Updated: Oct 21, 2021
There's a reason that native-born Israelis are called Sabras. The term comes from a tenacious, thorny desert plant that English speakers call the prickly pear. What makes it unique is that it has a tough exterior that covers an unexpectedly sweet, softer interior fruit. Israelis, most of whom came out of persecution in Eastern Europe and the Middle East, tend to have a very prickly, tough exterior. But inside, they are salt of the earth. The sweet fruit is not always visible—not on a busy Sunday (Sunday is our Monday) morning in Tel Aviv. That is all prickly exterior. But if you are in need, really in need, Israelis will give you the shirt off their back.
The Sabra Cactus
I'm reminded of a story that we put it on a few weeks back, where an Orthodox Jewish right-wing settler gave her kidney to the son of two Arabs living in Gaza. And this was just after 4,000 Gazan rockets were fired into Israel. At the end of the day, the boy needed a kidney. And yes, she understands that he could grow up to become a Hamas fighter. But he's three, and he needed a kidney.
Don't tell my wife I said this
My wife is a good example of what it means to be a Sabra. Although she is far sweeter than the average Israeli and human beings in general. (Anyone who knows her knows that I am not exaggerating.) When it comes to business dealings, she just assumes the person is trying to cheat us. If something is missing, "They stole it."
But if there is a need, a death in one's family (sadly, becoming more common in the past 18 months), someone sick… you have never seen anyone go faster from being Clark Kent to Superman. She's making food, she's calling up those who are grieving, and she's telling me that she wants to give a donation. She does not donate to needs but to people.
And when she travels to Ethiopia to minister to orphans, she comes back with a near-empty suitcase. She visits the parents of friends in Bet Avot (nursing homes). But she is street smart too…and don't you cheat her at the market!
Living with an existential threat
This is what happens when you have a people living in the midst of their enemies—living with an existential threat on every border. It's a harsh reality. As much as I love my life in Israel, I was reminded of this reality on May 10th when my plane landed, and rockets began to fall, as Hamas sought to kill as many Israeli Jews as possible. Israelis have to be strong and resilient. That's the prickly side.
But we also are ready to help each other. We are in this together—us against the world. When Israel first became a nation, every person was completely dependent on everyone else. You shared your food and often lived together. In fact, the only real successful version of socialism was the early kibbutzim—these were collective farms where everything was equal.
They only succeeded in those first years because to build a nation in the desert under fire, you have to live as a community. Of course, as Israel solidified and began to prosper, the kibbutz model began to crack. Socialism is not sustainable over time; they couldn’t survive without government subsidies. A few years ago, I went deep into the desert and interviewed folks at one of Israel's most famous kibbutzim—Yotvata. We will do a Sunday Story on that soon, and I'll share the video with you. It's quite entertaining!
The History and the Prime Ministers
Initially, the Sabra was a negative slur against the native Israelis from immigrants—referring to their rough exterior. But then… "Journalist Uri Kesari, who himself was a sabra published an essay, 'We Are the Leaves of the Sabra!', on April 18, 1931, in the newspaper Doar HaYom (The Daily Mail) in which he argued against the discrimination which was cast against the native-born by the new immigrants." He focused on the softer interior of the plant.
The label became popular in the Yishuv (the term for pre-1948 Israel), and over time, the native Israelis outnumbered the immigrants that were coming in. But in the 30s, the Yishuv was run by Jewish immigrants from Russia and Germany, most of who came out of intelligentsia, and we're not used to the rugged life of agriculture.
Most of our prime ministers were born abroad, and the first Sabra Prime Minister was Yitzhak Rabin in the 70s. Then Barak (1998), Sharon (2000) and Olmert (2006) came. Benjamin Netanyahu was the first Sabra to serve as the prime minister who was born after independence in 1948, and now Prime Minister Bennett is the second.
From Enforcer to Father
My dear friend Eitan Shishkoff tells a story that powerfully illustrates the dichotomy of the Sabra. He was a new immigrant back in the early 90s. His Hebrew was not great. He went to drop off a friend at the train station, and as he was leaving, he got confused. A guard began to yell at him, telling him he was going the wrong way. He was gruff and aggressive and yelling so fast that Eitan simply could not understand his Hebrew.
As he approached, Eitan rolled down the window and, in broken Hebrew, through tears, tried to explain that he simply was confused, and he is an immigrant, and he's doing the best he can. I'm actually tearing up writing this, as I can relate to this story as a former new immigrant myself.
When the Sabra security guard assessed the situation and realized that he was not dealing with an obnoxious fellow Sabra simply breaking the rules because it was easier, but a gentle new immigrant who was simply confused, his entire demeanor change. He went from enforcer to father, and he began to comfort Eitan. With a tender tone, he told him everything was going to be OK. He would eventually learn Hebrew. And then he gently led him in the right direction.
I probably should've started with that story.