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A few prickly questions– the lie of the sabra


Do you know what a sabra is?

It’s the fruit of the prickly-pear (Opuntia) cactus.  It looks a little like the picture up above.

Ironically, the sabra, the very fruit that Jews around the world identify with Israel is actually not a native here.  It was imported from the Western U.S.

By the way, the word and concept “sabra” are not pronounced “sabra” in Hebrew.  Another of those Big Lies of Hebrew school.  The Hebrew word for this North American transplant, this “oleh,” so to speak, is  צַבָּר / tzabar.

According to Wikipedia, a “Sabra” is an “informal slang term that refers to Israeli Jews born in Israel.”

A few weeks ago, someone I knew decided to make trouble, and at a mixed gathering of Arabs and Jews in Haifa, asked an Arab woman if she considered herself a sabra.  She said, “of course.”  (I love getting to know troublemakers.)

Born and bred here, she’s probably been here for more generations than most Jewish Israelis, and speaks Hebrew just as well.  In theory, she has just as much opportunity to serve in the Knesset, and more importantly, she probably has the prickly-pear exterior down pat, right alongside the sweet, warm, cardamom-scented hospitality that every Arabic culture is known for.

I can’t help thinking she’s more of a sabra than me.

But then, he went to a group of people in a small Arab village near Karmiel and asked people there if they considered themselves sabras.  They laughed.  “No,” they said.  Absolutely not.  What do they look like, Jews?

Is this an urban / rural distinction?  Do urban Arabs feel more like Jews?  More like Israelis?  I honestly have no idea.  But definitely something to think about.

If the sabra is central to the identity of the modern Israeli, and today’s Israel is struggling to maintain both its Jewish identity and its multicultural freedoms, we should really think about who actually gets to call themselves a sabra.  Or a tzabar.

On the flipside of that wily cactus is the pricklier issue of who gets to call themselves an oleh.  What, actually, is aliyah?

(You’d think I would have thought about this earlier, given that it’s in the name of my site and all.)

Wikipedia (again, helpfully) says “Aliyah / עֲלִיָּה aliyah, "ascent" is the immigration of Jews from the diaspora to the land of Israel (Eretz Yisrael).”

This definition is very, very clear.  It’s what most Jews around the world are taught.  But again, it’s also very untrue.

According to law, in the modern, multicultural State of Israel, aliyah is the “legal right of any Jew or eligible non-Jew… to assisted immigration and settlement in Israel, as well as Israeli citizenship.” (Wikipedia again)

Let’s say Yevgeny in the Ukraine wants to get out.  Things aren’t so good there, politically or economically.  He had one Jewish grandfather, so he’s good to go.  Luckily for him, his non-Jewish wife, Olga, and their three children are all eligible for that free one-way flight to Israel.

This is not the exception.  This is a “typical” picture of aliyah that we see every day here in Israel’s hinterlands.

This picture includes five “olim” – Olga, Yevgeny, and their three sweet kids.  None of them are Jewish.  All of them are Israelis now.

In January, an official from Israel’s Ministry of the Diaspora said about the situation in Ukraine, “The State of Israel and the ministry see a responsibility for every Jew who lives in the Diaspora.”  I don’t like statements like this, and I have heard many.  At times of crisis, they love to act like they’re rescuing Jews.

They’re covering up the fact that this goes far, far beyond “every Jew.”

(I’m not against rescuing Ukrainians.  But don’t toot your Jew-rescuing horn when the actual numbers of Jews among them are sometimes pitifully low.  And yes, every precious Jewish soul is worth it, so I’ll just step down from my soapbox now.)

And then.  Well, and then, there are many other immigrants here who would LOVE to be called olim, but who aren’t. 

They say that they’re being treated unfairly.  Certainly, they’re not handed the same benefits as olim, Jewish or otherwise. 

Some are married to Israeli citizens, in marriages that aren’t recognized by the government.  Some are illegal immigrants, perhaps a Filipina caregiver who came here to work and found herself pregnant, giving birth in an Israeli hospital and now fighting to stay here with her Israel-born toddler.

As usual, I don’t have any answers, but I’d love to hear your thoughts.

In a Jewish land that isn’t Jewish, an Israel where sabras aren’t sabras, a Holy Land where olim aren’t olim, it’s sometimes hard to know which end is up.  What I do know, with all my soul, is that Judaism and Torah are as intrinsic to this land as soil and air.

Perhaps this is the reason that Israel is called in Daniel 11:41 eretz hatzvi, the “deer land” (maybe because it’s so dear to us?).  According to the gemara (Gitin 57a), “just like a deer's skin can expand, Israel can also expand to fit as many residents as it needs.” (source)

I have no idea what this means (or how the heck deer skin can expand?). 

But since I heard this expression a couple of years ago, I keep coming back to the idea that Israel is being tested.  Our beloved homeland is being expanded in unforeseen ways. 

Sometimes, it feels like something’s got to give.  Other times, the optimist in me believes that, like that stretchy deer skin, maybe we’ll just find a way to keep on expanding our narrow, confining definitions to build a peaceful home for us all.


[sabra cactus headline image © Qasrawi 2000 via Wikimedia]

Tzivia / צִיבְיָה


  1. You have brought up so many issues I don't know where to start.
    Just you should know that many of the Arab clans here only arrived after the zionist movement began bringing economic opportunities.

    1. This is an interesting point. I wish I had a broader AND deeper knowledge of history, and slowly but surely, I'm learning. Thanks!

  2. I thought the same thing as Batya. As I work in the area of conversion here in Israel, there is definitely a distinction between just a non Jew and someone who is zera yisrael-- someone with Jewish roots. The conversion issues are very complex here in Israel and extremely important... Perhaps you might want to explore that for an additional post.

    1. Definitely important. This is a very complicated and sensitive area, both halachically and personally. When I know what I think, then maybe I can sit down to write. Right now, I absolutely do not know enough. Maybe you'd want to write a guest post? :-)


I'd love to hear what you have to say.