Say (cottage) cheese and smile

Call it the cottage cheese revolution. The protest movement that has convulsed Israel these past few months began with a Facebook campaign to lower the price of the white stuff. Furious at being overcharged, Israelis stopped buying this staple of the national diet - forcing the dairy companies to slash the price.

Only in Israel, you might joke, could a social movement be unleashed by a row over cottage cheese. Indeed, a smile seems the right response to what played out on the streets of Tel Aviv, Jerusalem and beyond over the summer - though not one of amusement, but rather one of pride.

The tent protests that pitched first on Rothschild Boulevard and spread - bringing together young and old, religious and secular in a unity usually felt only in wartime - culminated in a Saturday-night demonstration of some 460,000 people. The number is staggering: seven per cent of the entire Israeli population, equivalent to bringing 4.2m people on to the streets of Britain.

They did not riot. They did not steal flat-screen TVs or trainers. The police did not kettle them. Instead, the people of Israel came together to declare that they were not alone. Until that moment, one activist explained, those Israelis who - despite working hard, doing their national service and playing by the rules - were still struggling to make ends meet, felt it was their own, individual fault. They thought it had to be some personal failing that meant they needed to work two jobs or could not afford to buy their own home. In the summer of 2011, they discovered that "it's not just me". The result was a reassertion that Israel is not - or at least does not want to be - a mere collection of atomised individuals, but a society. And that declaration still reverberates, the latest expression being a "Thousand Tables" event, which saw Israelis sitting at round tables, 10 at each one, in a public square, thrashing out the issues that face their country.

For everyone bound up with Israel, this should be a source of pride

For all those who feel bound up with Israel, this should be a source of pride - but especially so for those on the left. Who would have predicted that the largest, most popular anti-capitalist movement in the world would have emerged in Israel? Some will recoil from that description but, when the protesters' demands include the break-up of the cartels and quasi-monopolies, lower prices, fairer taxation aimed at narrowing the gap between the super-rich and everyone else and restoring the social safety net, then a protest against the excesses of turbo-capitalism is exactly what this is.

And yet the international left has been strangely muted in its applause for this Israeli movement. Some will say that's because the left can never bring itself to see any good in the country. But the more direct explanation relates to a debate that took place among the protesters themselves: were they ignoring the "elephant in the room", namely, Israel's treatment of the Palestinians and the 44-year long occupation?

For some, any Israeli call for social justice is rendered hollow if it does not centre on that great injustice. I understand that view but I don't share it.

For one thing, the protesters broke through because they assembled and maintained the largest possible coalition of support. That would have broken down if they had focused on the occupation, which is - to put it mildly- divisive.

Second, to say the protests mean nothing if they don't address the conflict is to invert the old refrain of the right - who always insisted that "social issues" would have to wait till peace, that domestic concerns always had to come second to security. For too long, that has been an excuse for inaction. But it has also effectively given Israel's enemies the power of veto over the country's future. The left should not collude in that.

What's more, progress domestically might even lead to change externally. The direct route would be if cash-strapped Israelis decided that there are better uses for their hard-earned taxes than continuing to funnel billions into the settlements. This new movement might persuade Israelis that their money is better spent inside Israel proper than on the West Bank.

But it also might work more subtly. One Israeli told me that what the summer revealed is that, "We've forgotten who we are and what we're doing here, what kind of society we want to live in." In this season of idealism, it's not too much to hope that, once Israelis begin to answer those questions, they'll start looking at the conflict between themselves and their neighbours differently, too.

Jonathan Freedland is a Guardian columnist

    Last updated: 8:39am, September 16 2011