On Root / How Do You Say 'Sucker' in Hebrew?

Protestors against Israel's draft policy wear their military service as both a badge of honor and mark of shame.

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A bunch of suckers marched into a public square No, it's not the beginning of a joke. It's what happened last week at the big demonstration in favor of "sharing the burden" – making army service mandatory for all or, in short, drafting ultra-Orthodox men. Formally, the protestors were decrying the government's failure to end the exemption of many thousands of yeshiva students from military service.

But what really bugged them was the idea that their own military service made them "freierim," or suckers.

We're all familiar with the idea of a sucker – dupe, champ, patsy or sap. A sucker is someone who is gullible, easy to trick or exploit – especially financially – and who, God forbid, (over)pays without arguing. But in Israel, a freier (pronounced like 'friar') is much more than that. It is also someone who goes by the book when there are easier – if perhaps dishonest – options available.

By calling themselves suckers, the protesters were complaining that they are giving where others are not. They were presenting themselves as korbanot, "victims" or "sacrifices."

Learned articles have been written about this fundamental Israeli sociological category. It has been said that the 11th commandment in Israel is "Don't be a freier." The protestors were appealing to this idea, saying, "Yes, we believe it's important to defend our country. Yes, we go willingly to the army. But hey, why do we have to go and they don't? We're not freierim!"

Interestingly, the origins of this significant term are actually quite obscure. Variously spelled freiherr,fraier andfreier,the word probably comes from German by way of Yiddish. It may have originally referred to timid bachelor clients of prostitutes or simply to proper gentlemen who obediently played by the rules.

It is ironic that the key concept in a public dispute with the ultra-Orthodox is from Yiddish and that the great fear of Hebrew-loving, Diaspora-deriding sabras – the term for feisty native-born Israelis, taken from the name of a prickly desert fruit – is a foreign word. But the indignation at being a freier is indeed the force behind the demand for "equal service."

You're either with us or you're against us

A person's army tour of duty is their sherut, or "service."There are many types of soldiers, but the main contention here is over the battle-worthy "fighter," known as kravi – from krav, "battle." This word shares a root with korbanot above, or korban in the singular.

Sherut is used in two other everyday contexts. A sherut is an 8- or 10-seat jitney cab that runs within and between cities. The plural form of the word, sherutim, means "facilities" – as in the "restroom."

The root sh-r-t, gives us mesharet, "servant," like those who appear in the well-known BBC series "Upstairs, Downstairs" – called "Adonim Umeshartim," "Masters and Servants" in Israel. We know who cleaned the sherutim there.

A sharat, or "server" in a computer network, handles its fair share of human waste as well.

Another key word in the discourse about army service is giyus, "the draft." High school seniors go through a whole process as they prepare "to be enlisted," lehitgayes, following graduation. They get a ta'arich giyus, "draft date" in the mail and then head to the lishkat ha-giyus, "recruitment office," to be processed.

These terms have the same root as gayis chamishi, the Hebrew equivalent of the English term, "fifth column," which comes from the Spanish Civil War and refers to a clandestine brigade working to overthrow a city or country from within. Many Israelis claim that by not serving, ultra-Orthodox students are – like these battalions – working against the State of Israel.

The ingredients of "Mustardox"

The standard Israeli term for ultra-Orthodox is charedi, commonly transliterated as Haredi. The central noun from the root ch-r-d is charadah, the psychological term for "anxiety." Haredim (pl.) are probably no more anxiety-ridden than anybody else, but their name literally means "one who fears or is awe-struck in their service of God," as in, "those who tremble [Haredim] at His word" (Isaiah 66:5). Christian sects, such as Quakers and Shakers, take their names from the very same concept.

The other major Orthodox Jewish demographic in Israel is the dati le'umi, the "national religious" community. It is important to understand the difference between this group and the Haredim, especially regarding army service. Le'umi, means "national" from le'om, "nation." This word shows up in the phrases medinat le'om, "nation-state" and Bank Leumi, "National Bank" – the name of a major private Israeli bank.

It also gives us le'umiyut, "patriotism" or "love of country" and le'umanut, "extreme nationalism" or "chauvinism." The pro-militarism of much of the religious right straddles the thin line between these two concepts.

The religious part of "national religious" – dati, from dat, "religion" - is not even originally Hebrew. It is a Persian word used in later Biblical books, like Esther and Daniel, to mean "law" or "proclamation." Hebrew didn't really have a word for religion as a separate thing, or religiosity as a category, so dat assumed that role in the modern language.

Dati'im leumi'im (pl.) tend to embrace modern dress, many modern values and the state and its trappings, including the army. The Haredi camp, while far from monolithic, rejects all these things. Most Israelis are, at worst, annoyed by the Haredim's heavy, black Polish garb, reserving their real indignation for their exemption from military service.

To complicate things further, the charedi le'umi, "nationally minded Haredim," are sort of a cross between the Haredim and Dati'im leumi'im. They are more religiously extreme than the dati'im leumi'im and more amenable to the draft than the Haredim. Most important, their name forms a great acronym, chard-al, whichlooks and sounds like the Hebrew word for "mustard." Playing on this, a clever English copywriter dubbed them "Mustardox" – "more ultra-strict and rigidly orthodox" than their Haredi compatriots.

The biggest loser

As in other Israeli national morality plays, all the actors – protesting freierim, quaking Haredim, even back-pedaling politicians caught between an electoral rock and an ethical hard place – love to play the korban, the real victim of the situation.

The root of this word, k-r-b/v, basically means "bring near," as in karov, "close. A makriv korban is a person who brings an offering to God, or a "maker of sacrifice." And as mentioned earlier a "military battle" is a krav, probably from the image of troops drawing near each other in an engagement.

Everyone in Israel who makes a "sacrifice," makriv, feels they are themselves the sacrifice or "victim," korban. So however the drama unfolds, there will probably be many more "fights," kravot, on the battlefield and in parliament, before we achieve kirva, "closeness" or mutual respect and trust.

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Reservists in Tel Aviv demanding universal military service.Credit: Alon Ron
The graduation ceremony of Nahal Haredi, a Haredi army unit.Credit: Aaron Steinmetz