“Boycotts, Divestment, Sanctions.” It’s the most recent assault in the Palestinians’ propaganda jihad on Israel, another tool in their ever-expanding arsenal. Boycott Israel, divest from companies friendly to it, and levy sanctions on the State. They hope to thereby accomplish what they couldn’t with bombs. This strategy has failed miserably so far (unless you consider The Pixies more relevant than Madonna) and that’s a good thing. Because, for all of its flaws, Israel is the one island of stability and tolerance in the Middle East; the one place where you can be different and safe; the one place that is safe because it is so different. It should be supported, invested in and celebrated by those who claim to speak for human rights. But I digress.
If you’ve been reading my posts, I owe you details regarding what I think is the best way for Israel to regain some economic sanity. As I wrote here last and everyone knows, Israelis are being crushed by the combined forces of self-serving politics and the choke-hold of piggish and undeserving “tycoons.” The widespread frustration of Israelis is matched only by an equally pervasive sense of resignation. And indeed, last summer’s massive protests against the prevailing economic order accomplished precious little in terms of tangible results.
As I see it, the protests failed because: (1) The organizers did not present the government with a concise list of demands, so the whole thing devolved into empty sloganeering. (2) More importantly, the protests (which were as menacing to the power holders as a petting zoo, what with the concerts and balloons and all) instilled no enduring urgency to act in either the politicians or the “tycoons.” Beyond showing how profoundly decent Israelis are –- half a million people came out to vent and nary a window was scratched -– the protests underlined one inescapable if unfortunate fact: masters of PR, the Israelis are not.
The Palestinians may have something to teach us here. If they can do anything it is to direct obsessive, single-minded attention to their cause. And boycotts, divestment and sanctions may be just the method we need to fix this economy.
Boycott: Operation Walk a Few Blocks
Something that did get the big players’ attention last summer was the cottage cheese boycott. The boycott –- a brainchild of Itzik Elrov -– showed that, despite conventional wisdom to the contrary, the average consumer really does have a hold on the balance of economic power in this country. By encouraging the public to refrain from purchasing cottage cheese for a month, Elrov and his Facebook-based associates made the big food giants flinch and, in some cases, admit to wrongdoing.
But it didn’t last. They called our bluff. What was pried loose from their sinewy left claw was just as quickly snatched up by the right one. No sooner had we driven the cottage cheese prices down than the price of other dairy products shot up. And while some supermarket chains announced that they would immediately lower the price of basic commodities by 10% (begging the question of why they even have such immediate freedom for largesse when people are suffering), today the price of basic goods like fruit and vegetables has gone up, in some cases drastically.
Bottom line: those running the supermarket chains and food conglomerates are unreformed greed addicts. They will always exploit our good faith and aversion to more hassle. They cannot change, at least not of their own will.
Solution: Bring down the supermarkets.
Let’s not boycott a specific item. That approach can be punitive to the consumer, requiring us to go without a staple for a long time. Under the constant strain of everyday life, there will inevitably be “once won’t make a difference” moments. In addition, those driving the prices sky high have shown that they will revert to their old methods when we’ve stopped looking. And the goal shouldn’t be to merely compel some temporary charity on their part. The goal is an economy befitting a First-World democracy, one that serves its people and is nourished by merit, not an economy that only benefits an undeserving cartel while enslaving the rest of us. And for that, heads must roll.
Let’s boycott one supermarket chain at a time and on short notice, for six to eight consecutive weeks, with the goal of driving it to bankruptcy or at least to utter financial panic. After those six to eight weeks, we move on to another chain. To maximize effectiveness we should, in parallel, boycott one big food conglomerate. (This too has already been tried with Tnuva to great effect, although far too briefly.) For example, round one: Mega and Tnuva; next, Shufersal and Telma; next, Hatzi Hinam and Strauss. That way, the kids can have the snacks they’re used to, the establishment will get a long-overdue slap in the face from the hand that feeds it, and all it will cost us is the minor discomfort of shopping at the closest competing store instead of the one we usually frequent. This should be easy in a country where people will drive three hours to buy stuff they don’t need every Friday.
Ideally we would drive them into the ground, force liquidation and have the ensuing shrapnel compete for our patronage. This is how enduring prosperity is created: a truly free and open market where the consumer is king. And let’s be clear: these retail chains have forfeited by their abuses the right to continue profiting from us. But I don’t think it will ever go as far as bankruptcy. The defining mark of a bully is fear. And last summer, the big players — under the strain of a very limited boycott — showed their true stripes to be yellow; not blue and white. They’ll fold long before the eight weeks are up. Which is not to say that we should too.
Divestment: Operation Jewish Mother
In principle, the boycotts should cause a lack of confidence in the supermarket chain and/or conglomerate being boycotted. Naturally, some investors will have jitters and try to pull out their money. This is not enough.
Myopic and excessive profiteering have no place in an economy not rich in competitive alternatives, and even less so in a Zionist state built on a foundation of (past) solidarity. We should therefore create massive public stigma at the dereliction of Zionist duty and basic decency that is this economy in order to catalyze a principled exodus of capital from those groups that own the oppressive giants.
Let’s put Jewish guilt to work for everyone, not just shrinks.
And while we’re at it, we must compel pension funds –- those holding massive amounts of our own money –- to divest from companies that rob the public. This is our economic right and we need to exercise it.
Sanctions: Operation Round ‘Em Up
The final prong of the BDS trifecta, and admittedly a more complex one to implement, should be a campaign of public pressure (with attendant boycott of major political parties and their primaries) to demand that the leading executives of the major food conglomerates and the tycoons be immediately investigated for past and present abuses of public trust. If, as is expected, any evidence of collusion and anti-competitive practices is found, the culprits should be made examples of. I would like to see anybody who bled the Israeli consumer in order to make a superfluous buck go to jail and be disgorged of all past earnings, with interest. A dirty jail with deviants, bad plumbing and a seriously overpriced canteen. Not only do they deserve it (hell, I consider fleecing the Israeli consumer to be outright treason); the deterrent effect of this strategy will be vital.
And for good measure, we need to investigate all career officials, politicians and bureaucrats whose lifestyles are mysteriously more suited to hedge-fund managers. If Katsav belongs in jail, these crooks do too.
This may sound all too unlikely in a system we’ve come to believe cannot be changed. How do we compel the politicians to investigate themselves and their big backers? How do we make them move against their own interests?
Well, change the equation.
The mark of a politician is the worship of short-term, immediate self-interest. That means, more than anything, votes and influence. And votes are the one asset that we the people own, no matter how the beholden press might try to buttress the corrupt. We need to make it clear that putting an end to the endemic abuse of the consumer is a game-changing election issue from now on.
It is time for Israel’s democracy to mature, and that means elections based on more than a single issue, even if that issue is the very real and pressing issue of security. In any case, all of our lazy politicians seem to share the same unimaginative vision for our security. So it doesn’t really matter for whom we vote on that front. Let them make us physically and financially safe for a change. That is not too much to ask in exchange for the NIS 37,000 a month plus benefits that we pay the average MK, is it?
The stakes are high. If we cut and run, we will have shown the anger of the Israeli citizen –- and Israeli democracy -– to be a bluff. We will have shown ourselves to be incapable of demanding respect. We will have let them get away with it for good. And we will have no one to blame but ourselves.
But Israelis are the children of those who walked here on foot from Russia, Ethiopia, Yemen and Morocco. Israelis are the children of those who drained malarial swamps with one hand and made watermelons grow in the desert with the other. Israelis are those who resurrected a dead language into poetry and voice-recognition software.
What? We can’t walk a few extra blocks to the other supermarket until Pesach?