Shekel money bills.
(photo credit: REUTERS)
Every few years or so our public consciousness focuses – often hysterically – on the issue of emigration. Also referred to in its pejorative formulation as yerida (literally, “descent”), or as the brain drain when those being considered are the best and the brightest, emigration is seen as a major threat to Zionism.
The trigger for the latest bout of collective hand-wringing was a lead headline in Monday’s Ma’ariv, heralding a social media-leveraged campaign calling on Israelis to abandon ship. The campaign was launched on Facebook and other forums by expats living in Berlin who are complaining about the high cost of living in Israel.
If cottage cheese was the symbol of the socioeconomic demonstrations of the summer of 2011, the Berlin-based campaign is using Milky, the popular Israeli chocolate pudding topped with whipped cream, as its rallying call for mass emigration in protest against the outrageously high cost of living in the Jewish state.
Its manufacturers, Strauss, claim Milky is the most successful dairy product on the market. A German-made version of the Milky costs the equivalent of 80 agorot compared to more than three shekels in Israel.
Both Army Radio’s Razi Barkai and Reshet Bet’s Oded Shahar devoted their morning programs Monday to Israel’s high cost of living in comparison to other Western countries.
The conclusion reached was clear: Consumer goods, food and housing prices are more expensive in Israel than in Berlin and other cities in Europe and America and salaries tend to be lower.
This is no surprise. Last year, Channel 10 ran a series called Hayordim Hahadashim (The New Emigrants), which reached an identical conclusion. The series showed Israelis – particularly of the young, secular and educated variety – in pursuit of socioeconomic comfort, particularly in Berlin but also in London and New Jersey. The January 2013 elections were the first in decades to be dominated by socioeconomic issues.
Yet much remains to be done by our government to make Israel a more affordable, attractive place to live. Young people who have already emigrated or are thinking about it need to know that they will get a fair shot at succeeding here. Too much of personal advancement in Israel depends on whom you know, not how much talent you have. Meritocracy has to replace the culture of protekzia (connections).
We need to revamp the public sector so that the most talented – not those with ties to the strong labor unions, politicians and senior bureaucrats – are chosen to serve the public. We need to put in place mechanisms in our education system that reward the best teachers and make it possible to fire the worst teachers.
More needs to be done to improve competition and reduce the tremendous amount of economic power that is concentrated in the hands of a relatively small number of companies and families. The regulator must get involved where monopolies or oligopolies keep prices artificially high. And where necessary, the regulator must be given more power and autonomy to fight for fairer competition.
Housing costs remain ridiculously high, both in absolute terms and in terms of the number of average salaries it takes to buy an average house. Everyone knows that the problem is low supply, and the bureaucratic barriers are preventing more housing projects from being built to keep up with demand. But nothing of substance has been done to streamline the planning process.
There are a number of adverse side effects to high housing prices, one of them being increased polarity between the rich and the poor. Young couples who are lucky enough to own a house because they have parents who bought them one have a significant head start compared to those forced to save and pay off a mortgage.
The vast majority of us are not contemplating emigration.
Our families and friends are here, so are most of our business contacts. We feel comfortable with Israeli culture, we want to live among Jews, we would feel alien living anywhere else, and we have chosen to tie our destinies with that of the Jewish people.
But it would be a mistake to take for granted – or take advantage of – the fact that most of us are here for better or for worse. We have an obligation to improve the socioeconomic situation here in relation to other Western countries.
We must never cease to strive for perfection, not just out of fear that the most educated and talented will pick up and leave, but out of a desire to implement the 21st century version of being “a light unto the nations.”