“Freier” is one of the most widely used slang words in Hebrew but its exact etymology is either genuinely unknown or conveniently obscured. By most accounts, the word – which has no agreed spelling in either Hebrew or English – comes from German, in which it means a suitor of women or, less formally but more pertinently, a prostitutes’ client, also known as a john in the United States or punter in the United Kingdom.
Frequenting prostitutes is frowned upon today and was even outlawed recently in Israel, but the traditional German view was – and is – more benevolent, even sympathetic: A “freier” was seen as a hapless patsy, an easy mark for hardened hookers and their hustlers. The word was informally adopted by Yiddish-speaking Jews, who took it to Odessa, where it was incorporated into Russian slang by criminals who used it to denote everyone else but them, i.e. their potential victims.
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According to Hebrew language guru Ruvik Rosenthal, Russian immigrants brought “freier” with them to Israel, where it assumed its modern usage. The most common though far from precise translation to English – which, ironically, comes back full circle to its smutty German origins – is sucker. And as most anyone who takes even a faint interest in Israelis knows by now, their 11th commandment – which would probably be ranked higher if revisions were allowed – is “Never Be a “Freier.”
The 1973 Yom Kippur War, with its enormous sacrifices and general disillusionment with the country’s leadership, gave rise to the political derivative: “Golda’s freier.” Originally meant to convey resistance to being sacrificed on the altar of the perceived incompetence of the late former Prime Minister Golda Meir and her ill-prepared cabinet colleagues, the term evolved to express catch-all outrage at any official edict, from taxes to building permits, which Israelis had no intention of adhering to. The common refrain is “What do you think I am? Golda’s freier?”
Interestingly, in the nearly five decades that have passed since the Milwaukee-bred matriarch was forced to resign in the wake of that disastrous war, none of her successors have had the word “freier” attached to their name. Now, however, a deserving heir may have finally been found: Benjamin Netanyahu, who has repeatedly ignored or violated the coronavirus restrictions that he and his government have imposed on the public. It’s not too far-fetched to suggest that the term “Bibi’s Freier” could soon catch on.
Netanyahu’s initial departure from the restrictions he so eloquently portrayed as vital came in April, during the first lockdown, when he hosted his son Avner for the traditional Seder, in violation of the governments’ instruction that only so-called “nuclear” families that live together could also dine together. Netanyahu’s otherwise understandable exhibition of fatherly affection might have been forgiven and forgotten, had it not been for the fact that he was far from alone - the recently widowed President Rivlin also violated the guidelines. It didn’t help that he concocted convoluted justifications rather than simply apologizing.
Netanyahu then added insult to injury by insisting that the Knesset Finance Committee be convened to approve his demand for personal tax exemptions and refunds to the tune of one million shekels, just as public panic from the pandemic and its economic fallout was peaking. Even in the eyes of his fans, Netanyahu’s obtuse self-absorption was strike one.
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The recent White House ceremony celebrating peace with Gulf princedoms, as well as its aftermath, was strike two. Hours after imploring them once again to wear masks and keep their distance, Israelis were surprised to see Netanyahu – and, shockingly, his famously fastidious and hygiene-conscious wife Sara - appearing mask-less at the White House entrance, where they were greeted by President Donald Trump.
The prime minister’s deference to his mask-resistant U.S. ally would have probably been accepted as a diplomatic imperative, were it not for the fact that the Netanyahus and other members of the Israeli delegation were then seen hobnobbing and mingling with their unmasked American hosts. The senior officials looked as if they had morphed into fanatic fans attending one of Trump’s death-defying political rallies.
On Sunday night, two of Netanyahu’s close aides, one of whom had been to Washington and was supposedly still in quarantine, were caught and filmed near the protest outside the Prime Minister’s official residence in Jerusalem, video camera in their hands. Conveniently for Netanyahu, the media’s scrutiny and the public’s outrage were focused on yet another violation of the quarantine rules rather than on the question of what the advisers were doing there in the first place.
The camera, it seems, was meant to record a small group of so-called “coronavirus deniers” unaffiliated with the protest, some of whom were actually identified as Netanyahu supporters. The common assumption is that the aides wanted to film the unmasked deniers proudly exposing themselves to infection, to present them to the media as part and parcel of the protests and to thus corroborate the claim being made by Netanyahu and his disciples that the demonstrations should be curtailed for spreading coronavirus and endangering the public’s safety.
The protestors themselves ascribe the lack of media interest in what seems like a ruse lifted directly from Richard Nixon’s Watergate playbook of “dirty tricks” to fear of Netanyahu and his potential reprisal. The two advisers caught red-handed were so clumsy they elicited immediate associations to Nixon’s hapless “plumbers” who were caught breaking into the Democratic Party’s headquarters at the Watergate complex. The question of “what Netanyahu knew and when did he know it” remains as yet unresolved.
But it’s also likely that the public’s instinctive resistance to being cast as “freiers” who adhere to restrictions Netanyahu and his coterie routinely flout overshadowed what in other circumstances would have sparked a major political scandal and possibly forced the prime minister to resign. When Israelis feel like “freiers” however, their blood boils and tempers blow, rendering them incapable of dealing with anything else.
Netanyahu, as is his wont, immediately assumed his persecuted martyr pose, railing against the fact that his advisers were being singled out for condemnation. Like Trump, the concept of serving as a role model or leading by example is foreign to him. The prime minister’s protestations, however, may have done him more damage than good: His self-victimization in this case was so patently absurd and offensive that his supporters may start to wonder whether the same isn’t true for his similar, though far more strenuous gripes about his impending criminal trial.
But the damage done by Netanyahu’s serial violation of the restrictions that he forcefully and convincingly told Israelis were of existential importance is far more damaging and widespread: Coupled with his government’s muddled reactions and abject failure in stemming the spread of the coronavirus pandemic, Netanyahu’s flouting of the rules has precipitated a crisis of public confidence on a scale that is indeed reminiscent of the aftermath of the 1973 war. Worse, his disregard for the restrictions is providing a convenient excuse for masses of Israelis who refuse to abide by the official guidelines, thus hampering and possibly dooming efforts to contain the COVID-19 plague.
Polls indicate that his failures on the pandemic and the economy have detracted from Netanyahu’s potential support, but they nonetheless continue to crown him as the next prime minister if an election was held today. Trump, in fact, has given Netanyahu critical breathing room by engineering Israel’s détente with Bahrain, the United Arab Emirates and others still to come, which have cast the prime minister as a master statesman and diverted attention away from his miserable performance on the home front.
It remains to be seen, however, whether the increasingly fearful and resentful Israelis will forgive Netanyahu for the cardinal sin of making them feel like “freierim,” individually and collectively, or whether it is strike three and out for the prime minister. If and when they go to the polls again and before they decide who to vote for, many Israelis may find themselves standing in front of a mirror and asking their image: “What do you think I am - Bibi’s freier”?