Jewish National Fund

The Myth of the Israeli Sabra

by Gad Nahshon

Recently, Israel celebrated its 53rd anniversary (May 14, 1948). Israeli society has always been a dynamic one. Israel is the country of the 'melting pot' and not, as some argue, that many olim are unmeltable. I believe that even the Russian Olim will be melted in twenty or thirty years. But we must bear in our mind that Israel was and is still an 'Aliyah State' or country of immigrants. The 'Law of Return' is the most important law of Israel! (And that the reason that P.L.O. has tried to eliminate it) Our of all the aliyot (waves of immigrations) which occurred in modern times since the first aliyah (1881-1903) from Russia and Romania slowly, slowly emerged a new myth, perhaps a Hebrew myth, perhaps a Zionist myth, perhaps a Palestinian Jewish myth and perhaps mother-nature canonite myth, the 'sabra myth.' Who did not hear about the sabra generation? Who had not encountered, here or in Israel with the Sabra, Israeli born male or female members of a new tribe of Jews.

The sabra has been contradicted with the Diaspora Jew. Sabra often meant a new Hebrew ancient superman. The Zionist answer to the ghetto mentality, a new healthy Jew. A new myth was born, a new myth has been cultivated by the Zionist, by the Israelis. Sabra was good, Diaspora was bad. This myth was promoted by the Zionists, by many writers and later by the Israeli government.

Recently, many Israelis with nostalgic personalities bought a best-seller entitled The Sabra - A Profile (An Oved Tel-Aviv 2000) which was written by a young scholar and sociologist, Oz Almog. It is a unique distinguished pioneer research of this topic. Indeed Israel was the sabra state but it is no more. Almog discussed the roots of this myth. He discussed the typology of this myth. He described the posture, the dress, the habits and the unique characteristics of the sabra generation. He argued that this myth crystallized in the 1930's, before World War II. Almog pointed out that the sabra was the young hero whose task was to produce the 'Hebrew Revolution' or the 'Zionist Revolution'. He had to be completely a 'new Jew': physically, mentally and a person who dedicated his life for the collective, for the success of this revolution.

The sabra had to ignore his personal life. Of course, he had to dedicate his life to the security needs of the majority. These young zealous sabras were the core of the paramilitary organizations such as the 'Palmach' (Hagana), the 'Irgun' and the 'Lehi' (Stern group). They were the ones who volunteered to the Jewish Brigade in 1944 in order to fight against the Nazis.

Almog discussed the various symbols of the sabra myth. He even discussed the sabra words in the Hebrew vocabulary such as the word 'Dugri' (Arabic - tell the truth straight, do not cover up...). He discussed the issue of the sabra as a superman, an elitist. Of course, he discussed the new sabra culture of the Palmach. He used documents and the Palmach literature or the 1948 Generation (Hebrew: Dor Tashach) literature.

Almog's by-product is the discussion of the emergence of a new Israeli - Nativist folklore. The roots: the Palestinian landscape, the love of traveling, the culture of cross-country, the love of nature, archeology and geography, all typical to the sabras. We used to joke that each Israeli is an archeologist (like Moshe Dyan...).

It is not surprising to find that Massada became a must for every sabra. The tradition is still alive and well. It is the idea of back to nature, a Zionist idea which contributed to the myth. The sabra goal was to link himself to mother nature and to the urban lifestyle. Therefore, he had to learn many secrets from the Bedoine or the Arab. The sabra loved the nights in which he convened with friends around the fire and had black coffee from an Arab 'Fingan.' We still sing the songs which linked us to this mythic fire and the beautiful skies of Cannan. By the way, many of these songs have Hebrew-Sabra lyrics but the music came all the way from Russia...(Indeed our classical composers such as Paul Ben-Haim or Tzvi Avni always have tried to compose original Palestinian music influenced by the Arab or the Middle Eastern music.) Around the fire the sabras used to sing and play with Palestinian-Arabic ancient musical instruments such as the flute and the tambourine. Some even loved to dress like the Arabs. And Ben-Gurion believed that the Bedoines were ancient Jews.

These guests, naturally, manifested themselves in the belief that the best sabra life should always be in a Kibbutz. This was the climax of the sabra's idealism and his quest for perfection. Kibbutz meant: you live modestly like hermits. Women do not wear jewelry. The best shirt is the 'blue shirt.' On Friday night you dress with a white shirt. As to sex: Puritanism, abstainism. You must contain yourself!

Almog remarked that the sabra's culture was indeed a military Spartan culture. The sabra culture was also a youth culture. There was humor in this life. Almog documented his remarks by referring us to literature such as Such a Gang by Israel's most distinguished writer and humorist, Israel Wisler (Puchu). We must note that the sabra myth was originated in the womb of the socialist-Zionist culture but Almog did not discuss some other origins of this culture of sabra. Almog traced the heritage of this myth, for example, in Israeli military history: 1948, 1956 were the victories of the sabra generation. Later Arik Sharon and Meir Harzion commanded '101 Unit' (special forces) which was another epitome of the sabra superiority. And the I.D.F. has been a great 101 unit. The myth was also the rise of a new sabra military culture.

It is not surprising that this sabra mechanism was presented as the counter-behavior of the Jews in the Holocaust era. The sabra were educated on the notion that Jews were murdered like cattle. Why did they not resist? Only Jewish partisans were welcomed by the sabras and their leaders. Today we assess the Holocaust in a different approach. But in the 1940's and the 1950's, the sabra was depicted as the new true Jew: he was everything which the Diaspora Jew was not. The sabra spoke about the 'ghetto mentality' which helped the Nazis to launch their final solution.

By the way, the famous journalist, Uri Kiesary, is the first one to describe Palestinian born Jews as a sabra (see: Doar Hayom, April 18, 1931). In his article, Kiesary argued then that the Jewish organizations tend to discriminate against the natives (they favored olim). It is funny because the olim were always the ones who have complained of discrimination...by the veterans, those olim who made aliyah before them.

Almog concluded his great illumination research by sharing with the reader his revisionist thesis: essentially, the sabra myth was the epitome of the quests of the Jewish religion! (without yarmulke and without Kosher food, a religion without a synagogue, a new Hasidic religion). Those sabras, those revolutionaries, their leaders and educators, could not and did not cut their linkage to the Jewish religion. There are many things in common between this myth and the religion.

This myth, this nostalgia, this idealism, this belief that the collective comes before the individual, is gone with the wind. Of course, Israel is a sabra state but the sabra myth of superiority disappeared. The socialist idea disappeared. The Kibbutz as an idea is in a crisis situation. The Israeli society is a normal society, a society without a myth. The state exists for the individual and not vice versa. The idealists must defend themselves. We live in a consumption society, in a global village. We have been Americanized for good. But we still are motivated in Israel by some traditions which are originated in the sabra myth. Some of them are positive, some are negative, but they are ours.

Thank God we still have a unique Israeli spirit. It is a unique soul, a left-over from this myth of the beautiful, charming sabra. This soul was developed, for example, by the forgotten organization in the 1960's called 'The Fire Gang' (Hebrew: Haburat Haash). It was a folk-cultural entity with people such as 'the great suliman' Gen. (Res) Rechavam Zeevy (Israel Minister of Tourism), Yitzhak Adaki, Prof. Menashe Harel, Igal Alon, the famous Palmach commander, one of Israel's greatest statesmen and many others who wanted to preserve the sabra culture, the ones who believe in the spirit of 1948, the ones who were the idealists, the ones who defended our right to be in this region, in our land. This Fire Gang used to have ceremonies at night with Finjan and music all to reinforce this sabra myth. It is history. It is nostalgia. It was the epitome of beautiful Eretz-Israel.

Indeed, are we satisfied with the replacements of the sabra myth? Almog's book is a must for those who want to study about Israel's history and culture. Almog pointed out that the myth was promoted by the leadership of the Jews in Palestine (pre-1948 Jews) or the Yishuv. It was the essence of the educational system. It was cherished by poets and novelists. It was the myth of a hero generation, heroes who were natives, sabras. These heroes established a new free Jewish state. After 1948, they became a minority in Israel Aliyah State. When an Israeli modern country with a political establishment, with governmental agencies and with capitalist economy has been developed according to wish of David Ben-Gurion the myth's role in the life of the Israeli society, in its set of values, begun to erode. Today, this myth is almost dead. But they ask themselves each morning: who is an Israeli? When we had a myth, we knew who we were. Then we were the chosen people, without a yarmulke, and God was our synagogue.


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