Masada — symbol of resistance or overblown myth

JERUSALEM — The teacher speaks of slaughter, and there is no noise on the Masada clifftop's stark plateau to distract from her mild voice. A dozen schoolchildren, their faces solemn under baseball caps and bandannas, watch as she points out the frescoed chambers of the Northern Palace, overlooking the Dead Sea.

"That's where the Jews are believed to have drawn lots," the teacher says. "Anyone know why?" A few hands go up.

'To decide how they would kill one another,' chirps one girl. Her friends nod in assent.

The teacher explains that suicide is a sin worse than murder, and that the Jewish rebels therefore preferred to die at each other's hand, "leaving behind only one man to kill himself."

The tranquility of the surrounding Judean Desert seems hard to reconcile with the tumult and bloodshed this site saw almost two millennia ago, when Masada fell to the Romans, marking the nadir of Jewish nationhood.

For the better part of two generations, the Masada myth was a symbol of the fledgling Zionist enterprise; it now threatens to slip back into obscurity.

Many believe the story of unflinching self-sacrifice in the face of physical enslavement is as important today as it was during the Second Commonwealth.

Others, however, regard Masada as a cautionary tale of bloody-minded extremism, which should be maintained on the margins of the Jewish consciousness, if at all.

Outside the fortress synagogue, the schoolchildren hear of the speech given by the rebel leader, Elazar Ben-Yair, about how death was preferable to yielding to Roman enslavement.

Erez Eshel, an educator and a former chairman of the National Student Union, regularly takes groups of teens up to Masada, where he studies the speech with them. "As part of preparing for military service, this site is supremely important," he says.

In his view, Masada's defenders had the courage "not just to live, but also to die." Like the Hasmoneans and Judah the Maccabee, "they were heroes of Israel."

For many years, Israel Defense Force recruits held torchlight swearing-in ceremonies on the clifftop, ending with the shouted vow: "Masada shall not fall again!"

Yet this line, lifted from a 1927 epic poem by Russian-immigrant writer Yitzhak Lamdan, is apparently losing its appeal. Masada now hosts only the occasional engineering corps ceremony.

Brig.-Gen. Elazar Stern, commander of the IDF education corps, says that Masada is still a popular destination for soldiers' field trips. But he differs with Eshel on the educational value of the site and its story.

"When we go to Masada we don't emphasize the principle of suicide," Stern says firmly, "but rather, the principle of national independence."

Israel's founding father might well have blanched at such a statement. In 1946, David Ben-Gurion sent a message from Paris to a Mapai (the precursor to the Labor Party) conference in pre-state Israel. His exhortation: "Neither Masada nor Vichy." Ben-Gurion perceived Masada as a symbol of hopeless resistance, while Vichy represented a corrupt state of complacency.

However, more than a generation later, Golda Meir embraced Masada as integral to the country's identity. The site became a national symbol, and the excavations of Yigael Yadin in the early 1960s were an international sensation.

Forty years later, Masada's broader appeal has not diminished. It was recently rated the world's most popular tourist site by Condé Nast Traveler magazine. And the 1981 American mini-series "Masada" is still in international syndication.

"Masada" left its mark on Masada. Beneath the mountain's western face there is a Roman catapult on display — a prop from the television production that stayed behind as a souvenir. And at the new visitors' center, an explanatory film shows an actor strolling around the ruins telling the story, while on either side battle scenes from the miniseries unfold as historical illustration.

"This may all sound incredible," intones the actor, "but Masada was no movie — it was real!"

Yet such certitude seems specious given the fierce academic dispute over whether Masada is more truth or myth. Seffi Ben-Yosef, an Israeli historian, points out that the sole account of what happened at Masada is in "The Jewish War" by Josephus Flavius, the Jewish general who defected to the Roman side during the revolt and became its chronicler. "Surely any historian knows that you can't rely on one source without confirming its reliability," says Ben-Yosef.

Nachman Ben-Yehuda, a professor of sociology and anthropology at Hebrew University and author of "The Masada Myth" says, "Josephus wrote as Rome's lackey, to prove that the Jews had capitulated. If truth be told, what he describes is not a story of bravery, nor is it pleasant."

Ben-Yehuda notes, however, that the full, original text by Josephus rarely reaches those learning about Masada. "Josephus speaks of various Jewish groups who took part in the rebellion, among them the Zealots, but when it comes to Masada he mentions only one group –the Sicarii."

Named after the Greek word for dagger, sica, the Sicarii were religious fanatics notorious for assassinating moderate Jewish leaders and rabbis opposed to the revolt against Rome. Neither were they above brigandry: Josephus describes them killing 700 Jews in raids on Ein Gedi, Sdom and Tzoar while en route to Masada.

For the Zionists of the early 20th century, Jewish heroes were in short supply. And then, in 1923, the Hebrew translation of "The Jewish War'" was published, turning everyone's attention to the dramatic fortress in the Judean Desert.

There were other spectacular Jewish catastrophes from the period: At the Golan Heights fortress of Gamla, for example, 5,000 zealots jumped to their deaths after 4,000 of their comrades were killed in Roman assaults. Yet while the Gamla rebels launched the Jewish revolt in 67 C.E., the Romans ended it at Masada in 73 C.E.

Masada's popularity was a product of 20th-century exigencies. Gamla was in Syria until 1967, while Masada was readily accessible, having been bought by the Jewish National Fund in 1934. And though Ben-Gurion was at first reluctant to endorse Yadin's excavations at the site, he was soon persuaded that they would help Israel's romantic image abroad.

Yadin's digs generated national euphoria, as he used a combination of showmanship and his natural authority as a former general to fit the findings to Josephus' account. The remains of no more than 25 people were discovered at the site, though 960 rebels were said to have died there.

Shlomo Lahat, a retired general now involved with the peace camp, thinks the Masada warriors should be admired for their last stand, and that military officers must be taught to fight "to the last bullet, to the last man."

However, Meir Pa'il, a former commander of the IDF officers school who later became a peace activist, disagrees. For him, Masada is "the most despicable episode of Jewish history." Furthermore, he fears that the "enemies of peace in modern Israel" are from the same stock as the desperados of old.

And now, following talks on the possible evacuation of settlements, is there a risk of a neo-Masada mentality? The education corps' Stern claims this is unthinkable. Educator Eshel, however, answers in the affirmative.

"The Masada warriors of today are without a doubt those people living in Judea and Samaria," he says. "They have the spirit of Masada in them, and this is why they have not abandoned their settlements despite all the violence."