stratosphere - took place. After all, the Israeli market behaves like a cooperative of oligopolies; the picture in the chemical industry is a mirror image of the dairy industry, which copies the fertilizers business and so on and on ad nauseum. Invariably, you’ll find a member of one of the chosen families at the very top of any of these industries, making sure everything fulfills the rules of nepotism and Pharisaism.

However, the event on the news this week is remarkable. Cottage cheese amount to almost 30% of the cheeses sold in Israel (and cheeses already are a major ingredient in the local diet). Thus its price being raised time and again by the oligopoly (each company in a different day and with slightly different prices for the final products, despite the obvious different production costs of each) caused mayhem. Eventually, the price crossed the line of two dollars per small bowl (the 250 grams one; there are many sub-categories, I won’t expand on that here), twice as much as similar products in the US and Europe. I left Israel on this day (June 21), nine years ago; at the time, the same cottage bowl cost roughly one dollar. It’s too expensive for the vast majority of the public in a country where 80% of the people earn below the average salary and the last is not enough for paying mortgage and eating on the same month. More often than not, Israelis are apathetic and unable to answer the institutional violations committed against them; this time – maybe due to the apparent irrelevance of the topic, the public rebelled. A consumer’s boycott was placed. It became so successful that the trio of companies is asking from the government to create an impartial (yes, sure) committee to rule what is the just price for the cottage cheese.

Forget the Arab Spring; get tuned for the Israeli Spring. No racist, discriminating, violating regime ever lasted. It doesn’t matter if the trigger would be cottage cheese, police violence or freedom of religion; the Israeli Administration in its actual form, won’t last.

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