Is there a lesson in Israel’s bizarre bread boycott?
A couple of weeks ago, in the largely ultra-Orthodox city of Bnei Brak, former Israeli government minister Omer Bar-Lev took part in a protest against the current government’s judicial reforms and continuation of the mass exemptions from military service enjoyed by many in the ultra-Orthodox community. Spurred by a number of prominent politicians in the ruling coalition, reports quickly spread throughout Haredi Twitterverse and news outlets that Bar-Lev, who commanded the IDF’s elite Sayaret Matkal unit in the 1980s, had protested outside the home of Rabbi Gershon Edelstein. The 100-year-old rabbi is the spiritual leader of a leading ultra-Orthodox political party, and is considered by many to be the world’s preeminent living Torah scholar.
The outrage quickly turned on the company Omer Bar-Lev chairs: Angel Bakery.
United Torah Judaism MK Moshe Gafni even tweeted, among other things, that Angel’s kashrut should be questioned. A mass boycott of Angel was called, as leaders in the ultra-Orthodox community demanded that Bar-Lev and Angel apologize for offending the honor of a great Torah scholar.
Bar-Lev and Angel refused to comment.
About 10 days into the boycott, reports came out in the mainstream secular Israeli media celebrating Bar-Lev’s and Angel’s victory over the boycott: according to sources, not only had the boycott not negatively impacted Angel, but their profits had actually increased since the boycott went into effect.
A piece published in Ynet, Israel’s most popular news site, pointed to a number of factors that led to this “victory” by Angel, a company with a huge market share in the Haredi sector. The article mentioned how Angel donates “tens of thousands of loaves each month, distributed for free by the Jerusalem bakery on Fridays in ultra-Orthodox cities” – donations which apparently stopped once the boycott went into effect.
According to the report, the majority of Angel bread purchased by the ultra-Orthodox community is products that are price-controlled by the government – and consequently not particularly lucrative for Angel (or any other bakery that would fill in for them as a result of the boycott) anyway. Most Israeli bakeries’ “bread and butter,” so to speak, comes from the non-price-controlled baked goods they sell. Moreover, Angel is perhaps in an even better financial state than many of its competitors because of the recent sale of the massive plot of land on which its Jerusalem bakery used to stand — for NIS 430 million (nearly $120 million).
Ultra-Orthodox news outlets decried the Ynet article and others as a “secular celebration,” questioning the timing of the reports about Angel’s profits and the reliability of the figures on which they are based.
And yet the story almost immediately got even stranger when a leading ultra-Orthodox radio personality, with the help of someone impersonating current Likud Justice Minister Yariv Levin, got Omer Bar-Lev himself on the line and asked him about the controversial protest that led to the boycott.
“I didn’t stand across from the yeshiva head’s house, I didn’t say anything disparaging about the rabbi. It was an event in Bnei Brak, I didn’t say a word, not one of the other speakers said anything against the rabbi,” he said.
“The fact that a few tweeters and unfortunately Knesset members spoke as if it happened, it simply did not happen. The boycott came as a result of fake news published by some tweeters with an interest.”
The statements Bar-Lev made during his un-Orthodox radio appearance just might provide an “out” from this stalemate, one which – especially if Bar-Lev can be taken at his word – doesn’t seem to be grounded in factual events, nor overly serve anyone’s interests, except, perhaps, those of a handful of politicians.
Unfortunately, the bizarre Angel Bakery boycott story isn’t unique in Israel these days. There are other apparently zero-sum clashes based on false premises that serve the narrow interests of a small group of politicians instead of genuinely benefiting the public at large.