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MASADA

From:

WHEN VICTIMS RULE. A CRITIQUE OF JEWISH PRE-EMINENCE IN AMERICA
.

The bibliography for the citations below are are here.


Among the most important nationalist legends in the modern state of Israel (and for many in the international Jewish community) has been the story of Masada. In Israeli/Jewish lore, 900 Jewish zealots nobly defended themselves for months against attack and then committed mass suicide at a remote desert fortress near the Dead Sea in 73 AD rather than surrender to besieging Roman legions. The Masada tale of desperate Jewish warriors has popularly been regarded as historical fact and has served as heroic symbol -- a "last stand" in Jewish collective consciousness, a story where Jews who were revolting against Roman domination chose to die for their Jewish heritage rather than suffer oppression at the hands of Gentiles. Masada has embodied a range of traditional Jewish beliefs: Jewry as a "nation apart" against all others, the few against the many, Jewish heroism against Gentile hordes, and dedication to each other to the point of death as itself a noble endeavor. Masada story has long been a source of Jewish and Israeli pride, especially since the founding of modern Israel in 1948. "Masada is not just a story," notes Israeli historian Nachum Ben-Yehuda, "Masada provides, certainly for my generation of Israelis, an important ingredient in the very definition of our Jewishness and Israeli 'identity.'" [BEN-YEHUDA, p. 5] "Masada," writes Yitzhak Landau in his famous patriotic poem to Israel and Jewish solidarity, "shall not fall again." [BENVENISTI, p. 35]

Astoundingly, however, the Masada legend of courageous Jewish defenders is false. Its historical basis was distorted and embellished to serve the propagandistic needs of early Israeli nation-building. Nachum Ben-Yehuda wrote an entire volume in 1995 that catalogues, not only that the heroic version of the Masada story is not true, but that it was consciously fabricated to serve Israeli propaganda about Jewish identity, especially in the early post-Holocaust period when the Jews of Europe were perceived to have so passively met their fate at the hands of Hitler. Virtually everything modern scholarship knows about Masada comes from the writings of Flavius Josephus, a man -- who born a Jew -- joined the Romans and is generally considered in Jewish circles to be a traitor to his people (an odd source for heroizing ancient Jewry). A close reading of him, notes Ben-Yehuda, reveals that the "zealots" of Masada were actually Sicarri -- "assassins," of both Romans and Jews. The reason they fled to Masada was, not because they were fighting Roman domination, but that they were driven out of Jerusalem by fellow Jews. The Sicarri then "raided nearby Jewish villages, killed the inhabitants, and took their food." [BEN-YEHUDA, p. 9] They killed about 700 Jews in Ein Gedi alone, "mostly women and children." [BEN-YEHUDA, p. 36]

From this core of information about Masada's dubious "defenders" provided by Josephus, Israeli propagandists "socially constructed a shrine for Jewish martyrdom and heroism" [BEN-YEHUDA, p. 190] whereby the entire nation of modern Israel was itself conceived as a Masada, isolated defenders against gentile hostility towards Jews everywhere, "a symbol of the heroism of Israel for all generations ... [BEN-YEHUDA, p. 87] ... Masada was not destroyed. It became a symbol of the Jewish will to live as a nation, of refusal to surrender to the forces threatening its extinction." [ BEN-YEHUDA, p. 123] "In the late fifties and early sixties," says Meron Benvenisti, "Masada became a national shrine." [BENVENISIT, p. 38]

Yet, "the Masada mythical narratives," adds Ben-Yehuda, "was consciously invented, fabricated, and supported by key moral entrepreneurs and organizations in the Yishuv [Israeli community] ... [BEN-YEHUDA, p. 307] ... [While Masada's defenders were really] "thieves and assassins who robbed and killed other Jews." [BEN-YEHUDA, p. 300] For years, Israeli army recruits were taken to the ruins of the Masada fortress to swear allegiance to the Jewish state, ritually stating "endless devotion" to Israel at this "place of splendor, glory and majesty." [BEN-YEHUDA, p. 147] And Israeli newspaper in 1964 called Masada Israel's "most cherished national asset" and the "mausoleum of the saints of the nation." [BEN-YEHUDA, p. 185] A popular patriotic slogan became "Masada shall not fall again." The Mossad's assassination division was even called "Masada."

Home of a band of fleeing Jewish murderers or not, the Masada story has not been without its Jewish critics on other terms. The idea of Israel itself as a veritable Masada country, a garrison state with a desperate back-to-the-wall "we against them" worldview (sometimes described as the "Masada complex") has worried some Israeli commentators. Is collective suicide an appropriate role model for any people? How would this affect Israeli self-conception and behavior in the nuclear bomb world? Is an alienated "last stand" psychology a healthy premise to interact with the rest of the world?

Seymour Hersh quotes the comments of an 'expert who has been involved in government studies on the nuclear issue in the Middle East for two decades: "Israel has a well thought-out nuclear strategy and, if sufficiently threatened, they will use it." [HERSH, S., p. 92] "Many senior nonproliferation officials in the American government," adds Hersh, "were convinced by the early 1990s that the Middle East remained the one place where nuclear weapons might be used [i.e., no other Middle Eastern country has nuclear weapons except Israel]." [HERSH, p. 92] "Our nationalists are leading us to Masada," once complained famed tank commander Yitzhak Ben-Ari, "in the sense that 'all the world is against us. We shall fight, and if we have a nuclear bomb, we shall use it.' And what will remain for us? Nothing." [BEN-YEHUDA, p. 157] "It is unavoidable," worried Israeli historian Benyamin Kedar, "that [nationalist] behavior influenced by identification with Masada will indeed resuscitate it. If the entire world is against us, then one begins to behave as if we are against the entire world and such behavior is bound to lead to ever-increasing isolation." [BEN-YEHUDA, p. 246]

It is clear that this Masada model is, of course, merely a secular, militant expression of the traditional religious "nation apart" syndrome itself, Jewish enclaves throughout history self-ghettoized against the non-Jewish Other. And as for the Masada myth itself, "time after time," notes Ben-Yehuda, Jews who are told that the Masada story of heroism is fake "elicit expressions ranging from mild discomfort to (much more frequently) anger and open hostility. My worse encounters have typically been with [Israeli] history teachers ... Obviously, the realization that a major element of one's personal and national identity was based on a biased and falsified myth is not an easy thing to deal with." [BEN-YEHUDA, p. 311]

Among the many forms of Masada mythologizing, in this case for American popular consumption, was a 1970 "historical novel," Masada, subtitled A Novel of Love, Courage, and the Triumph of the Human Spirit, by Ernest Ganz, described by a Kirkus Reviews reviewer as "a return to the days of heroes larger than life." It was also the subject of an "8-hour TV epic from ABC-TV and Universal." [GANN, back cover and opening page] The Masada myth also saw American expression in 1987 when Jewish American Marvin David Levy, recently released after a two year prison term for his role in a drug smuggling ring, watched the Chicago Symphony Orchestra perform his "dramatic oratorio, Masada, in its newly expanded version." The work, noted the Chicago Tribune, "emphasizes the triumph and tragedy of a heroic band that chose individual liberty at great personal cost." [VON RHEIM, J., p. 26]

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