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Raider of the Lost Arak

Yair Lapid taxes cheap booze in Israel, mayhem ensues

Liel Leibovitz
June 11, 2013
Arak.(Halfway Anywhere)
Arak.(Halfway Anywhere)

True New Yorkers are the ones who know that a slice tastes best when folded in half. You belong in Paris if your idea of a sandwich is ham and butter, nothing else. And Tel Avivis drink Arak, the anise-flavored liquor that turns milky white with an ice cube and a splash of water. In part, we love it because of how seamlessly it blends in with our environment: that strong and sweet taste goes well with the strong light and the blue sea. But the real reason is far less poetic: Arak is Tel Aviv’s official drink because Arak costs 35 shekels a bottle.

Or, at least, it will until July 1st.

That’s when a new ordinance kicks in which will increase the popular liquor’s price more than 70 percent. And not just Arak: beer, vodka, and other affordable drinks are facing a twofold price hike. Aficionados of fine whisky, on the other hand, may rejoice: their postprandial of choice will grow slightly cheaper.

This new tax reform is the latest in a series of strange and deeply unpopular moves undertaken by Israel’s new minister of finance, the former television entertainer Yair Lapid, a known lover of single malt scotches. It will almost certainly take a dramatic toll on the local liquor industry—most of the Arak Israelis drink is locally made—and will force Arak’s legions of middle class fans, the very people Lapid courted in his successful electoral bid earlier this year, to forgo this seminal pleasure.

As soon as news of the ordinance broke yesterday, Lapid became the target of wide-spread vitriol, registered everywhere from the press to Tel Aviv’s liquor stores. The latter have no more Arak: throngs of drinkers have stormed the streets and snatched all remaining bottles at the current, low price. Soon, restaurants, too, were dry. With their last few bottles at hand, Israelis then took to the Internet to express their dislike of their minister. “We’re the Arak people, Yair,” wrote one popular blogger, “and we’ll shove your cigar up your butt.” More than 10,000 people liked the post on Facebook.

Lapid is in a bind now, eager to find some way to explain away this wildly unpopular and thoroughly illogical bit of economic hardship. As a fervent fan of Arak, and as a proud native of Tel Aviv, let me reach back to history for inspiration and pull a phrase that might suit the occasion: “Let them drink scotch.”

Liel Leibovitz is editor-at-large for Tablet Magazine and a host of its weekly culture podcast Unorthodox and daily Talmud podcast Take One. He is the editor of Zionism: The Tablet Guide.