Why Israelis Stopped Eating Their National Symbol

Sabra fruit, a symbol of Israeliness, is under threat – from aphids and picky young eaters

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Clusters of sabra fruit on a cactus plant.
Clusters of sabra fruit on a cactus plant.Credit: Eliyahu Hershkovitz
Anat Georgy
Anat Georgy
Anat Georgy
Anat Georgy

On the outskirts of the community where I live is an old makeshift stand where fruits and vegetables are sold. The salesman owns a farm, and he brings good fresh produce to sell – but takes the middleman’s markup for himself and his prices are usually high.

Still, from time to time we treat ourselves. The other Friday, the space was full with dozens of shoppers reviewing the merchandise when suddenly the owner raised his voice at one of the shoppers: “Take it, take it, it’s worth it! Pretty soon there won’t be any left at all.”

The shopper was standing in front of small packages of peeled sabras (aka prickly pears), trying to decide whether to buy them. On the one hand, the fruit looked tempting and juicy; on the other, it was expensive – 45 shekels (about $13) for a medium-sized package weighing just over a pound (500 grams).

Once available in open spaces across Israel, the sabra may soon only be grown on farms. But will young people want to eat the fruit anyway?Credit: Ilan Assayag

Seeing the shocked looks on the faces of the other customers, the owner launched into a detailed explanation for his advice, which might also clarify the high price: “An aphid is damaging the cactus plants all over the country, and all the sabras that are growing wild in open spaces are drying up and wilting – and nothing can be done about it. Anyone who relies on this produce can’t do so anymore, and only organized agricultural produce will be left.” The farmer added that the aphid also damaged regular produce, but the workers go from plant to plant with a special tool to check for the presence of the pest. “You can hear the creaking in the ones that have been damaged,” he said.

A dish of prickly pear soup.Credit: Limor Laniado Tirosh

He delved into even more detail when he saw I was interested in buying the fruit: “Almost all the sabras that are for sale at junctions or by roadsides come from open spaces, and in some places the farmers pick them and market them. You can hardly find them this year, certainly not in the center of the country. The sabras in the open spaces are damaged and there’s no one to care for them,” he lamented.

This aggressive aphid (dactylopius opuntiae aphid), it turns out, arrived in Israel back in 2013, apparently from Lebanon, and struck first in the north.

“We managed to import two species of natural enemies of this aphid – after one of them showed it did the job – and controlled the aphid, which caused no more damage,” said Zvi Mendel, a volunteer researcher in plant protection at the Volcani Agricultural Research Institute at Beit Dagan (near Tel Aviv). “But the birds are apparently the ones who brought the aphid south, and the results can now be seen in central Israel.”

When the sabra is covered with aphids, not even pesticide can prevent the damage, Mendel said, “and so the efforts we’re making are to bring the pesticide to the areas where the aphid has not yet managed to do major damage. Today, there are places in Israel where the sabras are in bad shape, and others where the plant has only been partially damaged or not damaged at all. In the center of the country, we’re seeing the whole range of possibilities.”

Prickly pear based milkshake.Credit: Tomer Applebaum

A symbol, but not of status

I love sabras, their sweet taste and rough texture. I await their arrival in the summer, and when they start to ripen I happily buy them when they reach the supermarket or the roadside stands. Sabra season began a few weeks ago, the high point is in August and it runs for as long as 10 months. But the price difference between the peeled sabras they sell at the fruit store and the ones sold in their spiky peels in the supermarket is so great that I’m willing to risk a little spike here and there and peel the fruit myself.

The method is well-known: cut off the ends, slice it lengthwise, and the fruit emerges whole.

The wild sabra has been under threat in parts of Ïsrael since an invasion of aphids from the north in 2013.Credit: Eliyahu Hershkovitz

It’s more than just tasty: red prickly pears have medicinal properties for treating diabetes, high cholesterol levels and stomach ulcers. Its flowers are even sold in pharmacies to treat prostate problems. They can also ease constipation, reduce heartburn and strengthen the immune system. And all without side effects or worry over weight gain, because it has high fiber and protein content and low fat. And like quite a few fruits and vegetables, sabras are also considered a reliable source of fiber, calcium, phosphorus, iron, zinc, potassium and essential minerals. A real superfood.

Yet despite all this goodness, it isn’t very popular. In fact, those in the know say that most young Israelis under the age of 40 have never peeled a sabra in their lives. Until a few years ago, only a few people in that age group had ever tasted it. An attempt to interest my own child in it was useless: the boy who loves grapes and watermelon refused even to taste the sweet fruit, despite all my best efforts.

Prickly pears in a basket in the Arab-Israeli city of Tira.Credit: Dan Peretz

“Over the past three decades, there has been an abundance of fruit and so, naturally, the tzabar was neglected,” Mendel says, careful to use its Hebrew name. “In the past it was common everywhere – people bought it or peeled it, and many people knew about it. Today, because it takes a little work, because it has to be peeled and has thorns, its popularity has declined.”

Shahar Blum, from the Tzabari Orly Cactus Farm in the Negev, adds another explanation: “The parents of these young people didn’t peel the sabras, so there’s a generation that hasn’t been exposed to it. But in recent years there’s been a rise in the consumption of the fruit in various forms, like popsicles, natural juice and powder.”

Are storm clouds gathering for the humble Israeli sabra (which is from Mexico)?Credit: Eliyahu Hershkovitz

Not even a local fruit

According to various estimates, some 2,500 tons of sabras reach the supermarket chains in Israel every year – and 1,200 tons of them are grown at the Orly Cactus Farm. In comparison, 70,000 tons of bananas and 100,000 tons of grapes are sold every year. According to Blum, the farmer’s price is 7 to 8 shekels a kilo, while the supermarket charges 12 to 25 shekels a kilogram (unpeeled).

Prickly pears were originally from Mexico, where the leaves are also eaten (cooked or raw). From there, they made their way to Spain and then all over the world.

“It went from country to country because it was a host for a good aphid from which a dye is made – and up to 150 years ago, dyes were costlier than gold,” says Mendel. “It was brought to Israel to raise that same aphid, but it didn’t grow in most places because the climate didn’t suit it. But then it was discovered that the fruit is good, even without the aphid.”

A Palestinian farmer picking sabras from cactuses in a field in the West Bank village of Salem, near Nablus.Credit: AP

According to Mendel, the plant grows under various conditions, and is considered adaptive and can use poor-quality water and even survive long periods without irrigation. Israel has several varieties with various colors of fruit. Most of the fruit harvested in groves is brushed to get the thorns off – although, speaking from experience, they don’t all come off.

In the early days of the state, “sabra” became a symbol of Israeliness. The journalist Uri Kesari, from the pre-state newspaper Doar Hayom, coined the term in an April 1931 article entitled “We are the Sabra leaves.” He wanted to express the idea that the new Israelis, as opposed to Diaspora Jews, were prickly on the outside, sweet on the inside.” And the TV character Kishkashta, a talking Sabra, was very popular when Channel 1 was the sole ruler of the airways. “This was silly, because the tzabar is not local,” Mendel explains. “It’s a nice idea, but not justified.”

Even if it were born in Israel, the sabra can’t epitomize the pioneers or the immigrants, and certainly can’t symbolize Israeliness today – especially when it consists of so many tribes with very little in common.

It can, though, symbolize the desire for the food we eat to be available, quick and easy to use – and also to symbolize our willingness to give up what is good and beneficial for the sake of those other characteristics.

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