In the summer of 2011, “the cottage cheese protest” began In Israel. Israelis had enough with the rising costs of living, and demanded to return the possibility to live in dignity – starting with cottage cheese. This demand is certainly still out there for the government to handle, and there is no doubt that some of the responsibility to lower the costs of living is on the government, but Israeli citizens should not be passive. We can reduce the costs of living, while having a more fair and sustainable economic system even today.
“The pepper protest”, which started several months ago, is a yet another great example of these issues. The protest was initiated by a farmer from the Arava region in the south of Israel who was forced to throw away perfectly good peppers in order to keep high market-price.
Many feel that the Israeli retail market is unfair. It is unfair for the farmers and the producers who receive a ridiculous payment for their products and many times get overridden by big conglomerates. It is unfair for the suppliers, who have to work under non-reasonable payment conditions, and sometimes receive their money only a whole year after supplying the products. It is unfair for the supermarket workers, who are forced to work long hours in minimum wage, sometimes with no social rights. And, it is unfair for the consumers, who are compelled to pay high prices for a limited selection of products. Such an unfair system undermines the basics of Judaism, which compel us to “Follow justice and justice alone, so that you may live and possess the land the Lord your God is giving you.” (Deuteronomy 16:20)
Most of us in Israel feel this unfairness as the consumers. Therefore, from time to time there are consumer protests (such as the previous “cottage cheese protest” and the current “Pepper Protest”) that aim to drop the prices. Those protests, however, are easy to handle - the supermarkets simply reduce the price of some products, and raise the price of others. As long as we keep seeing ourselves as consumers, we will continue to be prisoners of this unfair system. The solution must come from the point where we stop viewing ourselves as consumers and start seeing ourselves as human beings. Only then, can we devote ourselves to the struggle of the producers, the suppliers, and the supermarket workers, and create a true, fair alternative to the current system.
This got a group of young Israelis thinking. They wanted to create a new opportunity: farmers and consumers create markets or other opportunities around the country in which farmers would sell directly to the consumers. The farmers and the consumers cooperate and create a system that obviates the suppliers and the supermarkets, who usually mediate the producers and the consumers, while taking a big piece of the pie for themselves.
I am proud to create such a solution in the form of a food cooperative “Ha’Be-er ” (translated: the well) in Beer -Sheva. A cooperative is a shared economic structure that is open for everyone who accepts the cooperative principles to join. The food cooperative was initiated by “Siach” (translated: bush/conversation) community. The community is a group of 12 young people who chose to live and work together in a geographic and social periphery. The food cooperative was recently opened in Beer-Sheva.
The cooperative is like a small shop, with the clients also being owners as well. The cooperative purchases products from local farmers and producers and is operated by its members. Thus, the consumers are ensured quality products for a fair price (since the consumers are the owners, no one has any motivation to raise the prices), while making sure those products reached them in a fair way, with everyone getting a fair payment for their work.
The “pepper protest” is a great example of that- both sides are profiting by selling directly from the farmer to the consumer- the farmer gets his payment directly, and making a greater profit for each pepper compared to what he would’ve get had he sold it to the supermarket. The consumer, on the other hand, gets fresh, quality products for a lower price than what he or she would pay in the supermarket. Moreover, there is no exploitation of workers mediating between the farmers and the consumers.
The burden of the rising costs of living is a single symptom of an economic system that’s falling apart, a system that benefits very few people, with the majority expected to carry it on their backs. As long as we keep viewing ourselves as consumers, we keep serving the system. But if we unite - farmers, consumers, suppliers- people - we can create a true, sane alternative.
Tom Gordon is a member of “syiach” community and the coordinator of “habeer” food cooperative. The community and cooperative receive assistance and mentorship by “The Community Incubator”. The Community Incubator aims to create and strengthen young communities in the Negev, Galilee, and promote an active civil society, young leadership and high quality of life. The organization includes 24 communities located in underprivileged neighborhoods in urban areas. For more information please visit the website: www.kehilla.org.il