Sunday, June 27, 2010

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.

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