From the Sabras to the Settlers

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February 11, 2010

Jewish identity has undergone revolutionary change twice, and is currently involved in a further such attempt. The first time was during the Babylonian exile, when the Pentateuch was written as the core text around which Jewish identity in exile could be formed. The second followed the destruction of the Temple by the Romans, and the need for a portable Judaism that could exist without this central point. This produced Rabbinical Judaism. The third revolves around the rebirth of the Jewish nation in the land of Israel.

All nations, peoples and religions change identities. They do so over time and (usually) in a way that members find imperceptible enough to convince themselves they’re still part of the same group, connected to the same traditions, and not some form of heterodoxy. It’s part of adapting to a changing world, and thus a necessary and ongoing element for any form of longevity. But it’s likely unique for a group to change its identity twice in a revolutionary way and still survive. And it’s a tribute to the Jewish intellect that it has managed to do this. The creativity of the Jewish mind has allowed revolutionary solutions to the problems of exile. It is these solutions that have meant the survival of the Jews up to the modern period.

This is to refer to the spiritual survival of the Jews: the survival of the Jews as a group with some sort of core, meaningful identity to which all can refer. But, in the modern period, with a renewal of anti-Semitism in Europe, and the Holocaust, the physical survival of the Jews has forced itself to the top of the agenda. This is not to say, evidently, that physical threats of great force and horror did not occur before our time, merely that such threats never involved the crazed global (an)nihilism of the Nazis. Unless one believes the Bible, there was never a serious threat of extermination before Hitler.

In fact, most of the early stages in the formation of Zionism came as responses to anti-Semitism, from the the first serious efforts to settle Israel following the 1881 pogroms in Russia - to Herzl’s writing of The Jewish State in the wake of the Dreyfus affair - to the (ultimately) state-forming Second Aliya. Moreover the recognition of the State of Israel internationally came soon after the Holocaust and was profoundly influenced by it.

But you cannot build a state on a negation of evil (no matter how great that evil). There must be some other content to it; something that gives it a meaning beyond simple physical survival. If Israel amounted only to a place where the Gentiles could not get at the Jews, it would just be the Ghetto writ large. I want to look at the Balfour Declaration, the first important stage in the formation of Israel that did not involve anti-Semitism. Rather than a place where the Jews could hunker down against the rest of the world, it involves a different image of the nature of relationship of the Jews with the rest of humanity.


For a long time the Balfour Declaration, the statement by the British government legitimizing the idea of Jewish homeland, had been a mystery to me. Perhaps, though, the mystery is not so surprising - for the author of the Declaration, Foreign Secretary Arthur Balfour, was himself something of an enigma - ‘elusive’ is the word most often used. But, with regard to the Declaration, the enigma is surprisingly not so much what his motivation was, but what caused him to be so passionate about it. In his June 1922 speech, A Defense of the Mandate, Balfour said:

“…we desire to the best of our ability to the give [the Jews], in peace and quietness under British rule, the opportunity of developing those great gifts which hitherto they have been compelled from the very nature of the case only to bring to fruition in countries which know not their language and belong not to their race [.] That is the ideal which I desire to see accomplished, that is the aim which lay at the root of the policy I am trying to defend; and though it be defensible indeed on every ground, that is the ground which chiefly moves me.”

On one level, this is just the standard Zionist idea of remaking the Jew in the land of Israel. But, on another, it’s a version of the “civilising mission” with which European countries (primarily Britain and France) would occupy “barbarous” areas of the world and civilise the population. Here, it’s true, Jews are being reintroduced to a country (Palestine). However, still, the reference to “the opportunity of developing, in peace and quietness under British rule” clearly relates to the civilising mission seen in the rest of the world.

Elsewhere, Balfour makes it clear that his hopes go far beyond that:

“It was…a great question of human, intellectual and emotional development. I could never have thrown myself with the enthusiasm which I have always felt for this cause into it had it merely been a question of taking out of the most unhappy conditions a certain number of the Jewish race and re-planting them in the land of their forefathers. If it had been merely that, I should have been, I hope, an enthusiast for the cause. But I think it is going to be much more than that. I hope and believe that the highly endowed people who have done so much for Western civilisation in some of the highest walks of human effort will do even more, if you give them the chance, in the original land of their inspiration, to carry out the work side by side with all the great civilised nations of the world - the chance to work side by side with them for the common advancement of knowledge.” (1927)

In a sense, Balfour has the same conception as I opened this article with, of the Jews as examples of a people with a particularly creative intellect. Balfour sees the Jews as already having contributed powerfully to civilisation (Einstein and Freud are examples), but feels they will do much better in their native land. This is where the civilising mission comes in. For it is Britain’s role to provide Jews a safe space in their original home so that they can develop their gifts to the full. Balfour seems to feel that the Jews can provide something special in “The original land of their inspiration”. And what did they produce there originally? As Balfour told Harold Nicholson, it was essentially religious. The Bible - and Christianity:

“[The Jews] have many material aptitudes, a wide spiritual foundation, but only one idea. That idea is the return to Zion. By depriving them of that idea the world has dimished their virtue and stimulated their defects. If we can help them to attain their ideal, we shall restore them to their dignity. Upon the basis of that dignity their intelligence will cease to be merely acquisive and will become creative. The New Jerusalem will become a centre of intelligence: and Judea a centre for the oppressed.”

The New Jerusalem! This is the term for the perfect society that will follow the return of Christ to Earth. Balfour is definitely thinking in religious terms. One might hazard a guess that he’s particularly inspired by the creation of Christianity when Israel was home to the Jews all those years ago. Not much use to the Jews, one might say. But Balfour, although a Christian, was determined to reconcile his religion with rationality. I don’t think this has to do with the literal return of Christ. It’s a kind of deracinated form of the New Jerusalem, where the Jews, returned to Israel, finally get to let their creative intellect run wild (note the reference to “their intelligence…becom[ing] creative”) with marvellous results. This is the Jews functioning as a “Light Unto the Nations,” who on the return to the land of Israel, burn incandescently bright in spiritual rebirth.

The Balfour Declaration, a key event in the remaking of current Jewish state, derives from a positive view of the Jews by a Gentile (and thus by extension his country). Since the Holocaust, Jews are in danger of seeing the outside world as composed as entirely of anti-Semites, or potential anti-Semites. Here’s one event, and an event that matters in the history of the Jews, that is distinctly different. Balfour is a philosemite. My contention is that the history of Israel must acknowledge this precedent, that the identity of the Jews created therein must include this. That there are Gentiles out there who have positive feelings about the Jews, and that it has mattered in a core way to us.


It is generally believed that the key factor in building up the Jewish state, and thus the new Jewish identity, were the immigrants of the Second Aliya. To put this in context, very few of the Jews fleeing Russia in the wake of the series of pogroms in the early 20th century came to Israel, and of them only a few stayed. Of these maybe a couple of hundred or so were what was to become the core of the Second Aliya. They were exceptional in being a particularly motivated and resilient bunch. The joint children of the 1905 Russian revolution and the concurrent pogroms, these young men (and some women) characteristically came to Palestine already blooded in socialist organisation and suffused by the spirit of the self-defense groups. Teenagers or in their early twenties, with their energy and their belief in building a new Jewish socialist society in the land of Israel, they were definitive for what Israel was to become.

They really lived in this goal while trying to make it happen in the world. In the end the kibbutz became the agency for concretising their hopes. Here, the new Jewish society was to be built in primal form, radiating outwards from the kibbutzim. Here were “the [co-operative] seeds of the future”.

If the kibbutz was to be the new society in miniature, it was quite logical that, in its sphere of influence, the creation of a new Jew was to be fostered. Not perhaps what Balfour had envisaged, but new nevertheless. This was the Sabra (There are different versions of what a Sabra is. This seems to me the most adequate definition.) In The Sabra, sociologist Oz Almog states,

“The Sabras were the product of what historians call the Hebrew revolution. That revolution’s first generation has generally been called the pioneer generation [That is the Second Aliya], while the second generation has been called the Sabra generation. The Sabra generation includes the Jews born in Palestine toward the end of World War I through the 1920s and 1930s who were educated in social networks belonging, formally or informally to the labor movement of the Yishuv, as well as immigrants who arrived in Palestine as youngsters (alone or with their families) and were assimilated into the same milieu…The book’s definition of a Sabra is thus not biological (someone born in Palestine) but cultural - a generational unit identified not by country of birth, but rather by affiliation to the institution that imprinted a specific culture on these young people.”

According to Almog, the Sabra took an idealized form:

“When blond, handsome, fearless Yaron Zehavi, commander of the Hasamba gang, defied the evil British policeman Jack Smith, who threatened to throw him and his valiant comrades in Jail, how different he seemed from the cowed and pious Diaspora yeshiva boy in Europe! Here was the new Jew, born and bred on his own land, free of the inhibitions and superstitions of earlier ages; even his physique was superior to that of his cousins in the old country. Zehavi, the hero of the most popular series of children’s books produced by the new State of Israel, was the classic Sabra, a native-born Israeli modeled on the ideal that the book’s author, Yigal Mosinzon, himself exemplified. Zehavi represented what has been described as a sudden and near total sociological revolution that, in a historical instant, produced a new society and culture with its own customs and codes and a new language and literature.”

It is noticeable that there’s nothing very intellectual about this image. If Balfour had hoped that Jewish intellect should become creative in the land of its birth, here it has disappeared. Plainly the Jewish intellect was involved in his creation. But it seems that, once created, the New Jew was not particularly distinguished by it. Almog has a section where he discusses the anti-intellectualism of the Sabras. He notes their distrust of “fine words” and elaborate theorizing, as well as their preference for “straight talking”. The whole idea of the unpolished, blunt young Sabra became central to the Israeli self-image. No messing about, just get on with it. But, at the same time, there was a dichotomy in him, evident in the choice of the word itself. The Sabra has sharp spines but is internally soft and sweet. It is this dual nature that was held to be representative of the New Jew: tough on the outside, but inside sensitive and gentle. The Sabra generation were the victors of the 1948, the war that gave Israel birth - and were accordingly the heroes and beloved archetypes of the new Jew in the Land of Israel. Yitzhak Rabin was one of them - and they and their predecessors (Ben Gurion came to Israel with the Second Aliya) in the Labour Movement dominated the new country in its first decades.


The following quote from Almog’s book makes for slightly queasy reading:

“The socialist Zionism of the labor parties, in whose doctrine the children of the agricultural settlements and the socialist youth movements were educated, taught the younger generation to see itself as an elite. The labor Zionist ideal was presented as a new model of Zionist excellence and as a social utopia that should serve as a prototype for others. The children of the settlements learned to perceive their lives as the realization of a sublime ideal of equality and concern for their fellow men, and to see themselves as members of a priestly caste meant to set an example for the Yishuv and the entire world.”

It makes me uncomfortable to think of a system designed to churn out people who think they’re exceptional. Someone’s got to pay for that, somewhere down the line. Still, the kibbutz became a central part of both the Israeli self-image and its image in the rest of the world. Both the following citation, from historian Ze’ev Sternhell’s The Founding Myths of Israel, and the quote from Almog, draw on the same idea of the Jews as being a “light unto the nations”:

“From the beginning, the kibbutz had a special place in the Zionist ethos. Agricultural collectives fired the imagination of millions of Jew throughout the diaspora and were a source of pride for the Tel Aviv bourgeoisie. Their ideological enemies among the radical bourgeois Right were helpless in the face of the spirit of sacrifice and the pioneering fervor of the conquerors of the wilderness, the builders of roads, and the drainers of the marshes. The weapon-bearing farmers were an outstanding symbol of the land’s conquest and its settlement with the economic and moral assistance of the entire people. This wonderful vanguard, which also realized in itself the dream of an egalitarian society, was the labor movement’s supreme weapon. In its name budgets were provided by the Zionist Organization, and in its name national funds were collected for the Histradut’s enterprises. Agricultural collectives were exhibited with great pride to all visitors from abroad, and all of them, Jews and non-Jews, socialists and members of the European nobility, were thrilled and excited at the sight of the egalitarian utopia coming to life in the land of the Bible.”

I recently met a British guy in one of my local bookshops (I live in the UK) who had been in Israel in the 1960s. It is clear that he had fond memories of that time, which he had spent on a kibbutz and doing archeological research. This man was very negative about the Israel of today. In general, such people (positive about Israel in the past, negative now) are thought of as liking the Jew of the past because he was a victim, but taking umbrage at the Jew who fights back (that seems to be the standard Jewish take on such persons). That is, they are philosemites who are really antisemites. This wasn’t my impression of the fellow. He seemed to have been really inspired by his time on the kibbutz (Of course no Brit would actually come out and say that. Stiff upper lip and all that). If anything, he seemed to fit the Sternhell quote of a non-Jew excited by the egalitarian utopia of the kibbutz, who had seen Israel in those terms, but no longer did. There was a sense of regret. Victimization didn’t come into it. This would be an example of a Gentile relating (at least in the past) to Israel in a positive way.


Oz Almog contends that the Sabra ideal came under pressure in the late 1960s. I have a recollection that tends to support this idea. I remember turning up in Israel in the summer of 1972 and hearing one of my uncles say (in front of me), “Is he (i.e. me) the New Jew?” I was 18, and had only been in Israel a few times. I was a diaspora Jew, born and bred. And yet here was a kibbutznik, in the communal dining room of his kibbutz, asking if I was the “New Jew”. I suppose I was the right sort of age. The question “is he the New Jew?” seems to imply a kind of paternalistic interest on the part of the spectator that goes back to Balfour and his Jewish friends. I was lugging a rucksack about, so I was the opposite of the physically feeble stereotype of the “old Jew”. And I was idealistic, which I still am. Nevertheless, the question about my identity definitely suggested an uncertainty about what the future of the New Jew might be.

This uncertainty was exacerbated by the Yom Kippur War. This was a tremendous shock to the Israeli system in all sorts of ways. The political consequences, felt from the late 1970s onwards, was the decline of Labour Party and the system that surrounded it. For the first time in Israel’s history, a right wing party came to power, and the years since have been, largely, dominated by the right. Culturally a questioning of the ideals associated with the Labour system undermined the centrality of the kibbutz to the Israeli self-image and also saw severe attacks on the Sabra ideal. But a more short term result of the war was to throw Israel into deep self-doubt. In a sense, a moral vacuum was created which brought forward a new force. A new group of young believers.

This was Gush Emunim, a millenialist group of young Jews who believed that by settling the West Bank they were taking part in God’s overall plan. Indeed, they construed the very reformation of the Jewish nation in Israel and its victory in the Six Day War as steps on the way to the promised coming of the Messiah, believing that we are in Messianic days (or in the period just before). This is rather different from the secularist ideals of the founders generation (including the creation of the New Jew). But, on the surface, Gush was similar to the pioneering kibbutz movement, breaking new ground, full of young, vigorous believers in the Zionist ideal, self-sacrificing. They have presented themselves in this light, and have been understood as inheritors of the Zionist legacy. Much of what gives them their strength is that on they carry on this image of the youthful, vigorous Israeli, breaking new ground.


The settlers who first appeared the the 1970s are still with us. They have proved an extremely long-lived force. This, in terms of longevity, is comparable to the period in which the Sabra was an unquestioned ideal. They have not just survived but have thrived, being, effectively, a leading force in Israeli society for nearly four decades. This could not have come to pass without the settlers drawing on something extremely deep within Israeli society, something far more profound than simply their drive to retrieve “Greater Israel,” as important as that ideal is to their ideology.

Take, for example, Benjamin Netanyahu’s argument for “natural growth”in his 2000 book, A Durable Peace:

“…the demand to stay out of [Palestinian] neighborhoods is not presented in terms of dismantling them but in terms of a “freeze” on Jewish construction…But freezing these communities is condemning them to gradual and certain death, as is ultimately the case with anything alive. A freeze would prevent the natural growth and health of these communities, ensuring that there would be no new hospitals or clinics, no new schools, no new stores, libraries, or services of any kind. It could mean that children could not build homes near their parents, that struggling young communites would be doomed to keep struggling forever. Why would anyone want to live in such places, frozen in time as though in a fairy tale?”

Netanyahu draws on the vocabulary of youth in “struggling young communities”, revealingly, “as though in a fairy tale”. It’s as though he actually sees these communites as children. It’s not just that, characteristically, they are started by groups of young Jews squatting on Palestinian land, but that youth seems to be carried on in the communities themselves. And, of course, they remain dependent on Israel for ancilliary services - water, electricity, military support etc. In a way, the settlements take over the role of the Sabra, as children of the nation as a whole. Because these settlements keep being initiated, there will always be a supply of these “struggling young communities” It’s as though they are permanently young. I don’t think that’s by chance.

I want to suggest that while the New Jew was born of the idea of creating a new Jewish identity on the return to Israel, something got stuck. The people on the cutting edge of Israeli society, from the Second Aliya to the Sabra to now the activists of the settler movement, are always young individuals in their late teens and early twenties. There is a kind of “cult of youth” in Israel that keeps repeating itself in each generation. One can clearly see in Lord Balfour, and his Jewish sources, a desire to develop the New Jew in the land of Israel. The very fact of development means that the individual concerned must never be fully formed in his personality. That’s why the Sabra image of the New Jew is always that of a young person.

But it doesn’t explain why the Sabra is part of this pattern of youth that repeats itself from generation to generation. Perhaps it is that people find something in this image of Israel - youthful, vigorous and breaking new ground - that is particularly appealing. To hold to that image, in the current generation, they must avert their eyes from the craziness of the Messianiac ideals, and the sheer unpleasantness of all that it takes to keep the settlements in place. That’s why it matters so much.

The aversion of the eyes is not so difficult to understand. Part of the reason Jews can do this is the very cult of youth itself. If this has been associated with the leading edge of Zionism from around 1905 until now, what follows is that those qualities associated with age, such as wisdom, mature consideration, and thoughtfulness have gradually become sidelined for those qualities associated with youth, such as vitality, drive, and action. The thing about youth is, by definition, that it’s not mature. It doesn’t understand fully. It doesn’t look too closely. Youth trusts that things will be alright because it is, as yet, not fully developed and responsible.

This can be quite a dangerous situation. Think of the Second Lebanon war, when the drive for action was palpable. But why should such a sidelining of the qualities of age for the qualities of youth occur? I want to suggest that it is because the Jews in Israel wished to be “New Jews” in contrast to the “Old Jews” of the Diaspora. That is why the pattern repeats from generation to generation, because they still wish that. It’s a Peter Pan syndrome.

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