The Tzabar and the Sabbar: A Refection on Memory and Nostalgia

Zionism is a total disaster. It is a colonial, expansionist, nationalist philosophy based on racial chauvinism. Those who take its precepts to the letter have been robbing the land of the indigenous Palestinian people in the name of the Jewish people. It is regarded by many of us as a major threat to world peace. Its devoted supportive lobbies around the world call for more and more bloodshed in the name of ‘liberalism’, ‘democracy’, ‘freedom’ and even in the name of the ‘Judeo-Christian’ alliance. Yet, Zionism, and we better admit it, has managed to do something that even God has failed to do: it united the Jews. Zionism has become the Jewish symbolic identifier.

In a recent paper of mine, “The Politics Of Anti-Semitism,” I explored the role of Zionism as the cultural identifier of the contemporary Diaspora Jew. I argued that Zionism has managed to win its ideological foes by offering a transparent collective structural set of symbolic identifiers. Rather than ideology and politics, it was a Zionist fetish and Hebraic paraphernalia that made Zionism into a success story. Accordingly, it established a language (Hebrew), it provided the Jew with a concrete geographical orientation (Eretz Israel), it conveyed an image of a culture (the new Hebraic folklore), it even managed to present a false image of political and ethical polarity (left and right). If the founders of Zionism set about to save the Diaspora Jew from his anomalous condition, we then have to confess that it has fulfilled its mission. Zionism’s success has nothing to do with its ideology, politics or even with its devastating practices. Clearly, not many Jews understand what Zionism stands for (ideologically, politically, ethically and practically). Not many Diaspora Jews openly succumb to the Zionist school of thought nor to its non-ethical praxis. Instead, they subscribe to ‘Israeli folklore’, the odd Hebrew word, the falafel and the humus which they mistakenly identify with Israel (rather than Palestine). They sing along to Israeli music whether it is Hava Nagila, Yafa Yarkoni or Yeuda Poliker. For those who fail to see it, ‘Israeli culture’ is a direct product of the Zionist project. Clearly, modern Hebraic culture has managed to hijack the world of Jewish symbolism. Zionism established a new form of Jewish tribal belonging.

Yet, as much as Zionism conveys a cultural success story within the Jewish Diaspora discourse, it is rather meaningless as far as Israelis are concerned. The Tzabar, native-born Israeli Jew, does not benefit at all from Zionism being a structural set of symbolic identifiers. In fact, the Tzabar doesn’t need to identify with any symbolic structure based on geographical aspiration. He or she is born into a self-sufficient brand i.e., Israeliness. Similarly, the Tzabars do not need the Hebrew language as a means of identification, they use it as a means of communication. Nor does the Tzabar need a geographical orientation, he or she is orientated by birth. The Tzabar doesn’t even subscribe to Israeli folklore, in fact, most Israelis can’t stand Israeli folklore and they by far prefer foreign pop, rock, Turkish and Greek music and even some wild free jazz.

“The Memory of Land” by Juan Kalvellido*

As funny as it may sound, that which is taken by the Diaspora Jew as a structural symbolic identifier, i.e., the Hebraic fetish, means very little to the Israelis. By the same token, as much as the Diaspora Jew subscribes to ‘Israeliness’, that very ‘Israeliness’ means very little to the Israelis. This shouldn’t take us very much by surprise: the notion of ‘Americanism’ means far more to non-Americans than it does to Americans. Similarly, the tendency to drop the odd French word, a habit that is apparently so common amongst British or American pseudo-intellectuals, is a reflection of a similar fetish. ‘Frenchness’ attributes very unique meaning to those who know only very little about France. Yet, not a single French person thinks that speaking French is something astonishingly clever. Likewise, the Diaspora Jew may use the odd Hebrew word to ascertain his tribal belonging, however, it would take more than just a single Hebrew word for the Israelis to feel at home on a stolen land, namely Palestine.

Memory and Nostalgia

I am a human being, I am a Jew and I am an Israeli. Zionism was an instrument to move me from the Jewish state of being to the Israeli state of being. I think it was Ben-Gurion who said that the Zionist movement was the scaffolding to build the home, and that after the state’s establishment it should be dismantled.

— Ari Shavit’s interview with Avrum Burg, “Interview: Leaving the Zionist Ghetto,” Haaretz.

What is left for the Tzabar to identify with? Not much, so it seems: the land on which he lives belongs to some other people. The food which makes him feel at home (humus and falafel) is hijacked from those same other people, i.e., the Palestinians. The language which he employs when he is emotionally moved (either very happy or very angry) is Arabic and it is borrowed again from — guess who? — the very same ‘other people’, the Palestinians. The home in which he dwells was built by those other people . . . I think you know who they are, yes, the Palestinians.

It is rather apparent that the core of the Hebraic cultural realty, the slang, the food, the blue sky, the sea, the desert, the spring and the autumn, the hills and the valleys, the olive trees… all belong to the land (Palestine) rather than the swelling apartheid State that seized it momentarily (Israel).

What could the Israelis do to escape their fragmented unauthentic reality in which everything that may look like ‘home’ actually belongs to those ‘other people’?

Those who visit Israel learn the answer just a few minutes after they land in Tel Aviv: cosmopolitanism and Western liberal glamour is the Israeli answer. The Israelis deal with their hopeless craving for authenticity by multiplying the symptoms of their inherent detachment.

New visitors to Tel Aviv are occasionally astonished by the cultural multiple choice the town is there to offer. Tel Aviv is indeed one of the most ‘open’ cities in the world. You can find every Western fashion brand and American food chain there. Every rock star and pop act integrates Israel into its world tour schedule. In some of Tel Aviv’s leading restaurants you can have Sushi for a starter, Hungarian Goulash as a secondo, French entrecote for the main course and Baklava for desert. I learned recently that Tel Aviv is not only a ‘sex attraction’ but as well the next “gay capital of the world”. This is indeed very encouraging to learn that in between the humus and the falafel the Tzabar can grab a sashimi and indulge in some highly advanced socio-erotic activity according to his very personal choice. This may as well be the ultimate form of freedom that the ‘Jews-only State’ can offer: cosmopolitanism soaked in some advanced Western libidinal liberalism.

Yet, Israel, the libidinal, liberal, ‘only democracy in the Middle East’ is engaged as well in some very different sinister practices. In spite of the Israelis embodying the ultimate manifestation of Western broadmindedness, in spite of their ‘culinary openness’, they are also starving millions of human beings to death, namely the Palestinian people. In spite of the fact that the Israelis invested some real effort into turning Tel Aviv, their cultural capital, into a ‘town with no boundaries’, Gaza City is a now a boundary with no town. It is a huge concentration camp, held back by repeated curfews and shattered by constant artillery barrages and military raids. Israel has turned Palestinian towns into large urban prisons that are surrounded by barbed wire, watchtowers and guard posts.

We are left to ask ourselves, how is it that the people who are so immersed in ‘cosmopolitanism’, ‘multi-culturalism’ and Western liberal ideology are so sinister towards the indigenous population of the land? How should we fit the exclusive inclination towards segregation reflected by a gigantic apartheid wall together with the liberal self-image peppered with ‘culinary openness’? How do we fit the devious tactics employed against the Palestinians together with the poetic Israeli self-image of being an enlightened humanist nation? How do we fit the ‘Israeli Shalom seeking’ together with ‘security walls’?

We may have to admit that we are dealing here with a severe form of fragmentation that is on the verge of collective Schizophrenia. I would argue that here we are confronting an inevitable collision between ‘Memory’ and ‘Nostalgia’.

Memory is realised as the ability to store, retain and retrieve information. Memory refers to the factual recognised past and its actual interpretation. Nostalgia, on the other hand, is the wish of returning to the ‘native land’. Nostalgia is usually accompanied by the fear of never seeing it again. To a certain extent, Nostalgia is the yearning for the unfulfilled past.

The clash between Memory and Nostalgia is of the essence of the Israeli fragmented reality. The Tzabar is torn between the inclination to see himself as the protagonist in the serial episode of Sex and the City, as much as his memory takes him to his last visit to London, Paris, New York and Tokyo. Nostalgically, he is back in the Ghetto, surrounded by ‘security walls’ and soaked in chicken soup.

The yearning for the Ghetto could be explored in what the Israelis regard as ‘Shalom seeking’. Though Shalom is often translated into ‘peace’, it has almost nothing in common with peace. When Israelis talk about ‘Shalom’ they do not refer to reconciliation, harmony or the transformation of their society into an ecumenical community based on universal values. When Israelis seek ‘Shalom’ what they mean is (their) ‘security’. This is why Israelis and their supporters in the West interpret ‘unilateral disengagement’ as a ‘Shalom seeking’ move. While peace refers to the genuine search for love, harmony and brotherhood, Shalom means pretty much the opposite: separation and segregation. While peace means coming out of one’s shell and opening one’s heart to one’s neighbour, Shalom means the erection of a ‘security fence’ and the emergence of some deep collective loathing towards the rest of the universe.

Yet, this bizarre Hebraic interpretation of the notion of Shalom is far from being an Israeli creation. As I mentioned before, Shalom expresses the nostalgic yearning for the European Ghetto.

Already in 1897, in his famous speech to the First Zionist Congress, Max Nordau conveyed some real explicit longing for the ‘long lost Ghetto’:

The Ghetto . . . was for the Jew of the past not a prison, but a refuge. . . . In the Ghetto, the Jew had his own world; it was to him the sure refuge which had for him the spiritual and moral value of a parental home. Here were associates by whom one wished to be valued, and also could be valued; here was the public opinion to be acknowledged by which was the aim of the Jew’s ambition. . . . Here all specific Jewish qualities were esteemed, and through their special development that admiration was to be obtained which is the sharpest spur to the human mind. . . . The opinion of the outside world had no influence, because it was the opinion of ignorant enemies. One tried to please one’s co-religionists, and their applause was the worthy contentment of his life. So did the Ghetto Jews live, in a moral respect, in a real full life. Their external situation was insecure, often seriously endangered. But internally they achieved a complete development of their specific qualities. They were human beings in harmony, who were not in want of the elements of normal social life. They also felt instinctively the whole importance of the Ghetto for their inner life, and therefore, they had the one sole care: to make its existence secure through invisible walls which were much thicker and higher than the stone walls that visibly shut them in. All Jewish buildings and habits unconsciously pursued only one purpose: to keep up Judaism by separation from the other people and to make the individual Jew constantly aware of the fact that he was lost and would perish if he gave up his specific character.

Clearly, this old speech expresses the current Israeli innermost desire.

For the Israeli, living within ‘security walls’ is “not a prison, but a refuge”. . . . In Israel, the Tzabar has “his own world”. In Israel, the opinion of the “outside world” has “no influence”, because it is the “opinion of ignorant enemies”. Nordau expresses the exact spirit that led Ben-Gurion half a century later to say “It doesn’t matter what the Gentiles say, what matters is what the Jews do.”

In his speech, Nordau speaks about the spiritual asset of the Ghetto, which makes Jew feel “secure through invisible walls which were much thicker and higher than the stone walls that visibly shut them in.” May I suggest here that it is this very insight that explains the astonishing physical measures of the Israeli ‘apartheid wall’? Yet, while Nordau referrers to ‘invisible’ walls, the Israeli ‘defence wall’ is rather visible and it is made out of grey reinforced concrete.

As much as the Israeli craves celebrating his imaginary cosmopolitan liberal reality, as much as he wants to enjoy sex in a big city by recalling his short-term memory, the nostalgic yearning drops him back into a bowl of steaming ‘chicken soup’ in a very small Shtetl. He is longing for a ‘secure’ Jewish life and it is this yearning that transforms the ‘Jews-only State’ into an inflammatory Ghetto. Yet, unlike the old European Ghetto, where Jews were rather timid, our contemporary Israeli Shtetl is a belligerent, expansionist, nuclear superpower.

We may also have to admit that the Tzabar has failed to generate a homogeneous reality in which a new civilized being is reclaiming his place in humanity based on harmony and peace. As much as Zionism was there to create a new authentic Jew, it led to the emergence of a commune of fragmented beings shattered by the inevitable collision between the short-term cosmopolitan memory and the tribal clannish nostalgia.

The Tzabar and the Sabbar

A friend who returned from Palestine a few weeks ago was kind enough to share his impressions with me. On his journey from Jerusalem to Ramallah he noticed that the Israelis invested some real effort into turning the Israeli side the wall into an ‘architectural feature’. In places it was largely tiled and decorated with Jerusalem stone and with flowers, in other parts artists created some pastoral imagery of landscapes, lakes and olive trees. The Israelis also raised the ground near to the wall on their side just to make the wall look smaller and friendly. However, once my friend crossed the checkpoint towards the Palestinian side, the full disturbing physical scale of the wall was impossible to ignore. He saw a gigantic grey concrete wall measuring eight to ten meters high now invading the skyline of what is left of Palestine.

I thought about it for a while. I basically reflected about Nordau’s notion of the Ghetto and his duality between ‘prison’ and ‘refuge’. And I grasped that as much as the Israelis are inclined to lock the Palestinians behind walls, the Israeli apartheid wall was also nothing less than a self-inflicted imprisonment that the Jewish State imposed upon itself. Within the Zio-centric discourse set by Nordau: prison equals refuge.

Consequently, the Tzabar is nothing less than a tragedy. He was doomed to failure. The Tzabar was there to erect the new Hebraic Ghetto, he was there to repair the trauma of abandonment of the old Jewish Ghetto which was a result of European enlightenment and the trend towards Jewish emancipation. The Tzabar was set to become a new ‘civilized being’. Indeed mission impossible, it aimed simultaneously towards two polar opposites: universalism as well hardcore tribalism. Apparently, the seeds of the Israeli apartheid and the foundations of the ‘security wall’ were established already in the First Zionist Congress.

However, as much as the Tzabar exposes himself as an aggressor and as a self-inflicted historical tragic entity, it is pretty clear that not many people fully understand the conceptual and ideological depth behind that deeply charged word, namely Tzabar. The Hebrew word tzabar is derived from the Arabic word Sabbar, which is the name for the “prickly pearcactus that is scattered all over rural Palestine. The allusion is to a tenacious, thorny desert plant with a thick hide that conceals a sweet, softer juicy and tasty interior. Israeli-born Jews who call themselves Tzabars are there to insist upon regarding themselves as “tough on the outside, yet sweet and tender on the inside.”

The Memory of Land

This very image of the Israeli native Jew as a duality between ‘toughness’ and ‘sweetness’ is now reflected in the topography of the region. The prickly walls that shred Palestine into Bantustans are there to protect the sweet juicy image of ‘cosmopolitan’ Tel Aviv. Tragically, the landscape of shredded Palestine is now a reflection of the Tzabar self-image and an extension of his identity. Israeli aggression towards its neighbours together with self-proclaimed righteousness is nothing but a reflection of the ‘tough and the sweet’ fantasy.

Seemingly, Israelis insist upon regarding themselves as ‘sweet and juicy’. At the end of the day, self-loving has made it into the Jewish common stereotype more than a while ago (as opposed to self-hating, a quality that is attributed solely to the odd Jewish humanists and thinkers). Yet, out of Israel, some people share some serious doubts regarding the sweetness and the juiciness of the Israeli and the Tzabar. We have recently learned that Israeli ministers and IDF officers are now formally advised to refrain from making overseas journeys just to avoid arrests for crimes against humanity.

However, there is something that even the majority of the Tzabars don’t know. It is all about the symbolism of the cactus they are so happy to be called after. This very prickly pear cactus, actually symbolises the Israeli robbery of Palestine.

The Sabbar cactus is actually one of the last remnants of old Palestine on the ground. The Sabbar cactus grows in proximity to areas of human settlement, it is nourished by human waste. The Sabbar was an integral part of the Palestinian villages’ rustic landscape. It was an inherent part of the Palestinian life cycle. Though Israel has managed to erase the traces of the entirety of pre-1948 Palestinian villages and rural life, the Sabbars came back soon after. Wherever you see a cactus in this land, you are more than entitled to deduce that a Palestinian village, farm or a house had been wiped out. The Sabbars are indeed prickly. Yet, their spikes are pointing at the Tzabars who colonise the land and erased its history in the name of Jewish history.

For Palestine (the Land) and Palestinians (the People), the Sabbars are far from being nostalgia, they are subject to short memory and a lively present. They are there on the stolen land craving for the Palestinian Falahs who nourished them all throughout history. They are there on the land maintaining the history of the Palestinian villages. They are there loaded with fruit, awaiting Palestinian kids to come and grab their pears.

As much as the Tzabar proclaims to be ‘tough and sweet’, the Sabbar is there to depict the facts on the ground:

Palestine is a piece of Land, Israel and the Tzabar are just another passing moment in a phantasmic Jewish heroic phase. This phase is now entering its final stage and it will be coming to an end very soon.

* The illustrator of “The Memory of Land,” Spanish-born Juan Kalvellido, is a member of Cubadebate, Rebelión and Tlaxcala. His site is

Gilad Atzmon, now living in London, was born in Israel and served in the Israeli military. He is the author of The Wandering Who and Being in Time and is one of the most accomplished jazz saxophonists in Europe. He can be reached via his website. Read other articles by Gilad, or visit Gilad's website.

5 comments on this article so far ...

Comments RSS feed

  1. jaime said on January 4th, 2008 at 3:55pm #

    “We are left to ask ourselves, how is it that the people who are so immersed in ‘cosmopolitanism’, ‘multi-culturalism’ and Western liberal ideology are so sinister towards the indigenous population of the land? …. How do we fit the devious tactics employed against the Palestinians together with the poetic Israeli self-image of being an enlightened humanist nation? …”

    This is pretty bizarre stuff.

    It’s like there is a complete gap in Atzmon’s historic reality. He’s obviously living some kind of fantasy world of his own creation.

    All of the now intense security measures were implemented following Arafat’s 2000 intifada and rash of attacks against Israel by suicide bombers; and now the more recent and ongoing attacks from the Gaza Strip, which Israel evacuated in 2005 to the 1967 border.

    The occupation and separation wall have drastically reduced the number of casualties both Jew and Arab in recent years. Sadly, there’s no end in sight as terrorists and their friends continue their efforts to destroy the State of Israel.

  2. sk said on January 4th, 2008 at 7:13pm #

    Reminds one of Tony Judt’s essay on the country that wouldn’t grow up. Judt also wrote of a meeting where he ‘heard one speaker, by analogy with Helmut Schmidt’s famous dismissal of the Soviet Union as “Upper Volta with Missiles,” describe Israel as “Serbia with nukes.”‘ WWII-era “Croatia with nukes” seems like a more apt comparison to me. That country’s official policy was ‘to purge Croatia of Serbs, by “killing one third, expelling another third and assimilating the remaining third”.’

  3. greybeard said on January 4th, 2008 at 10:27pm #

    Only no assimilation is planned; a leading Israeli jurist has even said that if Israel’s “demographic problem” with Arab Israelis becomes more acute, the state has the right to intervene. Exactly how was not specified? Forced sterilizations? Perhaps further ethnic cleansing. Amos Elon and Abraham Burg have already agreed with Atzmon (for differing reasons). But even an artificial society takes some time to recognize its own demise.

  4. jaime said on January 5th, 2008 at 10:51am #

    Note that the name and presumed context of speech of the now legendary “Israeli jurist” has not been indicated.

    That’s called hate mongering.

  5. sk said on January 5th, 2008 at 12:04pm #

    Apropos Israeli nukes, a neat little interview.