Forget Pudding Prices: Israelis Have Shattered a Great Taboo

Yitzhak Rabin once called Israelis who left the country ‘a cascade of wimps.’ He’s probably turning in his grave.

Anshel Pfeffer
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Protesters rally in Berlin against anti-Semitism on September 14, 2014.
Israeli emigration. It's not what it used to be. Credit: Reuters
Anshel Pfeffer

The furor in recent days over the price of a packaged chocolate pudding has quickly died out. Don’t expect another wave of social protests — Israelis are too busy breaking taboos about emigration.

Surprisingly enough, the Milky protest originated outside the country. On Facebook, a 25-year-old former army officer posted a photograph of his weekly food-shopping haul in Berlin. He noted that a German equivalent cost him 60 percent less than Milky would in Israel. Cue another round of media and online debate over why prices in Israel are so much higher than in most of the West.

Again, these weren’t vacation pictures. This anonymous Israeli had moved with his family to the German capital and was posting on a page called Olim le’Berlin — literally, making aliyah to Berlin. He was encouraging other young Israelis to follow his example and emigrate.

“The moment that broke me in Israel wasn’t during miluim [military reserve service], a rocket attack or a threatening letter from a bank,” he wrote. “It was an ostensibly simple moment: I realized I was hesitating to buy a four pack of Milky for my children and thinking maybe that day I wouldn’t. Here [in Berlin] I never hesitate about buying food at the supermarket.”

In subsequent interviews he said it took a quarter-million Israelis leaving the country to shock the politicians into doing something.

Of course, there’s nothing new about the Israeli media bewailing the emigration of young people, but usually the tone of the debate is a little higher. Exactly a year ago there was a similar wave, but the trigger was the awarding of the Nobel Prize in Chemistry to two Israelis who have been living and working in California for decades.

The brain drain of brilliant academics forced overseas by a lack of research grants and tenured positions at Israeli universities is one thing, ordinary Israelis moving to Germany in search of cheaper pudding is another. Or so it may have seemed until this month.

Our man in Berlin is obviously anguished by his decision to emigrate. In interviews he has said he’s still a Zionist who loves his country; that’s why he feels the need to publicly explain a decision that in any other Western society is perfectly normal. After all, if young people feel they can lead a comfortable life in a new country, why shouldn’t they?

But this isn’t a normal society. Long Israeli emigrants were described by Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin as a cascade of wimps," they had to bear the stigma of being yordim (literally, those going downward, the opposite of olim). And of course, if one destination was considered particularly shameful, it was Germany.

But here’s the surprising development of October 2014: There’s no need to feel ashamed any longer. If the response in both the mainstream media and social networks is anything to go by, most Israelis seem to accept the choice of an estimated 10,000 Israelis to live in Berlin.

Not only was the viral Facebook post greeted with equanimity, it was followed by hundreds of similar postings by Israelis, complaining about outrageous price disparities. And though just about every Israeli news organization dedicated time and space to the Berlin issue, there was barely a word of disapproval.

Perhaps the most surprising stamp of approval came from the man who has for years portrayed himself as the arbiter of Israeliness, Finance Minister Yair Lapid, who as a talk show host would end every interview with the question: "What is Israeli in your eyes?”

Exactly a year ago, Lapid wrote on his own Facebook page, following a series on Channel 10 news on emigration from Israel, that he was “a bit impatient with people who are willing to throw the only state the Jews have into the garbage.”

Well, at least some of the criticism of Lapid’s alleged lack of connection with middle-class Israel seems to have punctured his bubble. In recent interviews, Lapid seemed to have totally changed his views when asked about the Milky protest. “The hevrei are right,” he said, using a light-hearted Hebrew term for “guys.” And he promised that the ministry would do more to control food prices.

There wasn’t a word of criticism about people allegedly throwing their country in the garbage for convenience. And if Lapid, who prides himself on being perfectly attuned to the common Israeli, got the message, then something really has changed.

Social protests don’t break out in Israel during the long fall holiday period, and sure enough, the Milky scandal petered out after a couple of news cycles. It left behind the carcass of a sacred cow that Israelis are quietly letting decompose.

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