Sunday, June 27, 2010

Archeology in Israel

The performing space of the Bible was always an attraction for explorers, researchers and laymen in search of the past and from the early 20the century became the arena of intensive archeological activities by local archeologists and by members of foreign expeditions. Following the establishment of the nation-state in 1949, Israel developed a special “love affair” with archeology, and was used as a “tool” to return to the roots, and as a “means of acquaintance” to produce an attachment to the territory, and to learn more about the ancient land.

This impressive historical site in the Judean desert, Masada became a symbol for a heroic “last stand” for the State of Israel and played a major role for Israel in forging national identity. After its use as a national symbol faded, the meaning of “Masada” entered the political and semiotic “performance space”. The “masada-complex” became part of the vocabulary in political psychology – also in arguments with no direct connection to Israel.

The Masada Story

In the years between 66 and 77 A.D. the so-called Great Revolt of Jews erupted against the Roman Empire, whose army occupied Judea at the time. The Romans responded with full force - the war culminated in the capture of Jerusalem in 70 AD. To show that the Roman victory was decisive the Second Temple was reduced to ashes.

For Jewish people the 70 A.D. destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem, situated on a plateau above the so-called Western Wall, meant the end of their continuous history in the land of Palestine, with no hope to restore political independence. This tragic event further intensified the dispersion of Jews all over the large territory of the Roman Empire. It is commemorated on the Arch of Titus in Rome, with Roman legionaries carrying the seven-branched candlestick (menora) from the Temple in the Emperor’s triumph.

In the context of this revolt, Masada becomes the major event on the historic canvas and becomes the last stand of the Jewish rebels. A group of Jewish “zealots”, at the beginning of the rebellion against the Romans, in 66 AD destroyed the Roman garrison stationing in the fortress of Masada and held it throughout the war. After the fall of Jerusalem a few survivors who had evaded capture joined the group on Masada determined to continue the battle for freedom. Using Masada as their base of operation they held out against the Romans for more than two years. In 72 AD the Romans decided for a major mobilization of their troops so that they could crush the revolt. They prepared for a long siege. Facing this overpowering Roman military presence, the group on Masada had only two alternatives: to surrender or to die. The men in Masada had no illusion about what would happen to them if they were taken alive; they knew that after the fall of Jerusalem the women and the children were enslaved and some 2500 of the men were burnt alive or killed in the arena by wild beasts or gladiators. According to Josephus Flavius’ History of the Jewish War (the only source of the event) the last survivors of the defenders of Masada, three hundred in number, killed their wives and children and then killed each other, the last man committing suicide, just before the Romans delivered their final assault.

The site of Masada

For nearly nineteen centuries the actual site of Masada was just “one rock among others”; in fact it was first identified by two American travelers, Edward Robinson and E. Smith, in 1838. It was a frequented destination for Palestine based left-wing Zionist youth groups from the 1930’s. Masada was also readily accessible, having been bought by the Jewish National Fund in 1934. Research expeditions and archeological excavations at Masada only start later, first in 1953 and again in the early 1960’s.

The story told by Josephus Flavius

The primary and only source of what happened at Masada originates from Josephus Flavius the Jewish Roman historian, writing in Greek for an upper class Roman audience, who was commissioned by Roman emperor Vespasian to write the history of Jews.

A vast literature deals with the authenticity of Josephus’ accounts. The writings of Josephus Flavius inspired many academic debates and various answers were given to the major question how credible he is and in what aspects of his accounts could be trusted. On many points stories told by him turned out to be no more than literary topos. In many instances his descriptions even contradicts military logic.

Masada - the myth

Transformed and re-evaluated by national interest it became the basis for the heroic myth. It provided the early Jewish settlers in Palestine in the 1920’s with a pride heritage, a sense of clannish togetherness so essential to group survival and well-being in a hostile environment. The site of Masada became the performance space of national heritage and with the re-evaluation of the Masada narrative; it became part of the national fiction.

A poem entitled “Masada” by Yitzhak Lamdan became one of the most influential literary works for a whole generation of Jewish Israelis. In the 1920’s Masada symbolized for the poet Jewish emigration and re-establishment of the homeland in British-occupied Palestine and Transjordan with an exodus from places where Jewish life was under constant threat. Masada was used as a symbol, a remnant of a once-glorious past with proud men fighting to the bitter en against tremendous odds. The most quoted line from his poem “MASADA SHALL NOT FALL AGAIN!” conveyed power, reinforcement, and faith amid human doubts and fear. The educational authorities viewed the poem as having a high educational value, and made an integral part of the school curriculum from the late 1930’s. It kept this prominent position until the early 1960’s. Masada the poem was accepted by an entire generation as the symbol they could identify with its emotional and ideological message.

The major youth movements in Palestine were established between 1919 and 1929, reaching its peak period between 1930 and 1948. Almost all of them accepted the ideals of the Zionist movement, and they were destined to major role in the birth of the nation. Membership in these movements can be viewed as a preparation for leadership roles. Political organization sponsored these movements and they played a major role in creating a national culture and ethos. The Masada myth was one of the buildings of this ethos. Masada’s mythical narrative was translated from a story into a dramatic reality, with frequent visits to the top of the mountain, many times on unknown paths.

An instructor, Shmaria Guttman who played a major part in the introduction of one of these hikes, recalled it later: “...we had to develop within the members the knowledge to walk in the paths of the land...and to provide the younger generation with the knowledge and ability to use weapons, which would be useful to any movement that needs to protect itself.... I thought that we could use Masada to help develop these characteristics.”

With the close threat of Rommel’s Afrika Korps, the Passover headline of the Bamaale, one of the youth movement newsletter in 1942 reads as follows: “Put Guards, Masada, on your Walls”, and the same instructor, Shmaria Guttman, organizes a one week seminar on Masada for madrichim (guides, leaders) from the Zionist youth movements. The forty-six participants of this seminar turned out to become future leaders of the youth movements, and later on, the State of Israel, including Shimon Peres and Meir Amit.

This is the Bamaale news report about the seminar in the February 27, 1942 issue:

“Before our eyes, the world is on fire. We see nations disintegrate when they confront the diabolic Nazi power. And we see a heroic stand by other nations whose will for freedom and life is strong, that stand unmoved in the war. …. We must strengthen ourselves and stand on guard for our land and freedom with all our might. ……. For this readiness, we must intensify and amplify the mental connection with the chain of Hebraic heroism in the past. Before us we must imagine Masada-fortress of Israel that stood in the battle for the freedom of the people and the land against the legions of Rome……

…. When the young Hebraic generation defends its homeland, it will rely on the heroes of its people, the fighters of Masada.”

The biggest problem to use Masada as a positive ideology was the account of suicide in the narrative, and it had to be explained:

“I wanted to bring ourselves, the young adolescents, to the point where they could have the willingness to fight to the end. Not to die, but to fight to the end. We already stood in such difficult moments when Rommel was approaching the country, and then we turned Masada into a symbol for standing to the end.”

The 1942 seminar was followed by many others, and the Masada seminar’s “curriculum” integrated what was useful from Josephus, and by being always careful not to denounce his story completely, elements that did not fit the heroic narrative were either omitted or explained away, among others the “suicide” as a matter of no choice against the backdrop of magnified and emphasized heroic elements.

Even founding father, Ben-Gurion questioned the wisdom of educating young adults with a story where the final outcome is suicide. On August 23, 1946, he sent a message from Paris to a Mapai (the precursor to the Israeli Labor Party) conference in Mandate Palestine: "Neither Masada nor Vichy." Engaged in a bitter struggle with the British Ben-Gurion perceived Masada as a symbol of hopeless resistance, while Vichy represented a corrupt state of complacency, warning that Masada, like Vichy, was an unacceptable model for the Zionist enterprise. His view was shared by Yitzhak Ben-Zvi, Menachem Begin, and many other leaders and historians who questioned the political value of a narrative that ends in suicide.