It's a Sin to Be a Sucker in Israel

TIMES STAFF WRITER

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.

Of course, no one likes to be a sucker. The weakling who gets sand kicked in his face is universally scorned. Men and women all over the world lift weights to avoid this fate. But even muscle-bound Israelis dread a face full of sand on a daily basis, and the fear of being a freier plays into every aspect of life, from the most mundane task to the peace process with Palestinian Authority President Yasser Arafat.

This has earned Israelis an international reputation as rough and gruff, more brash than New Yorkers and ruder than the French. 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.

"He was misperceived as someone who would make us freiers," lamented former aide Uri Dromi, "even though he never made concessions or compromises on something important to us."

Now, Netanyahu makes the point wherever he can that he is no sucker. In a recent interview with the daily newspaper Yediot Aharonot, he credited his muscle-flexing for the drop in terrorist attacks against Israel. "The Palestinians have learned that we aren't freiers," he said.

Two months ago, a Maariv newspaper reporter asked Netanyahu, "Would you agree that Arafat is no freier?"

"Yes, but neither am I," Netanyahu blustered.

The Middle Eastern Way of Negotiating

So does the fear of being a sucker bear upon peace negotiations?

Israel's bottom line in a peace accord with the Palestinians will be determined by "the sense that they are making decisions governing the existence of the Jewish state and future of the Jewish people," said a U.S. diplomat in Israel. Not by the fear of being a sucker.

And yet, peace negotiations are affected by the fact that neither Israelis nor Palestinians want to risk being a sucker by making concessions before the other side does.

In negotiations, an American generally will put his cards on the table, expect the other side to do the same and assume that a happy compromise lives somewhere in the middle. But Israelis and Palestinians do not bargain in this way.

"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."

Because of this, business deals with Israelis also frequently start out on a more stubborn note than they do with Americans and Europeans. In the early stages, Israelis may see negotiations as more of a contest of wills than as potential cooperation. When an Israeli businessperson says "no," it may be a bargaining position rather than the final answer a foreigner thinks he is hearing.

"I guess they think if they're tough in the beginning, they won't get hurt," said Kevin Kunz, Swiss general manager of the American Colony Hotel in East Jerusalem. "They don't show weakness. But you can get past it. Eventually you develop a relationship on different terms . . . a real partnership rather than a business relationship."

As with the sabra, the sweet fruit is inside. But day-to-day life is spiny. The fear of being a sucker makes Israel a more rough-and-tumble place than its modern malls and high-tech industries might suggest. It turns driving into a bumper-car competition and makes grocery shopping as trying as arm wrestling.

Disregard for rules--of common courtesy or the road--makes life unpredictable.

The freier factor affects attitudes on nearly every subject. When Israel's telephone company, Bezeq, announced an 80% drop in the price of international calls, Israelis did not simply rejoice. "I feel like such a freier for having paid the higher rates all these years," said an Israeli consumer who frequently phones abroad.

On the other hand, former Finance Minister Dan Meridor recently lost a showdown with Netanyahu over economic policy and ultimately lost his job--and still rose in national stature. He stood up to the prime minister, proving he is not a freier and positioning himself to challenge Netanyahu for the Likud Party leadership.

In Maariv's weekly column, "Who Is an Israeli?" readers define themselves as the anti-freier:

* "An Israeli is someone who lets you back out of a parking spot only if he needs it himself."

* "An Israeli is someone who pretends to be asleep when an old man gets on the bus."

* "An Israeli is pro-peace--as long as it is not made with enemies."

Memories of Years in the Diaspora

Theories abound on the origin of an Israeli's fear of being a freier. Social commentator Stuart Schoffman says it is a response to the Jews' victimization in the diaspora. Israelis built their own state to ensure they would never again be oppressed by the goyim, or non-Jews, and they mean to be strong. Nobody's freier.

"If Jews were scholars and merchants in the diaspora, the new Israelis would be fighters and farmers," Schoffman said. A country settled by fighters and farmers is hardly tentative. Pioneers are macho--they are not freiers. They lay claim to the land rather than ceding ground.

But Israel is a small and crowded country of scarce resources dug out of a grudging desert. There is only so much ground to go around. Add to that nearly 50 years of conflict with Arab neighbors over land and you get an Israeli who has grown up staking territory in a semipermanent state of tension, never certain if he would be going to work or going to war.

Perception of Life as a Zero-Sum Game

"There is a perception here of life as a zero-sum game that stems from being a minority in a hostile area and fighting for survival," said Yoram Peri, a former newspaper editor at Hebrew University's Communications Department.

A zero-sum game leaves losers. Intent on winning, Israelis walk around with their guns drawn--in full view, that is, from the waistband of their bluejeans--and their chests thrust out as if to say, "Just try me. I am not a freier."

Amnon Dankner, a commentator for the daily newspaper Haaretz, offered a different explanation for the Israeli concern with being a freier: It stems from a feeling of deception. Israel was founded by socialist Zionists who urged their followers to sacrifice for the good of the Jewish state. Work hard and stay away from luxus--luxury--they were told. " 'Careerist' was an ugly word," Dankner said.

But while many Israelis stayed in the army and slaved on the kibbutz, the children of political apparatchiks went to university to become professionals--particularly some of the Ashkenazim, or Eastern European Jews. Now they belong to a yuppie elite in a wealthier Israel that is abandoning the collective ideology for free-market individualism, Dankner said.

The farmers and fighters, meanwhile, are left feeling like freiers.

Today, many parents try to keep their sons from serving in combat units in southern Lebanon, a nagging war of attrition with Iranian-backed Hezbollah guerrillas. Soldiers engaged in this dangerous duty feel that they do not get enough respect. "We want more appreciation," a paratrooper complained recently in the Jerusalem Post, "and we don't want to be spoken of as the suckers in Lebanon."

While the vast majority of Israelis still fulfill obligatory army service, increasing numbers say the follow-up reserve duty is for freiers. As is paying full taxes and obeying the law to a T.

But why do Israelis rebel against the government of the Jewish state they have worked so hard to build? "We're still battling the 2,000-year-old Jewish tendency to distrust government, because the government was outsiders," said Chafets, the author.

Linguists are uncertain of the origin of the Hebrew word freier. Gabriel Birenbaum, of the Academy of the Hebrew Language, says it may come from the turn-of-the-century German term frei herr, or free man, referring to a promiscuous man. Or it may be taken from the Yiddish freier--someone who is free from keeping the religious mitzvahs, or commandments.

Israeli folklorist Dov Noi says the word appears in Yiddish songs from early this century meaning someone who is courting or in love. Since a lovesick person's vision can be distorted, Noi says, perhaps this evolved into the idea of someone who is naive or easily taken for a ride.

To prove he is no freier, an Israeli will argue a point with all his heart and both hands. Even when saying "yes," he will shout as if contradicting someone who already has said "no." And he will let you know the customer is always wrong--unless it happens to be him.

"In London, the culture is to give way, be a gentleman, don't compete," said Peri, the former editor. "But an Israeli is the opposite. If you are stronger, why should you give way to someone weaker? In a debate, the British will say, 'You have a point.' In a debate here, no Israeli will admit he has been persuaded to change his mind. That shows weakness," he said.

Americans as the Biggest Freiers of All

Americans often find the Israeli attitude intolerably rude. Israelis, meanwhile, find Americans to be the biggest freiers of all. They are naive idealists. Whether tourists or Jewish immigrants, they are seen as easy marks.

Author Shahar, a dual citizen of Israel and the United States, said Americans are perceived as innocents who follow the rules and who believe a person will actually do what he promises to do. "An American is willing to trust until someone proves to be untrustworthy," Shahar said. "Israel is much more like the rest of the world, where the basic assumption is that people . . . should not be trusted until proven trustworthy."

Israelis, she said, view rules as something to be challenged. If a sign says "no entrance," Israelis will try the door anyway. If a doctor's assistant says no appointments are available today, an Israeli will keep pushing in the belief that exceptions will be made. Only a freier takes no for an answer.

Israelis see this rule-bending as an advantage, particularly in times of war, when flexibility and improvisation can be a key to victory.

Americans see used-car dealers as villains and sympathize with the consumer who has been had. But buy a lemon in Israel, and you are at fault. "You were naive and stupid enough to buy the car," Shahar said. "You were the freier."

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