Correction: An earlier version of this article misspelled the last name of Nir Ivenizki, a Berlin cafe owner.
BERLIN — When Nir Ivenizki told his grandmother back home in Tel Aviv that he was emigrating from Israel to Germany, the first thing she did was produce a gun. The tenacious 88-year-old had wielded the antique pistol during World War II, when she fought with a band of Jewish partisans in Nazi-occupied Poland.
“Be careful in Germany,” Ivenizki recalled her saying as she displayed the weapon to emphasize her point. “Do what you want, but I hope you’re sure.”
Ivenizki was sure enough to kiss grandma on the cheek, pack his bags and follow an unlikely trail being blazed by thousands of young Israelis who are moving to Germany. The vast majority are landing in Berlin, the former Nazi capital that is fast emerging as a beacon for young Jews escaping a surge in anti-Semitism in surrounding countries, including Hungary and France.
“You cannot forget the past,” said Ivenizki, 32, who opened a cafe-record store in the exceedingly hip Berlin neighborhood of Neukölln last month. “But I’m interested in the present and the future. Germany is now one of the most socially accepting countries in the world.”
The wave of newcomers from Israel is accelerating the rebirth of Jewish culture in the country that nearly extinguished it, bringing the long-lost scent of freshly baked rugelach and hamantaschen cookies back to the streets of Berlin. But the flow of new arrivals is also sparking an uproar in Israel, where everyone from leading politicians to Holocaust survivors is denouncing the exodus to Germany.
In Israel, critics are taking aim at one of the key reasons cited by young Israelis for moving here: The high cost of living in cities such as Tel Aviv compared with the affordability of cheap and shabby chic Berlin.
In recent weeks, the debate has found a focal point in the form of a now-notorious Facebook page, Olim Le Berlin — a name that plays on the Hebrew word commonly used to encourage immigration to Israel. It was launched anonymously by one recent arrival to Berlin — 25-year-old mobile app designer Naor Narkis, who last week revealed his identity in The Washington Post.
From his perch on the Internet, he has flaunted inexpensive puddings and cheap gym memberships in the face of
his countrymen — becoming a
folk hero to some and an anti-
Zionist villain to others.
“I was always curious about Germany because I wanted to understand a society that almost exterminated my people,” Narkis said. But he noted that German Chancellor Angela Merkel had recently led a major rally against anti-Semitism. And on the streets of Berlin these days, he said, “you find the lowest level of anti-Semitism in Europe.”
“I think young Germans and young Israelis share a lot in common,” Narkis said. “We both grew up in the shadow of the Holocaust. And in that sense, we understand each other.”
Waves of Jewish returnees and immigrants have landed in Germany since the end of World War II, with the largest numbers arriving after the fall of the Berlin Wall opened the door to tens of thousands of Jews from the former Soviet Union.
Estimating the size of the latest migration of mostly young Israelis and Western European Jews is statistically difficult, but community leaders and diplomats place the current surge between 3,000 to 20,000 over the past five years.
Many of them are descending on Europe’s “it-city” for the same reasons as its other
hipper-than-thou-art new arrivals. Berlin is now the undisputed capital of European youth culture, a hub of creativity where the once-dilapidated streets of East Berlin in particular have turned into fertile hives of international artists, organic coffee shops and IT start-ups. Yet despite unrelenting gentrification, average rents here remain less than half of those in London and Paris.
For young European Jews, however, there is another reason to come — a rash of anti-Semitism breaking out in other parts of the continent.
Over the summer, Berlin saw the outbreak of anti-Israel protests over the Gaza war, and an online video showed people urinating on Berlin’s Holocaust memorial last New Year’s Eve. But Germans are taught the horrors of the Holocaust from a young age, and denying it is punishable under criminal codes. And any recent acts of anti-Semitism here pale in comparison with, say, Paris, where this year alone a Jewish shop was burned down, young Jews have been assaulted and protesters have taken to the streets yelling, “Jews, out of France!”
“I generally feel way safer in Berlin than I felt in Paris,” said Raphael Podselver, a 25-year-old French Jew who moved to Berlin to work for an IT start-up.
But in Israel, the outflow of young citizens to Berlin has fueled a serious debate over rising consumer prices and diminishing opportunity in the Jewish homeland.
In the summer of 2011, hundreds of thousands of people took to the streets in Israel to decry the high cost of living. The historic protests of soaring prices for housing and consumer goods appeared to threaten Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s government at the time. Since then, and despite promises by leaders to tackle high prices, little has changed.
The number of Israelis leaving the country has actually declined in recent years. But the fact that some are going to Germany, in particular, has touched a raw nerve.
No one has stirred things up more than Narkis, who moved to Berlin five months ago. One polarizing post on his Facebook page showed a local dessert similar to Milky — a beloved Israeli chocolate pudding — that he had purchased here for a fraction of the price at home. Back in Israel, it touched off talk of a “Milky Revolution” — or a clamor of young Israelis threatening to leave over high costs.
Critics have come close to dubbing them traitors. This month, Israeli Agriculture Minister Yair Shamir told the Jerusalem Post, “I pity the Israelis who no longer remember the Holocaust and abandoned Israel for a pudding.”
In Israel, the stream of youths to Germany is also generating genuine pain. Uri Chanoch, an 86-year-old Lithuanian native,lost his parents and sister in the Holocaust and spent his formative years in Dachau, a Nazi concentration camp. He and his only surviving brother immigrated to Israel after the war.
“What is waiting for them in Germany?” he asked. “There is a shortage of jobs in Germany, too, but [Narkis] does not write about it. It is not so easy, in spite of the fact that some things are cheaper. Why to Berlin? Why leave to that country?”
Eglash reported from Jerusalem. Stephanie Kirchner in Berlin contributed to this report.