Hapless revolt or heroic war?

Years and years and years ago, when visiting a plantation house somewhere in the Carolinas where the guide was telling us not to sit on the furniture as it was so old, I remember thinking that it looked just like what my granny had in her house. Two hundred years isn’t old, America, I thought to myself with a degree of superiority that comes from living in a relatively ancient world. But what goes around, comes around: that snotty-nosed reaction has come back to haunt me.

For three brave years, the freedom fighters on this rocky plateau – known as the Zealots – managed to hold back 10,000 Roman troops armed with every contemporary siege weapon. Finally a battering ram breached the walls. So begins an article on Masada in the Times of Israel earlier this year.

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Masada is older than old. It dates back to King Herod’s time – in fact it was he who built the palace there (that same sad paranoid man who killed two of his wives and four of his children).

Towards the end of the siege, Zealot leader Elazar Ben-Yair called his people together (all 967  of them) and reminded them that they had promised to serve God and God alone. He urged them to die in freedom rather than live in servitude. They obliged. All the men put their names in pot and ten were drawn to do the deed. The people lay side by side, necks exposed to the swords of their executioners. One of the ten then killed the other nine before dying by his own hand. What the Romans saw when they attacked at dawn is unimaginable. In a bizarre twist of fate, it was supposedly the first day of Passover, a Jewish celebration of freedom. Only seven had survived.

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With many of the walls still intact, original mosaic floors and frescoes can still be seen. Not for the first time I wondered at the way houses today seem to be thrown together  – and this with every modern tool known to man to hand – and yet these buildings, many hundreds of year later, built with sweat and tears, have stood the test of time. It defies belief.

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But there’s another side to this story. One that exposes the myth of Masada. One that says the siege took seven weeks, not three years and that Elazar Ben-Yair was no hero, having despatched some of the En Gedi locals (700 women and children in all) and robbed them of their food. Nachman Ben-Yehuda, who has written two books on the subject of what he calls the ‘Masada Fraud’ posits:

[…] the myth was developed and disseminated by secular Jews. Observant Jews were not fond of the myth, and ultra orthodox Jews even criticised it. For the latter, the idea of militarily challenging the Roman Empire, the collective suicide or the assassinations committed by the Sicarii were acts viewed with scorn rather than awe.

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But why go to all the trouble of propagating a myth that is so obviously different to the old writings of Josephus Flavius (37 BC – 100 AD). Let’s remember that Masada was only excavated in the 1960s, so all this is relatively new. From what I’ve read, the myth could well stem from he who headed the excavation, the late Hebrew University professor turned politician, Yigael Yadin. Ben-Yehuda naturally has a theory: As the Zionist national movement, dominated by secular Jews, began to preach and later practice the return of Jews to their homeland, they had not only to face the anti-Semitic stereotypes of Jews as ‘non-fighters’ but also to give the young generation of Israelis some heroic narratives.

Oh, whom to believe, whom to believe… could that much pressure have been put on Yadin to use some poetic licence when disseminating his findings? Who knows.

Whatever the case, Ben-Yair certainly wrote some moving text:

Since we long ago resolved never to be servants to the Romans, nor to any other than to God Himself, Who alone is the true and just Lord of mankind, the time is now come that obliges us to make that resolution true in practice…We were the very first that revolted, and we are the last to fight against them; and I cannot but esteem it as a favor that God has granted us, that it is still in our power to die bravely, and in a state of freedom.

So, was it a hapless revolt or a heroic war … it was so long ago, does it really matter? I’m sure there are plenty more who could argue quite eloquently on both sides – but for me, the magic of Masada lies not in its history but in the view it offers from its walls and the fact that it’s still there… all these hundreds of years later.

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