Israeli expats in Berlin have stepped up a campaign for compatriots to emigrate to Europe for a higher standard of living, making waves in local media and drawing the ire of a former top Finance Ministry official.
The Facebook group leading the charge, called “Olim LeBerlin,” says it offers “all the advice, explanations, bureaucracy and forms to help you get out of the impossible cost of living and goods in Israel.”
The name of the group, which uses the Hebrew term for immigration to Israel, or “ascent,” is also a play on the traditional term for emigrants, who are often called “descenders.”
On Sunday, the group’s administrator challenged those in Israel to match the price of a trip to the grocery store in Berlin, which totaled only 16.08 euros ($20.15) on a list of items that the author hypothesized would cost about NIS 200 ($54) at the cheapest branch of Israeli discount supermarket chain Rami Levi.
“We challenge somebody to buy the same [grocery items] wherever they choose in Israel,” the Facebook post reads. “I remember from last summer when I bought a two-liter bottle of Prigat fresh-squeezed orange juice for NIS 29 ($7.80). I have other tough memories of a package of ‘Of Tov’ schnitzel that, without any shame, cost NIS 45-50 ($12-$14).”
The burgeoning cost of living has been a hot topic in Israel for years, culminating in massive protests in 2011 that saw hundreds of thousands camp out in city streets throughout the country demanding that the government take action to make things such as food and housing more affordable. Many who emigrate from Israel point to the cost a living as a key factor in their decision.
Official figures from 1990 to 2011 actually show a drop in immigration in past years, from a high of 19,400 in 2001 to 6,700 in 2011.
However, high profile social media campaigns and large protests have pushed the issue to the fore, forcing Israeli officials to go on the offensive against the emigration campaign.
In October 2013, ahead of a meeting on rising anti-Semitism in Europe, Finance Minister Yair Lapid ripped into “all the people who are fed up and leaving for Europe.”
Former Finance Ministry director general Doron Cohen told the business daily Globes Sunday that a “Facebook page that encourages Israelis to emigrate to Berlin is the lowest thing in the world.”
Critics, though, point out that the denunciations do little to ease the high cost of living cited by many as the reason for leaving Israel.
A receipt posted along with the Facebook challenge also included milk (EUR 1.09/$1.30), two small bread rolls (EUR 0.13/$0.16 each), two bags of fresh pasta (EUR 1.19/$1.50 each), (EUR 1.39/$1.74), a loaf of whole wheat bread (EUR 1.15/$1.47), a carton of six organic eggs (EUR 1.39), pasta sauce (EUR 0.79/$0.99), sliced cheese (EUR 1.29/$1.61), and finally, three cups of chocolate pudding with whipped cream known as Milky, a favorite snack of Israelis, cost just EUR 0.19 ($0.23).
“The moment that broke me in Israel didn’t happen during reserve duty, a rocket attack or a threatening letter over the mortgage I fortunately did not take,” he added. “It happened at a simple moment of clarity, when I realized in the supermarket that I was deliberating whether to buy a four-pack of Milky for the kids, or maybe give it up today. Here, I never have to deliberate about food at the supermarket.”
The author also characterized the store in question as a local grocery store, “not some supermarket with crazy discounts, but probably a place that you’d go to if some things you needed were missing in the course of the week.
However Cohen, the former Finance Ministry director, noted to Globes that the author had misrepresented the store, which was actually a branch of Aldi, a global chain of discount supermarkets.
“They want to slander [Israel],” he charged. “I thought that it was impossible to sink any lower than [encouraging emigration to Berlin]… they knowingly lied — they cut off the name ‘Aldi’ and hid it and also wrote that it was not a discount store. This is the lowest [they could go], and they are also liars.”
He pointed out that at the top of the receipt there were several letters cut off that “clearly” spelled out “Aldi.” Google street view of the address on the receipt confirmed this.
Cohen declined to address the crux of the argument — that the cost of food in Israel is astronomically higher than in Berlin.
“I don’t want to go into this,” he said. “This is too low. There are problems here, and we are dealing with them.”
He acknowledged that recent reforms, while they have helped targeted segments of the population, have not yet affected the general cost of living, but was defiant, insisting that “whoever wants to leave the country, and even more so to Berlin, on the moral scale, this is the lowest.
“There is still much more to do here, but do not leave the country, and certainly don’t denigrate it,” he added. “I will gladly discuss the problems at another time.”