Report skewers soaring apartment prices

Tel Aviv residents protest the high cost of living in 2011. Photo by Liron Almog/Flash90.
Tel Aviv residents protest the high cost of living in 2011.
Photo by Liron Almog/Flash90.

From his home in the Tel Aviv suburb of Bnei Brak, Itzik Elrov angrily set up a Facebook page in 2011, urging a cottage cheese boycott to challenge its dramatic increase in cost since the removal of price controls in 2010.

Centering on a product that is especially dear to Israeli hearts, his plea was the spark that ignited that summer’s social protests, which went far beyond a boycott. Mass protests against the high cost of living drew hundreds of thousands of demonstrators into the streets; hundreds more camped out in tents throughout the country to make a tangible statement about the exorbitant cost of housing.

“But those social economic protests didn’t produce any change,” says Manuel Trajtenberg, a professor at Tel Aviv University’s School of Economics, who headed the government committee set up in the wake of the protests to investigate the situation.

The report’s recommendations were not implemented. “Today, the cost of living is incredibly high, with record apartment prices,” he says.

Fast forward three years.

From his home in Berlin, Naor Narkis uploaded a picture of a German chocolate pudding product, comparing its much lower cost with the price of Milky, a popular Israeli brand. His Facebook graphic launched the Milky protest that followed.

“We can see what’s happening elsewhere,” he wrote on “Moving to Berlin,” his then-anonymous Facebook page. “It’s not about Milky, it’s about living expenses. I tell all of you: you’re being ignored. It’s time for our government to understand that if the client is not satisfied – the client can leave.”

Last month, Israel State Comptroller Joseph Shapira issued a scathing report on the high cost of housing. The protest tents reappeared on Tel Aviv’s Rothschild Boulevard in response to Shai Cohen’s 40th-birthday post on Facebook. In it, he lamented that he was unable to buy an apartment anywhere in central Israel, even though both he and his wife work full time.

Coming less than three weeks before the Israeli elections, the report found that the average cost of a home rose by 55 percent between 2008 and the end of 2013; the average monthly rent rose by 30 percent during the same period. More recent figures showed that prices increased another 5 percent in 2014.

“The various government departments reacted with no strategic plan of action in the long term and without any goals set,” the report said.

While Cohen calls for another mass protest, Naor Narkis urges Israelis to move to Berlin and join its thriving expat community, estimated to number 20,000 to 40,000. ”Even if there were millions of demonstrators, it wouldn’t help,” he writes.

In May 1949, just a year after Israel was founded, West Germany gave Jews who fled Nazi Germany – and their descendants – the right to German citizenship. At the time, however, the idea of moving to Germany was almost unthinkable.

But the prospect became more appealing after the 1993 Maastricht Treaty established the European Union under its current name and introduced pan-European citizenship. Suddenly, a German passport became a European passport, opening doors to life in all EU states.
As producer-administrator for Israeli choreographer Yasmeen Godder, Guy Hugler often finds himself in Berlin arranging performances for her internationally recognized contemporary dance company.

“Berlin has everything all world-class cities have,” he says, “only more. It’s incredibly cosmopolitan. For me, Berlin speaks English, Hebrew, Arabic and Turkish. I hardly use my German. The diversity is amazing, the performance scene is cutting-edge.” “Berlin is the place to be for young people,” Nirit Bialer said in a 2014 interview with NBC News. A 30-something Israeli and granddaughter of Holocaust survivors, she runs Projekt Habait, a Berlin program that brings Israelis and Germans together for social and cultural events.

“Germans are either philo-Semitic or anti-Semitic,” Hugler says, and despite the apparent openness and acceptance, Germany’s Nazi past remains a consistent undercurrent. “There’s a sense of violence in Berlin,” he notes, “especially with the surge of anti-Israel sentiment across the Continent. Yet, Germany and Germans are conducting an ongoing dialogue about anti-Semitism. The Holocaust has not been relegated to the past. It’s still part of their present and it’s therapeutic for them to deal with it.”

He attributes some of the city’s attraction to professional possibilities. “Israelis are making their mark on the Berlin cultural scene – in music, dance, art and fashion – but as individuals, not as Israelis per se.”

And not insignificantly, “you can be really poor in Berlin and survive nicely on 600 euros. That’s impossible to do in Tel Aviv on the equivalent of less than 3,000 shekels (about $1,500). And it’s really cheap to eat and shop. Apartment prices have risen, but many are still rent-controlled,” he says.

But Berlin’s attraction may have peaked, Hugler says. “Poland is the new Germany; Warsaw and Lvov are the new Berlin.” Now ever-restless young Israelis are settling there and creating dynamic communities. Acquiring citizenship in those countries became much easier after Poland, Hungary, Latvia and the Czech Republic became EU members in 2004, and Romania and Bulgaria in 2007.

According to a September 2014 poll commissioned by Israel TV Channel 2, about one-third of Israel’s citizens stated they would seriously consider leaving the country if they could. But for those who remain in the country out of choice or necessity, the economic situation is stressful – and the future looks grim. Ironically, Naor Narkis, instigator of the Milky protest, later told various interviewers that he was planning to stay in Berlin until he could save enough money to buy an apartment in Tel Aviv.

“The first time you protest, you’re hopeful,” said Trajtenberg, a candidate for the Knesset on the Zionist Union slate. “The second time, you’re angry.” He hopes exasperated Israelis will try to effect change by turning out to vote on March 17 – and like the representatives of all the 26 parties competing for places in the Knesset – he hopes their voices will be heard and their actions will make a difference.

Sarabeth Lukin is an American/Israeli journalist who lives in Jaffa.

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