Global Policy Forum

The Burger They Love to Hate


By Eetta Prince-Gibson

Jerusalem Post
May 31, 2002

Six-year-old Ilanit Arbelli was very excited last week when the new McDonald's on Jerusalem's Rehov Emek Refaim, in the tony Germany Colony had just opened, and she was one of its first customers. Proudly, she stood in the crowded line.

Nervous teenagers in purple polo shirts and dark jeans stood behind the counter. "May I help someone?" each of them asked. Obviously a well-seasoned McDonald's shopper, Ilanit calmly placed her order - a children's Happy Meal - and pointed to the Toy Story 2 doll that she wanted to go along with it.

The restaurant has a seating capacity of approximately 100. It is decorated in soft, "Mediterranean" colors, and the floors are have been tiled in a "Jerusalem" style. On the walls, they have hung stylized, cartoon-like pictures of the way the German Colony must have looked once - in the days before McDonald's and other fast-food restaurants began moving into the area. The building, described in detail in David Kroyanker's definitive book on Jerusalem architecture, is known as the former home of Maria Dada, who apparently fled the country in 1948. Among its many architectural features, Dada's home was shaded by mashrabiya, an elegantly decorative weave of wooden slats. McDonald's has removed the mashrabiya, blocked the stone arches that graced the second floor, and pasted its own small yellow arches on the walls.

"No one seems to know who Maria Dada was," says neighborhood activist Rosalyn Gelcer. "But I know one thing: this beautiful building has always been a home. It was never a business, and certainly never a business like a McDonald's."

Gelcer spearheaded a local grass-roots campaign, known as "Residents Who Care About the Colonies" against this newest McDonald's branch, joined by a loose coalition that includes the Society for the Protection of Nature in Israel, the Movement for Quality in Government, the Sustainable Jerusalem Coalition, and several anti- globalization, animal rights, and Greens organizations. Over the past two years, she and her fellow activists have organized numerous activities and several public meetings against the restaurant, culminating in a petition with more than 5,000 signatures.

"McDonald's is planning to open a fast-food outlet in a two-floor building intended for residency, not business, at 44 Emek Refaim (with no parking)," the petition read. "We already have 27 restaurants/coffee bars, 7 take-aways, not to mention 5 grocery stores, 4 greengrocers, 3 wine shops, 2 butchers, 5 bakeries, and more, on Emek Refaim! The accompanying dirt, smell, noise, traffic congestion and parking problems which have plagued the local residents became so acute that we created a Neighborhood Action Committee. For almost two years we have been asking for city planning criteria and regulation, but the municipality has turned a deaf ear to our requests. The situation is intolerable. Let's say NO to any more restaurants - this time McDonald's!"

They said no, but the municipality, it turned out, continued to turn a deaf ear, and the restaurant opened. And no one from the municipality responded to this report, either.

"It's not that we're anti-McDonald's per se," she says. "And it's not that we're opposed to this restaurant because it is non-kosher. Personally, I wouldn't oppose a non-kosher McDonald's on a highway, even though I might not frequent it. But the people in this neighborhood are drowning in the congestion, there are too many smells and not enough air or planning. Our fight isn't with McDonald's, it's with the municipality that refuses to consider the unique and special character of our neighborhood or the needs of the residents."

Ami Greener's fight, on the other hand, certainly is with McDonald's - and all the other multi-national companies that it symbolizes. Greener, 28, who works for Green Course, a local ecological group, attended the anti- globalization demonstrations in Prague and Sweden, and was also involved in a loosely-bound group of students and activists that worked with Gelcer against the restaurant.

"McDonald's may not be the largest multinational in the world," he says, "but it's the most offensive. It gets into our lives, it's in our faces all the time, telling us what to eat, what to think, what to buy." Worse, he says, McDonald's targets small children like sweet Ilanit. "They get us hooked at a young age. That's the way these multinationals control us."

Adds Naama Harel, a member of Anonymous, the most active and vocal animal rights group, "McDonald's is a symbol of all that is wrong, of everything we oppose. It is the symbol of the meat industry."

Israelis, according to Harel, "legally abuse" - that is, eat - more than 300 million animals and fish every year. "McDonald's advertising entices people to eat more and more meat. Especially children. The cattle for those hamburgers are commercially raised, and mistreated, in the rainforests of southern America. So billions of animals have to die, and the rainforests are destroyed, just so that a big corporation like McDonald's can make even more money."

A symbol of all that is wrong, or right, with multinationals, it seems that no other corporation draws as much attention or fire as McDonald's. New York Times foreign affairs columnist Tom Friedman has coined the "Golden Arches Theory of Conflict Prevention," contending, as he writes in his best-seller, The Lexus and the Olive Tree, that "when a country reaches the level of economic development where it had a middle class big enough to support a McDonald's network, it became a McDonald's country. And people in McDonald's countries didn't like to fight wars anymore, they preferred to wait in line for burgers."

Similarly, some economists even use McDonald's to compare international currency values. The "Big Mac Index" uses the price of a McDonald's cheeseburger to assess whether a local currency is undervalued or overvalued.

But to others, McDonald's is the archvillian, the target for a host of environmentalists, animal rights activists, vegetarians, trade unionists, and enemies of capitalism. During the past six years, according to McDonald's own web-publications, McDonald's restaurants have been the targets of hundreds of violent protests, including bombings from Rome, Prague and London, to Macao, Rio de Janeiro, and Jakarta.

Like other mammoth, multi-national corporations, McDonald's sells a brand - that is, it sells homogeneity. It attracts customers with the comforting promise that wherever they roam, wherever on the globe they find themselves, no matter what cultural challenges they face, a Big Mac and fries will always look and taste the same.

Yet, despite the universal homogeneity of the food, the protests against and support for McDonald's in each country reveals much about the culture that McDonald's was supposedly trying to homogenize-out.

In India, protests focused on vegetarianism and non use of beef. In France, the opposition focused on a threatened loss of French culture (including the famous French culinary culture) and American cultural colonization. But in Russia, standing in line at McDonald's was a political statement for freedom and against Communist centrism and control.

In Israel, not surprisingly, the struggles for and against McDonald's reveal the social and political tensions between haredim and secular, between local patriotism and glocal activism and globalization, against the background of increasing free-market privatization and decreasing collective solidarity.

OMRI PADAN, McDonald's Israel franchisee, first announced that he was bringing McDonald's to Israel in November, 1992. Today, Padan operates 94 restaurant branches throughout the country.

Some of these are "theme restaurants," such as the cyber restaurant in Ra'anana, where giant computer screens advertise events and websites, children play games for free, and you can buy Microsoft (MSFT.0) software along with your McFries. In Ramat Hasharon, taking the more suburban ambiance into account, at least one McDonald's restaurant caters to teenagers, broadcasting MTV and other such fare together with its hamburgers. On Sderot Rothschild in Tel Aviv, large screens let the diners digest the latest stock values together with their french-fries.

McDonald's has also opened several restaurants in the Arab sector, where the menu is similar, but the language and logo style are in hip Arabic.

From the very beginning, and right on through to last week's opening in the German Colony, McDonald's in Israel has been controversial. (Neither Padan, nor any other McDonald's spokesperson, would speak to The Jerusalem Post for this article.)

Even before he opened his first restaurant, Padan had to cross a potato-hurdle. In February, 1993, Padan announced that since the specific strain of potato used by McDonald's is not grown in Israel, and, therefore, he would have to import frozen potatoes. In addition, due to the exacting style of cutting, these potatoes would also have to come pre-cut, because the facilities for processing them did not exist in Israel.

But the powerful agricultural lobby, Padan soon found out, was ready to take him on. The government, in an attempt to protect Taped, then the sole Israeli producer of frozen fries, and local potato growers, said no. It took the Ministries of Agriculture, and Industry and Trade to resolve the issue.

During the winter of 1994, when McDonald's opened a large restaurant at the Golani Junction, northeast of Afula, Padan's multi-national power had to confront local politics and sensitivities. The hamburger became embroiled in the local council election campaign, with the challengers claiming that the incumbent had approved the restaurant in order to further the economic interests of his relatives. And bereaved family members complained that the restaurant and its trademark Golden Arches desecrated and overshadowed the Golani Brigade Memorial Site. In deference to the families, McDonald's lowered the size of the arches.

Two years ago, the haredim battled McDonald's over its employment of Jewish minors during Shabbat. McDonald's has had to pay fines for violating the Shabbat laws, but, as a Saturday visit to any McDonald's branch will show, it continues to do so, apparently with impunity.

McDonald's can't escape the Israel-Palestinian conflict. For more than two years, a flyer, written in Hebrew, has been circling through web sites and faxes throughout Israel, informing readers that McDonald's in Saudi Arabia contributes, with international corporate approval, at least 30 cents of every meal to Palestinian children.

"Every penny spent at McDonald's ," the flyer warns, "is a net profit for the activities of the Palestinian terrorist networks against the State of Israel." And the flyer also warns its readers that in the past, Padan, a founding member of Peace Now, was an "extreme left-wing activist."

"That's the way to win tenders in McDonald's. Simply fight against the Zionist entity," the nameless and faceless campaign accuses.

The flyer, usually sent through unidentified and undetected sources, seems to come and go in waves. Each time, McDonald's Israel reissues a terse statement noting that the Saudi Arabian franchisee has contributed privately to hospitals for Palestinian children, while Padan has contributed and continues to contribute hundreds of thousands of shekels to Schneider Children's Hospital in Petah Tikva, and numerous organizations for the benefit of children with cancer and other diseases.

Last year, a McDonald's spokeswoman in Chicago confirmed that McDonald's would no longer run TV commercials starring singer Shaaban Abdel-Rehim, whose local fame came from a song entitled "I hate Israel." The spokeswoman denied that the decision was linked to complaints received from the American Jewish Committee.

Even the unstructured, often anarchistic anti- globalization movement has adopted much of the anti-Israel and anti-Semitic rhetoric that has pervaded the new world human rights culture, equating Israel, America's weaker surrogate, with American imperialism. Last year, French sheep farmer and anti-globalization activist Jose Bove, who first won fame after he wrecked a local McDonald's outlet in France, visited Israel and the Palestinian Authority, called for international protection for the Palestinian people, and accused Israel of committing crimes against the Palestinians.

BUT NOT surprisingly, it is in Jerusalem that McDonald's has faced its most severe culture wars.

Most recent is the struggle against McDonald's in the new central bus station. McDonald's had signed a contract with Natzba, the real estate company that owns the bus station, to open a branch at the new central bus station. Padan had agreed that the restaurant would be kosher - a market-smart move, considering that many of those who frequent the bus station are religious, and that the bus station is closed on Saturday, anyway.

But the local rabbinate refused to grant McDonald's a kashrut certificate, demanding that all of McDonald's Jerusalem branches, current and future, must be kosher in order for any one of them to receive rabbinic approval.

Shay Horovitz, one of the heads of Manoff, the Jewish Information Center, explains, "If some McDonald's are kosher, and others are not, then the haredi public is being misled. That is what the protest is about."

Leaders of the haredi community in Jerusalem threatened to boycott the entire bus station if the restaurant were to open, and Natzba reneged on their agreement with McDonald's. Undeterred, McDonald's took them to court and won the right to open the restaurant; the judge even ordered Natzba to compensate McDonald's NIS 100,000 trial expenses.

The restaurant opened, observing, McDonald's claims, kosher standards despite the absence of religious supervision or approval. The haredim may not eat there, but they aren't boycotting the bus station, either.

Like Gelcer, Horovitz insists that his struggle against McDonald's is communal, not global.

"Unlike the Muslims, the haredi community is not against cultural icons, or symbols. We're not against multi-nationals or logos per se. We may not go to these establishments, but we are not against them. And contrary to what the public may think, we're not even against opening treif (non-kosher) restaurants, although they are not in keeping with what we believe should be the Jewish character of the State of Israel.

"But the State of Israel," he continues, "has made a commitment to the public, promising that all public institutions should be kosher. It is the state's and the municipalities' responsibilities to guarantee that the Torah-observing public is not misled."

Horovitz does acknowledge that the haredim and McDonald's are engaged in a culture war.

"McDonald's, and businessmen like Omri Padan, represent a culture based on rights," he says. "They talk about their 'right' to open a restaurant, or about the 'rights' of the secular to eat non-kosher. Padan has even published large advertisements in the press, calling on political parties to refuse to give in to haredi coercion. But we, the haredi Jews, talk about responsibility. About commitment, about the relationships between individuals and institutions."

Anti-globalization activist Greener also speaks of responsibility and commitment, albeit from a different angle. For long months this winter, construction along Emek Refaim made parking, shopping, and strolling nearly impossible, and business slackened off. Many small enterprises, such as the once-popular sushi restaurant, simply couldn't hold out, and closed down.

"But McDonald's, supported by so much money, could hold out," says Greener. "They didn't even open during the construction, they just waited it out. They can always wait it out. They can take a loss, until they will be the only establishment left.

"We should be giving our money to local merchants, to people who live and work and contribute to our communities," Greener continues. "There's a small hamburger bar up the road. But stores like that can't stay open 24 hours a day, like McDonald's. They can't afford to lose their kosher license, and they can't open on Shabbat. But they have character, and they care about the local community. We have a responsibility to support them."

Anti-McDonald's activists contend that in many places, McDonald's, which does not allow unionizing, abuses the poor employees who manufacture or sell the products but don't benefit from them. But even Greener admits that in Israel, McDonald's abides by labor laws and treats its employees, especially the teenagers, well. And McDonald's has created local jobs in its food-processing and serving industry.

"But local establishments would provide jobs, too," says Greener. "And teach the young workers about community belonging and responsibility, as well as about local culture. That's what blue and white buying should mean."

EVEN if they have lost this battle against McDonald's, local activist Gelcer maintains that her group has won by building up the community organization and neighborhood spirit in ways which will serve them in the future.

But, in fact, McDonald's does seem to win most of its battles. Throughout the world, anti-McDonald's activists have had a few successes. The McLibel case is the most notable. In June, 1994, McDonald's UK charged two activists with the production of a "libelous" pamphlet against the chain. The two, who defended themselves, managed to keep McDonald's in court for more than two years, at significant cost and bad press. And they won the suit.

As McDonald's CEO Jack Greenberg said in an interview (titled "McAtlas Shrugged") in the May/June 2001 issue of Foreign Policy magazine, "During the four days of protests in Seattle against the World Trade Organization, there were anywhere from 1,000 to 2,000 people who trashed our stories and those of other companies. But during that time, 175 million people around the world visited McDonald's. So which figure is more representative...?

"In the absence of an 'ism' to hate, globalization is now the target. This kind of criticism is the price of our unique success. There is no other retailer, there is no other service business that touches so many people every day in such a personal way. And if you're going to have that kind of presence, you're going to have that kind of attention. We're in a world today where people focus a lot of pent-up frustration about a lot of issues on a single concept called globalization. In fact, globalization has become a shorthand way of describing frustration with a lot of circumstances that may have nothing to do with globalization. So McDonald's is a convenient target."

McDonald's, in other words, is merely serving as a punching bag for misguided frustrations. Greener, Harel, and other activitists argue that it deserves to be punched. But not Shlomit Arbelli, the mother of Ilanit, the little girl who so enjoyed eating at the Emek Refaim McDonald's on its opening day last week.

"Both my husband and I work," she says. "Sometimes, after working and then driving the kids, or going shopping, or running errands, we are too tired to prepare a meal. And when I bring Ilanit to McDonald's, I know that she will find the food that she likes, and she'll be happy. It's not great food, but it's filling."

Eating at McDonald's isn't an issue of principle, she insists. "Eating at McDonald's is a convenience. Nothing more, and nothing less. McDonald's to me isn't good or bad, it's there and I use it when I want to. So I'm glad they moved here to the German Colony - it's closer to home."

Greener insists that Arbelli has been "duped" by aggressive advertising, and has given in to the spreading culture of over-work.

"I'm not duped," retorts Arbelli. "I'm tired."

Local architect, Michael Abramson, believes that the McDonald's actually improves the "culture" of the neighborhood. He's worried about the parking problem, but he's "pleased that there'll be more establishments open on Shabbat. This is the secular outpost in Jerusalem, and a non-kosher, open-on-Shabbat McDonald's will make it feel even more secular. And that's good."

Meanwhile, chomping away, Ilanit couldn't care less about all these issues. She wants to buy another Happy Meal. Ilanit's not really hungry, she admits, but really wants the Betty Spaghetti doll that comes with the meal.

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FAIR USE NOTICE: This page contains copyrighted material the use of which has not been specifically authorized by the copyright owner. Global Policy Forum distributes this material without profit to those who have expressed a prior interest in receiving the included information for research and educational purposes. We believe this constitutes a fair use of any such copyrighted material as provided for in 17 U.S.C § 107. If you wish to use copyrighted material from this site for purposes of your own that go beyond fair use, you must obtain permission from the copyright owner.