The Sabra: The Creation of the New Jew

Article excerpt

by Oz Almong. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2000. 313 pp. $35.00.

Zionism, the Jewish national revival movement, arose at the end of the nineteenth century in response to the two great challenges to world Jewry at the time: assimilation and a newly resurgent antisemitism. The Zionists attempted to address these challenges both politically, by creating an independent Jewish state in Palestine, and through a national psychological revolution, by creating a new type of Jew. In The Sabra: The Creation of the New Jew, sociologist Oz Almog examines the Sabra generation -- Jews who were either born in Palestine or came from Europe at a young age but were educated in social frameworks of the Zionist Labor movement of the pre-State Yishuv -- the generation that was responsible for the creation of the new Hebrew culture in Israel.

By analyzing the writings that they produced, Almog attempts to create a sociological profile of the Sabra archetype, and in his quest he leaves no stone unturned: Almog's is the most comprehensive study of the Sabra culture. He examines the Sabras' language, folklore, manner of dress, humor, literature, and names, as well as the various institutions -- youth movements, military units and agricultural settlements -- that shaped the Sabras' social and cultural landscape. Almog's study is so detailed that the reader becomes familiar with even the most trivial aspects of Sabra life, including their nicknames and their proclivity towards mischief and practical jokes.

Where Almog is rich in describing Sabra culture, however, his critical analysis tends to be one-dimensional, if not simplistic. Almog regards Sabra culture as a "national religion" with a single article of faith -- the negation of the Diaspora. The Zionist pioneers envisioned themselves as warriors and workers, as productive members of a healthy society -- the very antithesis of Diaspora Jews, whom they perceived as feeble, effeminate, and even morbid. This anti-Diaspora sentiment, Almog writes, governed the many facets of Sabra life. It informed their fascination with power and military life; it dictated their hostile attitude towards Jews who immigrated to Palestine, including Holocaust survivors; and it explains their scorn for learning and intellectual life, which they associated with the abnormality of Jewish life away from a homeland.

The archtypical Sabra that emerges from Almog's description, then, is that of a man -- Almog all but ignores the place of women in Sabra culture -- who from a young age spent his life either working the land or fighting for it; who preferred the life of action over the life of contemplation; and who was willing to sacrifice his individual desires for the benefit of the collective. However, this ideal type was not uniquely Zionist; other national movements of the period, which influenced Zionist ideologues (Italy, Poland) promoted similar ideal types. …