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TEL AVIV, Israel – A group of young Israeli expats have unleashed a storm of 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.
Cabinet Minister Yair Shamir, son of former Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir and a member of the ultranationalist Yisrael Beitenu party, told the Maariv newspaper that he pities "the Israelis who no longer remember the Holocaust and abandoned Israel for a pudding."
In the daily Haaretz, columnist Ravit Hecht argued that such ultranationalists were actually driving the young away, but that was still no excuse to bolt. "Berlin is a lovely city, but it is sucking away all the forces that we desperately need here, especially now," she wrote.
Like many other expatriates drawn to Berlin's cheap housing and vibrant lifestyle, thousands of Israelis already call the city home. Since many enter Germany with other European passports or come for limited periods of time, it's hard to track exact numbers: Estimates range from 3,000 to 30,000. Many come to enjoy free university study and work as artists and musicians. Others have opened small businesses and organized Hebrew language classes and activities for children. Those with German passports are also eligible for a welfare stipend of almost 400 euros a month.
Eran Levy, a 46-year-old who moved to Berlin nine years ago, said he enjoys the calmer pace of life and the relief that his daughter is growing up far away from bomb shelters and rocket attacks.
"I like how people in Berlin are so non-judgmental and take me as I am," said Levy, who works in customer service and is now fluent in German.
In practice, demographers say the phenomenon is more symbolic than actual. The number of European Jews who move to Israel is much higher than the number of Israelis heading to Europe. Take France alone, which has Western Europe's largest population of Jews, at about 500,000: Emigration this year to Israel is set to top the annual record of nearly 5,300 set after the Six-Day War in 1967, according to the Jewish Agency for Israel — in part due to concerns about militant Islam and France's sluggish economy.
Sergio Della Pergola, a leading demographer from the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, said Israeli emigration has actually dropped considerably in recent years and those who did leave were headed primarily to the United States and Canada, not Europe. He said the latest central Bureau of Statistics figures showed that 2012 had the lowest emigration rate in decades. That same year, only 3,065 Israelis were documented as living in Berlin.
"There is a big gap between the mood and the facts," he said.
Even so, the idea of people leaving when the going gets tough is hard to swallow in a country where struggle and sacrifice are so engrained in the national psyche.
Former Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin once derided Israelis who left the country as "a cascade of wimps." Commentators have suggested he would be turning over in his grave if he knew about the Olim Le'Berlin group behind the come-to-Berlin campaign, whose name uses the Hebrew word typically reserved for Jews immigrating to Israel — "aliyah" — in describing its actions.
Even if the economic argument is justified, Israelis largely feel that giving up should remain out of bounds.
"What does any of that have to do with Berlin? What does any of that have to do with the disgusting trend of encouraging Israelis to emigrate?" columnist Ben Caspit wrote in Maariv. "The war over our home needs to be fought at home."
Grieshaber reported from Berlin.