What the Price of Pudding Reveals About Israelis' Fragile National Psyche

The war of words about Israeli emigration would be less emotional if we were to let go, for a moment, of all the excess baggage and think and speak like normal human beings.

Avraham Burg
Avraham Burg
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An Israeli protester wears an 'I love Berlin' T-shirt at a Tel Aviv rally.Credit: Tomer Appelbaum
Avraham Burg
Avraham Burg

How is it that a debate has sprung up all of a sudden where none existed before? Concepts invade our lives every so often: turbines, Milky pudding snacks, Daphni Leef, Iron Dome, Annapurna, centrifuges, Islamic State. Nobody knows where they were hiding before, and no one has the slightest idea where they disappear to afterward. But that is how things are here: Concepts come and go, thrust themselves into reality, survive for a few days or weeks and then vanish, making room for the next bit of excitement. Two of them have held sway over the past few weeks: the city and the snack. Milky pudding and Berlin have been the hottest words on the Internet recently.

That is what happens when history and hysteria meet at summer’s end. Yes, prices here are scandalously high because of the monopolistic tyranny of antiquated agencies — the agricultural lobby, the workers’ committees and Histadrut labor federation, the security junta and others like them — and also because of the prime minister’s and opposition leader’s lack of ability and desire to place life here at the top of their priorities. Coming out against housing prices is boring, while coming out against Arabs is exciting. Imagine Netanyahu at the UN podium with a caramel-flavored soy pudding snack or a non-GMO jar of Gerber baby food. That would probably not bring him more voters or improve his rating in the next poll. Better to speak of Islamic State. In the meantime, in parallel with the seasonal debates about the price of Milky pudding snacks and Berlin some other completely different content has entered the public discourse. On the face of it, people spoke about the high cost of living, the lack of hope and about choosing to move to Berlin, of all places. But from a deeper place sprung the old words aliyah – ascent, used to describe moving to Israel, and yerida – descent, used to describe leaving Israel, and people in the know recalled Yitzhak Rabin’s description of those who left Israel as “contemptible wimps.”

I like Berlin and I do not care for Milky pudding, so I listened with great interest to all the voices in this conversation. I spoke with my children and their friends and mine, and I believe what we are hearing are two parallel conversations. On one level, people are uttering nationalistic words expressing feelings that are big and binding, in the name of the Holocaust, the justness of our existence and evoking the army barracks tradition that “we do not break.” On another level, people are talking about something completely different: about life, the day-to-day, personal and individual choices and the meaning of life.

It is likely that this whole conversation would be less emotional if we were to let go, for a moment, of all the excess baggage and think and speak like normal human beings. For example: this place, Israel, is no higher than any other place on earth. Nor is it the lowest place on earth. Coming here is not an ascent, but an act of immigration. Leaving is not a descent, but a relocation. There is no difference between moving from Seattle to Copenhagen and moving from Afula to Bordeaux. People in our free and open world can do what is good for them. Each person can make his or her own calculations on the individual, family, financial and employment levels without carrying the Jewish people’s whole heritage and future, all the guilt feelings and fears of the Zionist movement on their shoulders, and without being accused right away of disgraceful betrayal of their tribe and its values.

And that is the beauty of living in freedom. That is the wonderful thing about normalcy. People are allowed to make proper decisions. They are allowed to ask questions such as “why” and “what if” and reach completely different conclusions from those of the collective. Leaving them will always be a sad thing, but no more sad than any other parting from a neighbor, friend or relative who moves to a different place in the world. That also goes for people who move here. Welcome! But realize that you are not the proof of the rightness of our existence or our raison d’etre. You are simply new neighbors, and we welcome you as such — but only as such. Some people leave Israel because of the conditions and the absence of hope for the future, while others come here because conditions have become intolerable over there, across the ocean. Some leave to search for spiritual uplift, and others come here because of the spiritual and religious significance. Some move from place to place just for better conditions. Some come here because over there, it is frightening to either walk in the street or raise children with outward signs of Judaism, and some leave because it is frightening to raise children to be soldiers and there are far too many outward, and disturbing, signs of Judaism.

The shrill quality of the autumn debate about Berlin is fascinating. Every one wanted to grab a ride on it. The religious Zionist websites spoke about replacing the elites, the Jerusalemites reiterated the stupid cliché about “the State of Tel Aviv,” the Tel Avivians went with “Live and let live,” and the people from Berlin waited for the storm to blow over so that they could go back to living normal lives, like myriads of other people just like them in their new locations who have made multiculturalism, tolerance and inclusion their culture.

One cry rose above them all. Israel is still a temporary reality for its Israelis, and this lack of self-confidence is impossible to hide. The social rift that was exposed here once again, for the umpteenth time, was an atrocious alternative to the contagious wartime unity of the past summer. Both of them are Israel. Both of them are correct, and both of them are a testimony. An overdeveloped body and a far too fearful soul are Israel in the autumn of 2014.

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