Survival syndrome

The 'frier' syndrome: Why Israelis feel the need to be ahead in every situation.

Israelis_521 (photo credit: Marc Israel Sellem)
(photo credit: Marc Israel Sellem)
If you are blessed to live in Israel, then you’ll know exactly what I mean: You are standing in line at the bank and suddenly, from out of nowhere, there appears a ghost-like figure who cavalierly mumbles, “I was here!” Before you can reply, he scoots over to the first available teller. Or you are in line at the post office – where, presumably, the number machine prevents line-jumping – only to find that someone with a later number has taken your place.
When you protest, you hear any number of mea culpas: “I’m just asking a quick question”; “I lost my number”; “What I have to do is really important!” or “You mean they have numbers now?!” Israelis, I have found, can be among the most caring, sympathetic, giving people in the world. But they don’t like waiting in line.
They don’t like rules or being told what they can and cannot do.
And they certainly don’t like being taken advantage of. In fact, the very thought of being suckered out of something that ostensibly is coming to them will send them into a sandstorm of a tizzy.
This is particularly true in traffic, where drivers will routinely put their lives and the lives of their entire family in mortal danger all for the sake of one sacred car space.
My favorite highway story: A friend of mine was driving down a busy street and noticed a driver on the side of the road desperately trying to merge into the flow of traffic. Nobody would let him in until my friend magnanimously waved him to go ahead. A few minutes later, the two lanes of the road converged into one, and now it was my friend’s turn to merge. Luckily, he saw that the car next to him was the same driver he had just helped, so he motioned for him to please give way.
The other driver shook his head and inched forward. My friend, incredulous, rolled down his window and said, “Don’t you remember me? I’m the guy that let you in just a couple of minutes ago. And now you won’t let me in?” The other fellow stuck his head out the window and yelled back, “Because you were a freier [sucker] then, do I have to be one now?
” Where does this attitude come from? Why do we have this burning need to be at the front of the line? Why so often do we look for ways to circumvent the normal procedures and get an “edge” on the next guy? Why must we find a deal, use the side door, be so obsessively concerned that we will not get our fair share? Is it because we are neurotic, impatient or insecure?
Or is it just plain rudeness and lack of consideration for the other person?
While all of the above may sometimes apply, I have another theory to explain our fits of dysfunctional behavior. I call it “survival syndrome” (not to be confused with survivor syndrome – another all-too-frequent phenomenon in our volatile neighborhood).
For centuries, during much of our time in exile, the Jewish people were kept out of the loop by the local population, relegated to second- or third-class status in the Diasporas in which we sojourned. The normal avenues of progress and prosperity were often closed to us. We could not own land. We could not be members of guilds or unions to secure and protect our rights. Many, if not most fields of employment were off-limits to Jews. If we were allowed to study in universities at all, there were strict quotas limiting our numbers. We could not vote so we were unable to exert influence on the heads of state, let alone hold office and sit in the seats of power.
We were largely disdained, disenfranchised and defenseless.
But we had to live! We had families to feed, homes to maintain, day-to-day expenses that had to come from somewhere. And while the Jewish community may have maintained some small charity funds for emergency situations, there was no comprehensive welfare system to provide for our needs. Either we found a way to get by, or we starved to death.
And so, in order to survive, we often had to skirt the system. We had to use every ounce of our creativity and ingenuity, every means at our disposal, to find sustenance where none existed, to create opportunities out of thin air. And, when necessary, we had to resort to extra-legal, less-than-mainstream methods to put food on the table. We had to bend – and very often break – the rules because the deck had been hopelessly stacked against us.
What choice did we have? We brought this survival instinct, this coping method with us to the Middle East. On a regional scale, we still face the same obstacles we faced in the past. We live in a neighborhood populated by bullies who refuse to give us an even shake. They impose a double or triple standard on us; while they can get away with murder – literally – and no one lifts an eyebrow, our every move is scrutinized by a thousand eyes. They have size, weight, clout and money. If we agree to play strictly by the rules of the game, we don’t stand a chance.
And so our defense forces – whether in uniform or incognito – do what it takes every day to level the playing field.
From kidnapping Eichmann to violating African airspace en route to Entebbe to blowing up nuclear reactors threatening our existence, we have our limits when it comes to respecting international law. And those limits end where our survival begins. In a less than perfect world, it must be this way.
But there is one qualification to this syndrome. Internally, here in our own land, under our own government, we can control the system. We can – and should – create a society where it will never again be necessary to go beyond the law or to stretch the mores and morals of above-board behavior. In our own country, free of prejudice and discrimination, we must be able to trust one another as well as those who lead us. Trust that they are not out to get us and that we do not have to go into survival mode. Trust that we will not have to resort to less-than-pristine methods to eke out a living or earn our daily bread.
Trust that even if we have to wait a little longer in line, or in traffic, we will still get to where we need to go.
The writer is director of the Jewish Outreach Center of Ra’anana and a member of the Ra’anana city council. [email protected]