How Israeli Culture Killed The Mensch
“Be a mensch,” a person of integrity, is a phrase one will likely hear frequently growing up Jewish in the United States. Striving for moral goodness is a quintessential feature of Judaism in America.
Israeli Jews live by a completely different dictum: “don’t be a freier” — a sucker. A freier is easily exploited, something Israelis are perpetually afraid of. You should not be nice, compassionate or generous, 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 fully understand this, one should examine 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-freier-ness and Israeli-ness. 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 coworker 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 pareve.” Pareve, 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, 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. And this is the crux of the problem: the anti-freier culture progressively diminishes the number of true Israelis; 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 Israel.
Although mensches may now find it more difficult to prosper in Israel, I am optimistic. In fact, Israelis seem to be rejecting this mentality. Professor 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.