A group of young Israeli expats have unleashed controversy back home by encouraging others to join them in Berlin, touching on two of the most sensitive issues in Israel: the country’s high cost of living and Jews’ tortured history with Germany.
While Israelis have been angered after learning that food prices are much lower in Germany, they are also outraged that the youngsters’ form of protest has been to give up on the Zionist dream by leaving the Jewish state, and relocate to the birthplace of the Nazi Party to boot. It rankles many in a society that once considered emigration shamefully akin to treason, at a time when many Israelis want to stick together after a brutal summer war in Gaza underscored greater political and security woes in Israel.
The uproar began several weeks ago when a 25-year-old former Israeli army officer flaunted photos of his grocery receipts — including those of a popular chocolate pudding that sells in Germany for one-third the price in Israel — and boasted about the good life in the German capital.
Now known as the “Milky” protest, after the pudding’s Israeli name, the Facebook campaign has received 17,000 “likes” and pictures of Israelis holding signs asking German Chancellor Angela Merkel to give them a visa have gone viral. Israeli TV channels have sent reporters to Berlin to cover the thriving Israeli expat community there.
The campaign marks a new channel for economic discontent, three years after a massive protest movement by hundreds of thousands of Israelis demanding lower prices, more affordable housing and a narrower gap between rich and poor, largely failed in its goals.
But the political backlash has been even stronger, with the idealization of Berlin viewed as a hurtful provocation. Less than 70 years after the end of the Holocaust, in which 6 million Jews were killed, memories are still fresh — especially among Israel’s large community of survivors — and there are those who still refuse to visit Germany or buy its products.
Finance Minister Yair Lapid, whose centrist Yesh Atid party rode the 2011 protests to become a major player in Israeli politics, said he sympathized with the burden of the new protesters but not their method.
“These people are anti-Zionists. I’m a Zionist, I think Jews should live in Israel,” he said. “That doesn’t change the fact that the cost of living is high here … The cost of living is not the only question for a person to consider when deciding where to live and by which values.”
The former army officer behind the protest said he still loves his country, defends it when it is slandered in Europe and would prefer to live in Tel Aviv but just can’t afford it. He said his goal is to spur politicians like Lapid into action.
“My aim is to educate the Israeli government. They need to make Israel a more attractive place for young people,” said the slim man with short-cropped black hair and dark brown eyes, in an interview the Associated Press in Berlin this week. He asked that his identity be withheld because he wants “the public to focus on the message, not on the messenger.”
He said thousands of exasperated Israelis have asked him for help in getting visas. He reasons that if Israelis vote with their feet and simply leave the country, the government will be forced to serve the public better.