Thou Shalt Not Be a Freier

It doesn't just seem that the term freier (sucker), or more exactly - the abysmal fear of being a freier - is a completely Israeli matter.

Shahar Ilan
Shahar Ilan
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Shahar Ilan
Shahar Ilan

It doesn't just seem that the term freier (sucker), or more exactly - the abysmal fear of being a freier - is a completely Israeli matter. Several local researchers have investigated the Israeli institution of "the non-freier" in depth. One of them, Dr. Linda-Renee Bloch of Bar-Ilan University, explains that the term, which has Germanic roots, exists in other languages, including Russian, German, Polish and Romanian. But in some of them, its meaning is completely different. Even in other places where it describes someone whom others can easily fool, the concept of freier is not a cultural symbol like it is in Israel. Even the English word "sucker" doesn't play as central a role. During her research, Bloch collected more than 1,000 articles that mention being a freier. In Haaretz alone, the word has appeared more than 1,000 times in the last decade.

Identify the speaker of the following quote:

"It's shocking to hear boastful and haughty words like: 'Laws are meant to be circumvented.' How many times have we heard people who've returned from trips abroad, who make fun of the citizens of the countries they visited, because they act like nerds: They stand in line, they make sure to pay. They look at these citizens as freiers. They're not the freiers, we're the freiers. I searched but didn't find, Mr. Speaker, a linguistic parallel in any language to the Israeli term 'freier.'"

The speaker was then-prime minister Ariel Sharon, at the Knesset in May 2001, discussing the collapse of the Versailles wedding hall in Jerusalem, which killed 23 people.

"'Don't be a freier' is practically the 11th commandment of the Israeli," wrote Haaretz's Benny Ziffer in 2006. How has such a great fear of being a freier developed in Israel, of all places? Bloch explains that this is due, among other reasons, to a desire to be free of the image of the Jew in exile. She says there are five attributes of Israeli character that come together to create the culture of "just don't be a freier": a particularly strong ego and sense of honor, avoidance of law and rules, individualism without responsibility, competition and machismo. There are some people, she adds, who are prepared to kill in order not to come out as freiers. She cites examples of murders for purely negligible reasons, like a fight over dogs or an argument over a lounge chair on the beach.

Bloch thinks it's no coincidence that the word "freier" has remained in the realm of slang rather than becoming an official Hebrew word. She believes the term has been pushed to the sidelines, which allows people to "ignore its malignant implications."

Eran Gur, one of Bloch's students, sent a letter to the Academy of the Hebrew Language at the beginning of this month, writing: "Greetings, Academy of Language. I would like to know why the word 'freier' or 'frier,' a word widely used on a day-to-day basis ... does not merit a mention at the Academy of Language, and has not become part of the Hebrew language."

Keren Dubnov wrote on behalf of the academy that "the word 'freier' is slang borrowed from Yiddish, and is not suitable in cases other than spoken speech."

Bloch first realized that importance of the term in Israeli consciousness when she began researching American immigrants and discovered that the word appeared repeatedly in her interviews with them.

"The immigrants think that they're seen by the Israelis as freiers, and they carry that mark with a certain pride," she notes. "They're prepared to be freiers to show that there's no need to push, that there's no need to honk, that there's no need to cheat on your taxes. After all, they can't be pioneers like in the olden days, so being freiers is their contribution."

The newspaper Shiluv (Integration), which was published in English by the Immigrant Absorption Ministry in 2002, explained to immigrant parents that in order for their children to function at school and in the army, they should not to be too sensitive. The children have to learn not to be freiers, it said, adding: You might find that they become more assertive and less polite than you would have hoped.

The Los Angeles Times reported in 1997 that the fear of being a sucker plays a role in every element of life, from performing the most routine task to making peace between countries.

Does the freier ideology really influence Israeli policies related to peace and war? It appears so. Thus, for instance, then-prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu told students at a Ma'aleh Adumim school in 1998: "We are not freiers. We don't give without receiving."

The desire not to be a freier is also one of the reasons that people who get entangled in serious scandals in Israel are prepared to accept any humiliation, as long as they get to stay in their seats a little while longer.

"Resigning is taking responsibility," says Bloch. "It's similar to apologizing, and these are 'freier' behaviors - especially if you can assign the responsibility to someone else, the 'freier on duty.'"

Who were or are the big freiers of Israeli politics? Yitzhak Rabin, who resigned after the bank scandal? Benny Begin, who resigned and disappeared from public life just because he lost the elections and discovered he had no public support for his views? By contrast, it seems that choosing the anti-freier of all time will be far easier. President Moshe Katsav appears to have no real competition in this category, both because of the nature of the allegations against him and because of his determination to remain at the scene of the alleged crime.



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