Essays

Israelis in Berlin and The Elephant in the Room

Notes on migration, pudding, an island economy, and frustrating metaphors (with cream on top)

“Fight from Tel Aviv, not from Berlin,” demanded former Minister of Immigrant Absorption Uzi Baram in Haaretz, while the New York Times featured the infantile (or “still adolescent”) Israeli society as the center of frustration for many Israelis now clamoring to Berlin because of the impossible price of living. The coverage of Baram’s outcry in the German national and German Jewish press resisted the Holocaust metaphors only barely.

The anonymous leader of “Olim Le Berlin” revealed himself to be former Israeli intelligence officer Naor Narkis and announced that he would return to Israel, stating: “I know where my home is.” The coverage linked to his Facebook page “Olim Le’berlin,” which applied the Zionist concept of Aliyah, or ascension to the Israeli homeland, to Berlin. It will close as its initiator returns to Israel, an interesting spatial-temporal proximity in its own right.

Haaretz’s The Marker, in its economic as well as real estate advertising sections, is offering daily analysis and tips about investing in Berlin, as do all leading Jewish Israeli newspapers. They typically use a handful of iconic photos: of the Aldi Supermarket in Berlin and the receipt that ignited the comparison between pudding here and there, and Israeli-looking young people standing by part of the Berlin wall that features a mix of the German and Israeli flag.

The beloved pudding in question is called Milky, and the “Milky Affair” has merited cartoons as well. In one, Benjamin Netanyahu sits with his wife Sarah, both about to eat the Israeli “Milky,” while the PM, looking angry and stressed, says, “I have no choice, I have to get into it.” The discussion spread widely, addressing many topics such as the limited market economy in Israel, real estate and the wish to buy one’s own apartment, Israeli collectivism, and the expectation to build a normative bourgeois family. It seems to subside now, even as the young, now well-known Narkis (who called on Angela Merkel to provide Israelis with 25,000 work visas to Germany) “ascends” back to Israel.

I am one of the estimated 20,000-25,000 Israelis in Berlin, and I have been fascinated by the fact that the discussion regarding why Israelis choose to leave Israel has assumed that it is purely an economic phenomenon. I would like briefly to ask two questions about what lends itself to metaphor here, namely discussing the prices of pudding as a way to discuss what is not discussed: the “elephant in the room” of the occupation.

First: Why “Milky” and not berries or bread? And Why Tel Aviv vs. Berlin? We are left with a question regarding the structure of “what do we talk about when we talk about Milky,” to cite a title from an article in Beit Avi Chai. “It is not the Milky, [and] it is probably not Berlin,” as declared an author in The Marker with many others that looked for the referent of this “It,” making it possible to rethink the work of metaphors in discussions of values and their corruption. We are also left to ponder a metonymic dimension of this discussion. Beit Avi Chai goes so far as to ask if Berlin is perhaps a branch of Tel Aviv, marking the narcissistic, infantile confines of the discussion. Some, like historian Fania Oz Zalzberger, who wrote the 2001 book Israelis in Berlin, claimed that it is a shallow discussion of important topics. What made it shallow, I maintain, is not the pudding, not the sounding of the myth of Aliyah to Zion.

The “Tel Aviv branch” metonym is a false one. It is false since this immigration is diverse. Israelis arriving in Berlin are not uniformly well-to-do young Ashkenazim who can choose to migrate at will, and who perhaps have European passports. Israelis who migrate to Berlin come from all kinds of godforsaken places (including from the settlements). Many do have EU passports, and the “food” they cling to does not betray class at a first glance. But Milky is a childish treat, iconic in Israel, neither a “grocery good” nor a delicacy. And it has color, or better, two: brown and white, which helps us further our investigation into what lends itself to metaphor. Ruth Preser shows that many Israeli migrants to Berlin reveal an “Arabness,” not only since they are visibly marked as such (concerning such xenophobia, focused on Muslims, see my earlier post), but also because they distance themselves from the Israeli discourse for the first time, and see (economic) injustice not only as a matter of Milky. Interestingly, on the Israeli side, an economist writing last week for The Marker suggested that Israelis shop in cheaper “Arab villages” in order to take down the prices in the mainland supermarkets. This point, however, did not inspire a discussion of the injustice leading to that very price difference in places where Palestinians reside.

My second question — what do we not talk about when we talk about Milky — is in a sense the same as the first, since the formulation “what we talk about when we talk about ‘X’” has been imported to the “the Milky affair” via Nathan Englander’s What We Talk about When We Talk about Anne Frank (itself an echo of Raymond Carver’s What We Talk about When We Talk about Love). In Englander’s short stories, the named is exactly what is not spoken about when we are speaking about it. Eviatar Zerubavel, in The Elephant in the Room: Silence and Denial in Everyday Life, theorizes just this phenomenon, reminding us that ignoring something is more than simply failing to see it. Indeed, all the articles about this trend talk about the historical irony of Israeli Jews migrating to Germany, formerly the capital of anti-Jewish oppression, disrupting the metaphors of Aliyah and Exodus. They talk about problems within the Israeli economy, about advantages in Berlin and Germany. All the while, the commentators cling to Milky as a symbol of their yearning to go back to Israel, save for those Israelis Berliners who have used their Facebook pages to describe their reasons for migrating to Germany as “personal.”

Some mention the unfairness of requesting work visas for Israelis without acknowledging the need for Europe and Israel to support Gaza and Palestinians. There is little talk about the everyday violence experienced in and inflicted by Israel in 2014, and only some on how the (most recent) war in Gaza affected many Israelis in Berlin (and elsewhere). In the comments by expatriate Israelis that “it’s not the rockets; it’s the cost of living” that keeps them away from Israel and draws them toward Berlin, what is missing — the elephant in the room — is a direct expression of the unspeakable physical fact of summer 2014, and an admission of the profound irony implicit in this “Exodus/Aliyah” dynamic.

Jews, and Palestinians even more so (but we do not talk about that), are safer in Berlin than they are in Israel. (While it wasn’t permissible to point to this directly, it was a frequent refrain in official and unofficial Israeli discourse that when the Nazis come back — or when the Muslims take over — Zion will redeem you, even though you threw away its dream for a comfortable life.). Naaman Hirschfeld in Haaretz, as well as Eretz Haemori in a blog post, discuss the Israeli complacency with the occupation, and claim that in migrating to Berlin there is a profound rejection of Israeliness from within. They discuss “post-Israeliness” as an alternative to the binary Zionist discourse, though it is still attached to the wish to be part of, and fatigued by the failure of, this project.

This exception helps us see why the “elephant” — the occupation, and the violence it brings to life in Israel-Palestine — remains unaddressed, even as the dismay is not expressly moral. Once more, as with the “Cottage [cheese] revolution” that took thousands to the streets in the summer of 2011, the occupation is disregarded because it is sweeter to deal with the “it,” the chocolaty taste of Milky, the “shit” that the “we” produces, into which PM Netanyahu is depicted as being forced to dig. This “shit” is what Israelis who plan to return to Israel tell me they prefer (“ our shit”) to being strangers in a xenophobic environment in Europe (which they are sure will be taken over by Islamists in no time, as cultural conservatives unceasingly predict).

But, even if the terms of the debate are nearly entirely beside the point, and even if what really rests at the center of the push-pull vectors is met with a “conspiracy of silence” from all parties to that debate, we are nevertheless getting closer to talking about color and injustice since now the migrants to Berlin transgress the categories of insiders and outsiders, Ashkenazim and Mizrahim, Europeans and their others. Once the actual diversity of Israeli emigrants is recognized as not only a branch of the sated bubble of “Tel Aviv,” perhaps there will be a serious talk about the occupation, about perpetual war — or even about bread.

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