Israel and the metamorphosis of the Sabra through the years – The Jerusalem Post

Posted By on May 7, 2021

SABRA AS hero: Eight on the Track of One by Yemima Avidar-Tchernovitz (Keter Publishing)Its been 90 years since journalist Uri Kesari published the essay We Are the Leaves of the Sabra! in the Doar HaYom newspaper, in which he called for changing the use of the derogatory nickname Sabra into a positive term.This moniker, which was commonly used to refer to people born in Israel, had a negative connotation and brought with it a feeling of derision, contempt and pity, the essay read. Native-born Israelis constitute the greater part of this great and wonderful enterprise of One Nation in One Land.

Kesari, who was himself a Sabra, exposed in his essay a bit of the way native-born Israelis were regarded by new immigrants.

In the Land of Israel, we do not look down upon everyone else from up high. People who were born in Warsaw or in Vienna are the same as us. Their children will be part and parcel of the homeland, and yet still they look down on us. They view us as inferior, as lesser than them, and with limited capabilities. This attitude must not be allowed to continue.

If up until then it was customary to think of native-born Israelis as Sabras, since they were sweet on the inside and prickly on the outside, Kesari chose to offer an alternative interpretation.

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In the near-century since then, the Sabra has become an icon that is widely portrayed in Israeli literature, film and theatrical productions. In an article he wrote on the characterization of the Sabra, Prof. Oz Almog wrote that the term refers to members of the next generation of pioneers from the early waves of Jewish immigration to Palestine in the 20th century, who were members of the labor movement social groups, alongside Jewish youth who arrived in Israel between the two world wars and were assimilated into kibbutzim and moshavim or boarding schools in cities, agricultural villages, as well as in youth movements and the Palmah. According to Oz, the Sabra was defined mainly by his cultural affiliations and not by his country of birth.

The prestige of native-born Israelis reached its peak during the War of Independence and just after it ended. The Israeli public attributed Israels success in the war for the most part to the Sabras and their iconic Sabra look, which included a cloth cap, a scarf around the neck, a thick head of hair, leather sandals, khaki clothing and speaking a tzabarit form of Hebrew.

WRITERS SUCH AS Haim Gouri, Didi Manosi, Shaul Bieber, Dahn Ben-Amotz and Haim Hefer, who established the first IDF entertainment troupe, the Chizbatron, turned the Palmah way of life into a successful entertainment industry. In the 1970s, the Education Ministrys physical education program, spearheaded by Dr. Hillel Ruskin, set about improving Israelis poor level of physical fitness. And of course, we must not forget the famous Israeli educational television show Kishkashta that featured a talking Sabra cactus.

In the first decades of the 20th century, young Sabras were introduced to a high level of language. Dr. Nitza Dori, head of the Early Age Circle at the Religious Academic College of Education in Haifa, says the earliest Hebrew books written for children were published by Haim Nahman Bialik, and later by Levin Kipnis, Miriam Yellen-Shtaklis, Leah Goldberg, Yemima Avidar-Tchernovitz, Avraham Shlonsky and Natan Alterman.

These writers put an emphasis on the Hebrew language, and most of these childrens books included detailed descriptions of the landscapes found in the Land of Israel and peoples love for their country, Dori explains.

The writers aspired to create a model of native-born Israeli children who were strong and suntanned, and so the protagonists were given modern Israeli names like Hagai, Yonatan and Dana. These characters were oftentimes portrayed as being playful, confident children who in their spare time would play games involving heroism and courage, in an effort to shape a character different from the submissive Jewish children in the Diaspora. Teachers devoted time to taking their students on hikes around the country in an effort to impart upon them a love of their homeland by visiting these places and seeing them with their own eyes.

In addition, songs and stories also strictly adhered to these themes, and many songs specifically mentioned the importance of donating money by putting coins in the KKL-JNF iconic blue boxes, continues Dori. Most of the childrens stories took place in agricultural villages or kibbutzim, so that Israeli children would feel connected to Israels rural landscapes and settlements. There were also childrens songs about Israeli youths who would sacrifice themselves for their homeland.

From the beginning of Israeli cinema in the 1930s and until the Six Day War, the character of the male Sabra stood out, notes Dr. Arielle Friedman, head of the communication department at Oranim College of Education. One example is the character Asi Dayan portrayed in the movie He Walked Through the Fields, based on the book written by Moshe Shamir. In many films the Sabra is portrayed as a heterosexual Ashkenazi man who is usually handsome and extremely manly, and oftentimes is an IDF combat soldier and lives on a kibbutz. The Sabra symbolizes our attempt to create a figure who is the complete opposite of the weak Jew from the Diaspora, and is the story of our people.

This figure was seen over and over in Israeli cultural genres, including literature, poetry, posters and films, explains Dr. Liat Steir-Livni, assistant professor in the Department of Culture at Sapir Academic College.

DESPITE CRITICISM of the Sabra figure from the center from early state years, it continued to appear in Israeli culture, such as in the book Khirbet Khizeh by S. Yizhar or in the song Al Zot by Natan Alterman, continues Steir-Livni. The Sabra was depicted as a character who was fully enmeshed in the Zionist movement and was associated with men who worked the land, even though in reality throughout the 20th century only a small percentage of Sabras lived in rural settlements. In the early state years, the Sabra was presented as a man who was courageous, industrious and active in the Zionist movement. Moreover, the fact that he would sacrifice himself for his ideological beliefs was portrayed in a positive light and as a heroic act.

This Sabra figure finally took on new characteristics in the mid-1960s in Israeli films.

Ephraim Kishon did this in his film Sallah Shabati by showing cultural differences. The film mocks kibbutnikim, the various Israeli political parties and the people who worked in the absorption centers with new immigrants, says Steir-Livni. The avant-guard film A Hole in the Moon by Uri Zohar also dismantled the Zionist settlement myth, and contemporary Israeli cinema eliminates the Ashkenazi Sabra character by placing other men at the center, including religious, haredi, Arab, Bedouin, gay and Middle-Eastern characters.

Then we have the female Sabra figure in Israeli film, continues Steir-Livni. The female Sabra is portrayed as an active laborer who works side by side with her male compatriots in complete equality. This description, however, is a complete distortion of reality, of course. Research shows that women who attempted to break through the glass ceiling were met time and again with strong resistance. In actuality, in rural settlements, women were given positions like raising children and kitchen duty, and had to fight for the right to fill other roles.

Prof. Ronit Kark, founder and former director of the Gender in the Field Graduate Program at Bar-Ilan University, adds that early on, the female Sabra character resembled the male Sabra figure, and was portrayed as a rough and tough woman who was direct, nature-loving, brave, wore khaki shorts, worked hard in the fields and took part in nighttime guard duty and combat activity. In reality, the female Sabra character was more complex.

Despite the fact that the female Sabra character was portrayed as a feminist who was equal to her male cohorts, she was also given typical female roles, including as teachers, community activists, notes Kark. Just as the general image of the Sabra changed over the years, so did the image of the female Sabra. Nowadays, the female Sabra character is more diverse and contains a multiplicity of identities, including women from religious or secular backgrounds, and could be Ethiopian, Middle Eastern and Ashkenazi.

From an all-Israeli heroic character the model of self-definition the Sabra became a nostalgic figure at best and a despised figure at worst, explains Prof. Motti Neiger of the School of Communication at Bar-Ilan University. The Sabra was nurtured as a myth and the personification of Zionism. It was created as a contrast to the image of the Diaspora Jew. This character, however, came to personify only a very small portion of the nation, which was quickly becoming much more diverse.

While an elite group can for a certain amount of time be respected for leading the nation, it also must admit to having certain privileges, and at some point it becomes the object of disgust. The Sabra character was created by people, and was also removed by people. Social forces, cultural diversity and individualistic desires forced it away.

Some people will mourn this loss, while others will celebrate it.

Translated by Hannah Hochner.

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Israel and the metamorphosis of the Sabra through the years - The Jerusalem Post

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