Why does an Israeli driver speed up when another car signals its intent to enter his traffic lane? Because he doesn’t want to be a freier–a sucker.
What do Israelis say when dodging military reserve duty? “What do I look like, a freier?”
And how does the Club Riviera advertise its five-star apartments? “Only Freiers Pay More!”
If Israelis could agree on anything–a highly unlikely prospect, but if they could–it just might be that the cardinal sin is to be a freier.
“It’s a national characteristic,” said author Zeev Chafets, who included a chapter on the subject in his book about Israelis, “Heroes and Hustlers, Hard Hats and Holy Men.” The topic “is something we talk about all the time.”
A freier, in Israeli eyes, is a shopper who waits in line to pay retail. It is a driver who searches for legal parking rather than pulling onto the sidewalk with the other cars. And if he does this in a rush to file a tax return, he is the consummate freier.
In short, a freier is anyone who cedes ground, plays completely by the rules or allows someone to get the better of him. The ideal Israeli is clever and tough, and a freier is the opposite. A pushover–in the way that Israelis often perceive Americans to be.
It is a stereotype that Israelis readily accept, adding only that a true Israeli is like the native sabra, or prickly pear–sharp on the outside but soft and sweet inside. And they explain that, like everything else in the Middle East, the fear of being a freier is rooted in at least 2,000 years of history.
Freiers are naive, apt to fall into a trap. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu beat the Labor Party’s Shimon Peres in elections last year in large part because of Peres’ nice-guy image and view that Israel must be generous from its position of strength, giving up land now to gain long-term peace.
“Both sides believe anything offered up first will be pocketed by the other side,” said the diplomat, who asked not to be identified. “Whenever things break down, this is usually the problem. They will hold out carrots but do not want to give one up until they are sure the other side will give.”
Lucy Shahar, co-author of the book “Border Crossings: American Interactions With Israelis,” explained that, in the case of Israelis, this is because they do not share the American belief in win-win negotiations. “In his heart of hearts, an Israeli believes that is impossible,” Shahar said. “In the Middle East, usually someone loses badly. Nothing in the Israeli experience suggests that everyone wins here or in the diaspora.”