Israeli identity and the anti-‘freier’

If an American Jew strives to be a mensch, then an Israeli Jew seeks to be an “anti-freier.”

AN ANTI-FREIER is likewise a hard person who pursues his goals aggressively. (photo credit: REUTERS)
AN ANTI-FREIER is likewise a hard person who pursues his goals aggressively.
(photo credit: REUTERS)
“Be a mensch” is a phrase one will likely hear frequently growing up in a Jewish neighborhood in the United States. Striving for compassion, honesty, tikkun olam (“fixing the world”) and general goodness is such a quintessential feature of Judaism in America that wanting to be a mensch, which means “a good person” in Yiddish and connotes a person of compassion, morality and integrity, seems a natural outgrowth of this.
This may constitute a cause for dismay for American Jews who come to Israel and find that Israeli Jews live by a completely different dictum: “don’t be a freier,” or a sucker in Yiddish. The main feature of a freier is proneness to exploitation, and it is something of which Israelis are perpetually afraid. In Israel, you should not be nice, compassionate, generous or even scrupulous since these traits will leave you open to exploitation. As Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said to a group of students in 1998, “We are not freiers, we do not give without receiving.”
Israelis reserve praise for those hard, clever people who can use, manipulate and exploit to get what they want; those who are used, manipulated and exploited are the freiers (and often mensches).
If an American Jew strives to be a mensch, then an Israeli Jew seeks to be an “anti-freier.” This has led to a simultaneous solidification and erosion of the Israeli identity. On the one hand, the anti-freier culture has made it easier to identify the “true” Israelis. On the other hand, it alienates Jews (not to mention non-Jewish minorities) who should feel part of Israeli culture. To more fully understand this, I would mention two common components of anti-freier culture: soldiership and sabrahood.
By soldiership, I mean a specific aspect of Israel’s all-encompassing military culture that emphasizes personal hardness and aggression. An anti-freier is likewise a hard person who pursues his goals aggressively.
Hence, the more successful one’s military career, the better one’s claim to anti-freierness and Israeliness. Those who do not serve might as well be non-Israelis and are almost certainly freiers.
I encountered this attitude once in a conversation with a co-worker while working at an Israeli signage factory. After telling him I had not served in the IDF, he responded, “Oh come on! You have to be soldier unless you want to be parve.” Parve, of course, meaning in this context bland, soft, unimportant, basically a freier.
Still, soldiership is not enough. Many Jews who come to Israel and serve in the military will tell you that they feel like outsiders regardless. This brings me to sabrahood, the concept that one must be a sabra, i.e. a Jew born and raised in Israel, to really be Israeli. Non-Israelis are soft and do not have what it takes to be truly Israeli; sabras are tough.
Yet sabra soldiers can still be freiers if, in the pursuit of true Israeliness, other anti-freiers prove themselves by “freierizing” the former. And this is the crux of the problem: the anti-freier culture progressively diminishes the number of true Israelis, rewarding the anti-freiers who freierize the aspiring Israelis in their way. Therefore, in the anti-freier culture, the Israeli identity shrinks. One may wonder how prominent historical Israeli mensches like Golda Meir and Abba Eban would be received in today’s anti-freier Israel.
Although mensches may now find it more difficult to prosper in Israel, I am optimistic. This culture has not yet taken hold on Israeli society so strongly as I have described it. In fact, the population seems to have already begun rejecting it. Prof. Gabriel Ben-Dor presented research at the 2017 Herzliya Conference showing that “militarism” among Jewish Israelis is at an all-time low. At the same time, one may find sabras who feel they are outsiders just as much as olim who have served in the IDF.
It seems the anti-freier culture is self-destructive, but the question remains what will replace it following its demise? I hope for the rise of, in President Reuven Rivlin’s words, a “shared Israeliness,” in which all Israeli citizens may feel united by their common homeland. Even before this, though, I would like to see the return of the mensch to prominence so that we may have a leader who represents rectitude rather than one who egregiously takes pride in not being a mensch.
The author is a 21-year-old Jewish Israeli American from New York City, currently studying for a BA in Israel at IDC Herzliya. He can be reached through email at