A partial explanation for why the absurd cost of living in Israel never seems to get any better

The marina in Herzlia, Israel. Photo by Ofir Gafkovich from Pexels

A few days ago, in a report, the Economist Research Unit affirmed that the cost of living in Tel Aviv was the highest in the world.

Basing its comparison on a survey of more than 200 products and services in more than 173 cities worldwide, the institution found that — flabbergastingly, astoundingly , what-the-hell-ingly— the cost of living in Tel Aviv exceeded that of Tel Aviv, New York, London, and Hong Kong. For many of us actually living in Israel, like the author, the reaction could best be summarized as “0% surprised.”

Occasionally, but particularly at moments such as these, olim (Jewish immigrants to Israel) arise from a Mediterranean siesta to ask “what’s up” with certain facets of life in Israel.

For about 24 hours after the release of such news, English-speaking Facebook groups will be filled to the brim with questions along the lines of “so … what’s up with the cost of living here?” Long-time immigrants will eventually observe that the dynamic is circular because a mind-boggling statistic about the absurd cost of living in Israel has surfaced, without fail, for every one of the past few years. In the words of somebody who lived on these shores many, many years ago, “there’s nothing new under the sun.”

In response to this frenzied round of questioning, various explanations will be offered.

Typically those will be the usual and well-worn ones that are exhaustively familiar to anybody who has kept abreast of such matters: Israel is small; oligopolies and bare monopolies predominate here (much as tapas bars do in Spanish towns); and red tape and the Israel Standards Institute bizarrely help to perpetuate all of those things as if it were unofficial policy to keep Israel expensive and overpriced.

Successively, we’re promised that change is around the corner. And yet, year after year, those of us living in Israel are left with the disconcerting feeling that we’re being ripped off left, right, and center for answering the call of Zionism to live in the Jewish state.

We got ripped off. The Jewish Agency / Nefesh b’Nefesh didn’t mention this part in their glossy brochures.

We become disenchanted, quietly angry, and also confused as to why this rather life-altering reality — the fact that everything from beer to petrol to daycare in Israel is grossly overpriced — seems to only merit periodic consideration and protest (the last major round of protests about the cost of living in Israel, the so-called cottage cheese boycott, took place more than 10 years ago). I’m totally not talking about myself.

The Jewish World — And, Paradoxically, Many Immigrants to Israel — Insist on Silencing Any Criticism of The Country

The explanations for the absurd cost of living are all — to the best of my knowledge — on point. Change does appear to be in the offing and for a change I’m actually hopeful that the Bennett government might follow through with some of their promises. Although uprooting decades-long policies of protectionism is never going to happen overnight. Leyat-leyat (slowly, slowly) as the national refrain goes.

But one that I have rarely, if ever, seen offered is this (I would describe it as an additive rather than causative factor):

For every oleh that complains about the cost of living in Israel, five are waiting in line to say “it’s not that bad.” Or more frankly “such badness must be imagined or, if not, the product of a false lens.” Otherwise stated: it’s you.

At other times they will insist that “paying $15 for a crappy lager is perfectly normal! Haven’t you been to London/NYC/Paris recently.” (Were they in London/NYC/Paris recently?!)

Their stubborn insistence — by stubborn I mean lifelong, it seems to be encoded in their DNA — is that everything in Israel is unfailing good, every road in it blessed with the dust of past prophets and every government decision sealed with the kiss of everlasting righteousness.

Their begrudging concession, if they will offer one, is that if any “badness” on Israel’s part can be conceded (whatsoever), that badness must only ever be as bad as things in other parts of the world.

Israel has a shocking housing crisis on its doorstep and the average cost of a downpayment now exceeds a quarter of a million US dollars?

Terrible, but isn’t that the case everywhere? Israel’s no different. Stop complaining.

But the chilling effect on any serious discussion about the cost of living in Israel doesn’t stop there.

Behind the oleh (Jewish immigrant) who decides to stick his or her neck out to point out the obvious, another five can’t wait to share the photos of their 800 NIS/night ($250) tzimmer (B&B) in the North exclaiming what wonderful value they received for their accommodation that bared a stark resemblance to a desert shack that those wandering in the desert thousand of years ago might have thought habitable.

Rather than encountering those eager to point out the obvious, they will be met, instead, with rapturous enthusiasm among other immigrants who exclaim how wonderful the rusted tent indeed looks. (Behind that person, another oleh, like me, is scratching his/her head and wondering whether they took the wrong pill in the Matrix and are living in some kind of Zionist AI experiment to test humans’ ability to withstand a steady stream of misinformation).

Problem two, this one just as underdiscussed: in the Jewish diaspora, 10 Dovids/Rivkas/Shlomos are waiting behind that oleh to throw more opprobrium on the already burning fire of militant pushback.

Over the course of the pandemic, this group also appears to have been radicalized.

They have never been more sure than before — or of anything — that Israel is, indeed, the land of milk and money, in modern times as in previous ones. That all its ways are pure. And that anybody insisting anything to the contrary — even if they live in Tel Aviv or Jerusalem and they in Melbourne or London— must have contracted a serious case of the Stockholm Syndrome. They’re mentally ill. It ain’t that bad.

If they’re feeling particularly vengeful they will say that this oleh, complaining about the cost of beer or cucumbers or the downpayment on mortgages, must surely be a self-hating Jew. For no other explanation can be imagined for such preposterous behavior.

He or she is really no better, they might add, than Hamas/Hizbullah/the Iranian ayatollahs and surely such comments will imminently lead to the country’s total collapse.

Such individuals must also — I mean naturally — be silenced at all costs before oleh 11 and 12 decide to hop on a flight from Paris/NYC/Johannesburg/Monsey. Isn’t this, after all, the natural learning from the account of the Spies who returned with negative reports about the Land of Israel? Many of them interpret this silencing to be mandated by the Torah. I struggle to wrap my head around how that idea is compatible with the Jewish values of debate and self-examination.

Now, the oleh pointing out some unpalatable things about life in Israel finds himself, or herself, unexpectedly outnumbered by a factor of 20 to 1 and facing down allegations of being “self-hating” and in quest of the country’s destruction. The case is starting to look not just hopeless but positively threatening. So like most humans, they seek out the course of lesser resistance. The fight isn’t worth maintaining. So they stop airing their grievances.

This, as well as the well-understood factors, surely, is a large part of the reason why things seem to have a tendency to stay the same here.

Toxic positivity it might be called if taken out of the unique Jewish context in which the dynamic sits. As well as a pervasive and self-reinforcing tendency towards manufactured denial.

Alongside protectionism and anti-competitive practices, it might be worth considering whether the propriety of this is worthy of debate also.



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Daniel Rosehill

Daniel Rosehill

Daytime: writing for other people. Nighttime: writing for me. Or the other way round. Enjoys: Linux, tech, beer, random things. https://www.danielrosehill.com