Saturday, February 14, 2009

We don't get fooled again!

"It is the worst thing for an Israeli to be, a freier in his own eyes and in the
eyes of other Israelis."
--Tom Segev, Israeli journalist and historian

There is an interesting and totally Israeli concept we discovered recently. And it explains a whole heck of a lot Israeli behavior. It seems like the essence of all Israelis, more than Zionism, is to never be a freier. What's a freier (also spelled fraier, frayer, frier)? It means sucker or chump or pushover.

It seems like the thing that Israelis fear most is being a freier, or even being perceived as being a freier. They don't like being taken advantage of or fooled, and they don't like being accused of doing it to someone else.

Thou shalt not be a freier

By 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 the Haaretz newspaper alone, the word has appeared more than 1,000 times in the last decade.

Jeff was at lunch the other day with some co-workers who, in trying to edify him on the Israeli culture, explained the term freier to him. He told me that it was like a light bulb went off in his head. It's an Ah-Ha! moment, to be sure. Jeff told me about this concept, and I have been thinking about it non-stop. I am reminded of a lot of our dealings with Israelis. I don't want to label an entire nation, but the concept of not being a freier explains a whole lot of the reasons why Israeli behave the way that they do.

Simple things like why do Israelis rush onto an elevator on the ground floor instead of letting the others out? Why do Israelis take up two lanes in traffic and merge incessantly? Why do Israelis crowd to get on a plane or a theater even though there are assigned seats? Why are there no lines in Israel, just a mob of people in front of a door? Why do they bring a cart full of groceries into the express aisle? Why are Israelis so confrontational? I had read in other places that Israelis are rude. I had been told that Israelis are pushy. Israelis are none of these things. Israelis just refuse to be seen as a freier. Ah-ha!

After talks with Palestinians broke down yet again, then Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu proudly told Israeli journalists: "I am no freier! We are not suckers," he said. "Israel cannot give and give and not get anything back in return." Even now, talks are being held up because current PM Olmert says that there will be no deal unless Israel gets back the sole POW/hostage that Hamas had captured. One soldier, Gilad Shalit, captured two and a half years ago, is holding up peace talks. I found a t-shirt that read: Shalom Ken Frier Lo! Shalom=peace. Ken=yes. Frier=sucker. Lo=no. "Peace, yes. Frier, no!"

But even in everyday life, I see this behavior everywhere. Once I scrutinized a restaurant bill for a minute too long. The server rushed over to aid me. In broken English she went on and on trying to explain the charges, long after I had handed her a credit card. I said "it's ok, it's ok, I pay now." But she wanted to explain, so she got out her cell phone and called a friend for a translation. The extra charge was tax. She went to big lengths to explain because she didn't want me to feel like I was a freier.

Yesterday, there was a huge traffic jam on the freeway due to an accident and weekend traffic. Jeff, who is in essence an Israeli driver now, forced his way from the on-ramp into the incoming traffic. This is the way Israelis drive; they force themselves in. Sure enough, a few minutes later, the same car that Jeff 'cut off' was forcing his way back into traffic! The guy had maneuvered his way from behind our car to the oncoming lane again, just so that he could cut our car off. So Israeli! He didn't want to be seen as a freier.

I heard it explained like this: In America, a sucker is someone who buys a stereo out of the back of some guy's van in a parking lot. In Israel, a freier is someone who doesn't know about the guy with the van in the parking lot and instead goes and buys his stereo in a store.

Think of Israel this way, "the Jewish people have been freiers for 2000 years and they'll be damned if they're going to let it happen again. The thing is, this is sometimes taken to extremes. Some think that obeying the law (particularly when no one is watching) makes you a freier - paying parking tickets, obeying traffic laws or paying taxes can be a freier's hallmark. " -- from This American Life

It seems like being a freier applies to most everything. Rules especially. A freier follows the rules. And everyone knows that those who follow the rules are suckers. Those who get ahead in Israeli society know how to bend the rules to fit their own goals. I am not sure if that's why there are corrupt politicians here (there are corrupt politicians everywhere). But I know there is a whole lot of illegal parking!

I am now convinced that Israelis are not cheap. I don't think they haggle neccessarily to save money. I think they haggle (both sides, the seller and the consumer) because they do not want to be taken as a freier. Once when I was in the process of being short-changed at the shuk, the guy who was trying to cheat me smiled broadly and gave me back my correct change and an extra piece of bread. I think he was giving me his approval, "She may be an American, but she is no freier!"

Anyway, if you think about it, it's quite a big conundrum. Here you have a society where in almost every situation absolutely no one wants to be seen as a freier. Unstoppable force vs. immovable object. But compromises happen. People argue/negotiate. Things eventually get done. To me, though, it all seems like such a big waste of energy.

Here's some one's great blog post of being taken as a freier in a supermarket:

Another about not being a driving freier:

Finally, what has to say about kindness:

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