Photo Credit: Nati Shohat / Flash 90
Jewish children shop in a kosher supermarket. (illustrative)

{First published in JPost}

Last month, social media was aflutter with great “Zionist” news: a defeat to the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement! Bamba, Israel’s beloved, crunchy, peanut snack, is now being sold in Trader Joe’s grocery stores.


But these pro-Israel activists seemed to have missed that Bamba is more expensive for Israelis than it is for Americans.

As I pointed out in my Jerusalem Post Magazine cover story last week, “How Did Israel Get So Expensive?” The Osem Corporation’s Bamba sells for 99 cents for 100 gr. at Trader Joe’s compared to $1.40 for 80 gr. in a Tel Aviv Shufersal.

The package says “Product of Israel,” but the food conglomerate is owned by the world’s largest food company, Nestlé, S.A., which is based in Switzerland.

Zionist pride and sentimentality often induce Israel-lovers and Israeli citizens to overlook daily, even mundane, injustices that take place in the Jewish state. The Israeli government often gets a pass on these since, after all, it is the government of the only Jewish protectorate, the Jewish homeland, the modern miracle – especially under its great orator. But Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu doesn’t shop for Bamba at a supermarket. Under the rule of this supposed “capitalist,” Israel has the most regulated economy in the Western world, with the most monopolies – more than 100.

Yet Israelis, and certainly Diaspora Jews, in the name of hasbara (Israeli advocacy), often don’t complain publicly – though many Israelis in 2011 took to the streets for the “cottage cheese protests” against Israel’s rising cost of living, as exemplified by the high price of dairy products. Grocery prices seem only to have increased since then, probably because protesters called for a government solution. People seem to confuse big Jewish government with Zionism and Jewish social justice.

Last year, after a dozen years as a dedicated Israeli citizen and patriot, I moved to Berlin, and now look back, clearheaded, on the day-to-day “wars” I fought. I endured them happily, thinking that’s the price we pay for living our values, defending our birthright, living the Jewish dream of millennia. Yes, Israel is hard, and it’s supposed to be, according to the Bible. As the Book of Ezekiel says: “The land devours its inhabitants.” Israelis are destined to suffer.

But I’d be a hero! I was confident that “bad press” about government abuses and mismanagement would trigger change. I embarked on writing a series of exposés.

When I moved to Tel Aviv and got hit with a parking ticket that resulted from devious signage, I wrote a cover story about the city’s parking fiasco. Since then, parking in the metropolis has gotten worse, especially now, with the city’s new “car share” system that steals already scarce parking spaces.

Then I wrote a cover story on the Sharon government’s waste on the failed Jerusalem-Tel Aviv slow line, which makes me wonder if the cumbersome Tel Aviv subway will meet a similar fate.

Judging from the package returned to me three months later, my cover story on the abject lack of professionalism of Israel’s postal authority hasn’t inspired anyone who handles the mail.

I would have liked to write many more exposés, if I knew they would have had an effect. For example, how can the government put a lien on your bank account without notifying you, when you might have accidentally defaulted on a bill? Why do banks make you conduct simple transactions only at your original branch? Why do calls to customer service at major utilities guzzle an hour of your day? I already hear the angry cry: “You Israel-hater!” Since the Jewish state is unjustly subjected to wars, assaults and libel, who cares if I literally cried to the cable company after it cheated me? It’s not an existential threat. Sometimes I suspect that the Israeli government doesn’t want its diplomatic problems solved because Israel’s victim status ensures the poor operation of the state will go unquestioned.

Zionist sentiment has hamstrung freedom of speech by asking: “How dare you bash Israel!?” The great idea of the Jewish state has been usurped by power-hungry politicians who, by virtue of being Zionist symbols, are not held accountable by those who really keep the country together: average citizens.

In 2011, the Immigration and Absorption ministries launched – and then pulled – an ad campaign to bring yordim who “descended” to America back home, arguing that the children of Israeli expatriates would lose their “Jewishness” abroad. American Jews called the campaign distasteful and insulting.

But the ad perfectly demonstrated the sentimentality which the Netanyahu government exploits, instead of taking responsibility for the faults that caused a brain drain in the first place. Rather than guilt yordim, why not offer to reduce taxes and tariffs, deregulate, open up competition and break up the cartels? Let the government create an ad that reads: “We are sorry we failed you. We care about your quality of life. We can do better and will!” Israeli self-sacrifice extends beyond finances. Citizens make the single most difficult sacrifice: service in the army.

They put their lives on the line, without questioning orders, only to struggle later with exorbitant real estate and vehicle prices, low salaries, expensive groceries and an inefficient transportation system (but don’t tell that to tourists). Meanwhile, American Jews who raise money for Israel’s heroes receive salaries that could feed three Israeli families for a year.

Sabras (Israeli natives) can better navigate the system, but the “ingathering of the exiles” does not mean a land of opportunity for immigrants. It is a land of hardship in which that hardship is turned into a virtue. The government, as the financial and social beneficiary of the modern miracle, need not make Israel a truly attractive place to live because its mere existence, especially after the Holocaust, is sacrosanct.

Those who leave Israel are often not compelled by the idea of the “Jewish state.” They much prefer to admire and support from afar, in countries that function well. Shouldn’t earning a living, going to the supermarket, taking a train and visiting the bank – in dignity – also be supreme Jewish values? Jews have become so concerned with physical persecution that they don’t consider unnecessary hassles, created for Jews by Jews, as subtle acts of persecution in need of immediate remedy.

As a “monopoly,” the Jewish state doesn’t have much incentive to reform.

Hence, as a country (minus Zionist ideals), Israel remains mediocre. If Israelis move to places like New York City, London, and especially Berlin, they are often chastised as traitors. Pro-Israel activists are extremely wary of pointing out flaws with the State of Israel and, even more so, with its current leader.

But while that may help the prestige of the state (further immunizing the monopoly), it does a disservice to the daily lives of the Israeli people and to Israel’s potential for greatness as a country and not merely an awe-inspiring idea.


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Orit Arfa is an American-Israeli, Berlin-based journalist and author of The Settler, a novel about the 2005 Gaza pullout.