October 11, 2014
IS BERLIN the new Jerusalem? A Facebook page launched in Hebrew this month on how to move to a city far from rockets and rocketing prices in Israel has gone viral, reaching 600,000 people in a week. It is called Olim Le-Berlin, “Let’s ascend to Berlin”, using the same rousing verb Jews reserve for emigrating, or “ascending”, to Israel. An Israeli band sings a similar tune, turning the lyrics of Israel’s favourite song, “Jerusalem of Gold”, into a yearning for a “Reichstag of Peace, euro, and light”. Even Professor Manuel Trajtenberg, a leading economist commissioned by the government to look at the high cost of living, which sparked mass protests in 2011, has piped in. “Berlin is more attractive than Tel Aviv,” he says.
The response from official Israel has been vitriolic. Yisrael Ha-Yom, seen as the mouthpiece of the prime minister, Binyamin Netanyahu, chided Berlin’s ascenders on its front page. The voice of the nationalist right decried them as an insult to all Holocaust survivors. “See you in the gas chambers,” commented one critic on the Facebook page. The finance minister, Yair Lapid, has promised to extend price controls to more food items.
Emigration rates hardly justify such uproar. The German Federal Statistics Office records an increase of just 400 Israeli immigrants per year. Overall, Israel reckons there were about 16,000 new émigrés (inevitably called “descenders”) in 2012, but they were more than offset by incoming Jews from Eastern Europe, America and France, who tend to be more religious and right-wing. Though the Israeli diaspora is growing in Berlin, London and Barcelona, the trend is hardly new. Some 700,000 Israelis have abandoned the Promised Land since its creation, says Sergio DellaPergola, a demographer.
That said, the West’s multicultural cities are exercising a growing attraction, particularly on young, single, non-religious and increasingly female graduates—the type who made Tel Aviv cool. Many Israelis temporarily fled the country during Israel’s summer war in Gaza, after wailing sirens emptied the beaches and kept people indoors. Over Sabbath meals, Israelis who are worried about growing intolerance discuss whether to put their children or their country first.
Fears of anti-Semitism, especially in Europe, deter many Israelis from making the move. But Mr Netanyahu’s apparent rejection of compromise with Palestinians, and wars every few years, is eroding hope. Arguments about economic priorities are growing as Israel’s generals demand resources; on October 8th, they secured cabinet approval for a 10% rise in military spending. On their Facebook page, the Berlin ascenders displayed a bill for groceries in Germany that would cost three times as much in Israel. “Even our forefather, Jacob, went down to Egypt to earn double the salary and pay a third of the rent,” sing the hip-hoppers.
Israelis with Ashkenazi, or East European, ancestry are queuing at German, Hungarian and Polish consulates for what was once regarded as a shameful act of seeking European passports. Their numbers will only swell if the Spanish parliament approves a plan to grant nationality to potentially millions of Sephardi Jews, descended from those it expelled in 1492.