Muscular. Courageous. Bronzed. The stereotype of the sun-kissed sabra is Ari ben Canaan, as played by actor Paul Newman in the 1960 movie Exodus. The word sabra stems from the name of the prickly pear cactus—tzabar in Hebrew and sabr in Arabic—whose thick thorny skin covers a sweet and succulent soft flesh. An affectionate metaphor, it describes native-born Israelis whose rough and impertinent manners hide their good hearts and sensitive souls.
Sabra originated as a slur, according to The Comprehensive Dictionary of Slang, by Ruvik Rosenthal, referring to uncivilized Jews born in Israel. It didn’t pick up its positive spin until journalist Uri Kesari wrote a 1931 essay in the newspaper Do’ar Ha-Yom, entitled “We Are the Leaves of the Sabra!,” in which he appealed to newly arrived immigrants to respect their native-born counterparts.
Palestinian-born Jews quickly appropriated sabra as a badge of honor. “They were looking for a word to distinguish themselves from the Europeans,” says Zel Lurie, a former Jerusalem Post writer who moved from Brooklyn to British Palestine in 1928. It was so well-liked that Haganah underground members selected tzabar as the secret code name for their wireless communication system, according to The World Dictionary of Hebrew Slang by Dahn Ben-Amotz and Netiva Ben-Yehuda.
The first sabra was Avshalom Feinberg, suggests Israeli sociologist Oz Almog in his 2000 book, The Sabra: The Creation of the New Jew. Born in Gedera in 1889, Feinberg was a hero of the Jewish resistance in Ottoman Palestine. He and other graduates of the first class at Tel Aviv’s Herzliya Gymnasium were the prototypes of the sabra, according to Almog, who explains that the term has more to do with culture and sociology than geography. The pioneer generation of Jews born in Palestine throughout the 1920s and 1930s were identified not by where they were born, but rather by the institution—kibbutz, moshav or pre-military corps—that “imprinted a specific culture on them.” They “already had sabra characteristics, such as a rough and direct way of expressing themselves, a knowledge of the land, a hatred of the Diaspora, a native sense of supremacy, a fierce Zionist idealism and Hebrew as their mother language.”
Although the word applied to both men and women, the standard sabra was male, says Israeli journalist Haim Watzman, who translated the Almog book into English. “Women existed in sabra folklore less as individuals than as part of the group in which the men dominated,” he says.
It was Israel’s independence in 1948 and its impressive victory over its enemies that placed the sabra squarely in the international imagination. They are “fearless young people,” wrote Gertrude Samuels, a New York Times correspondent, in a series of articles in 1949 on the new state of Israel, “…intolerant of intolerance and selfishness who, for all their shortcomings, exude the self-confidence that comes from never having been pushed around.”
Ironically, although sabra worship downplayed the role of immigrants who made up the vast majority of the country’s citizens, the prickly pear cactus—opentia ficuis-indica—itself was not native. Introduced to Israel some two centuries ago from Central America, the prickly pear adapted so successfully that it seemed as if it had been part of the hilly landscape for millennia. It was also absorbed into Israeli culture, showing up in paintings, stories and songs even before becoming a symbol of the Jewish native, says Almog.
Sabras were a minority, numbering about 5,000 to 8,000 in the 1930s and growing to about 20,000 by 1948, but they played an outsized role in the early development of the Israeli psyche. A small homogenous group, they became a model for the rest of Israeli society, Almog explains.
Idealized often and proudly, sabras became nearly synonymous with Zionism. Tom Segev wrote in his book, 1949: The First Israelis, that the 1948 generation of authors took “the mythical sabra, the native-born soldier-boy” as their main subject, describing him as “handsome, upright, honest, bold and hounded by none of the complexes of the Diaspora.” Ferdynand Zweig, writing in his 1969 Israel, the Sword and the Harp, called the sabra a “buoyant, extrovert type with a heightened sense of living and purpose…a complete antithesis to the model of the Ghetto Jew.” And the word made its way into Israeli popular culture: In 1956, the cartoonist Kariel Gardosh, known as Dosh, brought the sabra to life in his popular cartoon character “Srulik.” Drawn in black and white, Srulik exemplified the sabra’s characteristics: A puckish figure with a tembel or bucket hat, khaki shorts and open sandals, he sported a self-confident and roguish air.
The sabra began to lose some of his luster in the late 1960s and early 1970s when the rise of an anti-heroic middle class challenged his primacy, Almog maintains. The tension between these generations intensified throughout the 1980s with the Lebanon War, peace with Egypt and the decline of the kibbutz and labor movement. As time went on, the sabra was relegated to an historic figure in Israel’s formative era, less relevant to the present. This trend has continued: Benjamin Netanyahu, born in 1949, is the first prime minister to be part of what is known as the Dor haMedina—the “Statehood Generation.”
Today, more than 70 percent of Jews in the State of Israel were born there, and the word sabra no longer refers to the pre-1948 generation, but to all native-born Jews. It is also used less often. “People still call themselves sabras, but usually only when talking to foreigners,” says Yael Adar of the Israeli tour company, Gems in Israel. One of her tour guides likes to introduce himself as a sixth-generation sabra. “It is a source of great pride,” she says.