The Magic of Masada

By Gil Troy, Jerusalem Post, 4-8-10

The place stimulates the kind of imaginary time travel that brings history alive. Walking along the rock-strewn trails, you expect to stumble over another piece of evidence, another link to our past

One Zionist “mitzvah” most Israelis remain committed to, be they more religious or less, left or right, patriotic or cynical, is “kum v’hitalech ba’aretz,” rise and walk the land. This Passover, an estimated three million Israelis became wandering Jews, hiking and picnicking, visiting parks, nature reserves, and — dare we say it – national heritage sites.  Joining the exodus, my family and I went south – and again remembered the lure of the land, the sanctity of this space that has been our national homeland for over 3,000 years.
The highlight was singing in the sunrise at Masada, King Herod’s grand desert fortress which became the Zealots’ Alamo, their last stand during the great Roman rebellion. The visit was culturally and historically meaningful.  We accompanied pop icon David Broza, the owner of S-Curve Records Steve Greenberg and their families – to celebrate Broza’s new album Night Dawn, which S-Curve is distributing. The timing Broza chose for our journey, the second day of Passover, is the day the ancient historian Josephus identifies as the day Masada fell in 73 CE.

Our host, Eitan Campbell, who has worked at Masada for 38 years and is now its director, justifiably bristled at the popular characterization of that moment as a mass “suicide.” Like all good historians, Campbell’s favorite “text” is context; you cannot understand what happened that night 1,927 years ago without considering the fate awaiting the rebels if they fell into Roman hands. The Jewish resistance to Roman rule was tougher than the Romans expected. Spite probably played a part in the Legionnaires even bothering to conquer the desert fortress, and a revenge-spiked slavery – or worse – awaited any Jewish captives.

Choosing to die as free people rather than be slaughtered or enslaved by the Romans, the men of Masada killed their families, then each other. Only the last one alive killed himself.

In the mid-1960s, the legendary archaeologist Yigal Yadin found ostraca – pottery shards – with names on them that probably were the lots the leaders used to organize that night. Noting how the full moon illuminated the mountain-top, Campbell emphasized that Masada’s defenders could look into each other’s eyes right before the moment of death. This intense intimacy reflected an act of love, true communal sacrifice, not the nihilism of despair.

We listened raptly to Campbell, watching the same constellation the 960 Zealots on Masada saw in the last moments of their lives – then seeing the same sunrise the Roman conquerors saw when they burst through the defenses and saw their victory stolen from them. I recalled Natan Sharansky’s insight that Jews and Pentacostalists resisted Soviet oppression most stubbornly because belonging to a community larger than themselves connected them to a national story that weaved their particular biographies into a broader, more lasting tapestry. By visiting Masada, honoring these heroes, and writing new chapters in the Jewish people’s long, proud story, we consecrate their actions, we elevate them from victims to victors.

Broza, who has performed more than twenty sunrise concerts at Masada since 1993, captured the poetry of the moment, feeling the mountain’s majesty. Playing his mega-hit “Mitachat LaShamayim” – under the sky – as we sat beneath the stars awaiting first light, as he played his newest songs from the aptly-titled “Night Dawn,” the songs and the setting created a harmonic convergence. Broza explained that during his first Masada concert, he did not fathom its power, until, as he played into the morning, the sun rose. “All of a sudden, I could see the audience,” he recalled, “and it created this overwhelming connection” as the past and the present, his poetry and their passion, the desert’s beauty and Masada’s message merged.

Despite our technological sophistication, despite our cosmopolitan aspirations, human beings still connect to stories and space, to heroes and values. Even in the 21st century the 19th century romantic nationalists’ equation of rich history + natural beauty + communal ideals = proud people, still works. Too often today, these passions are associated with “the Right” or “the religious.”  But humans are not such abstract thinkers. We need props, markers, anchors, roots, for ourselves and our communities.

Masada’s magic, its mutually reinforcing symphony of symbols, appeals to the heart and the mind, engaging our senses and our soul. Eitan Campbell and his fellow caretakers have preserved the site’s simplicity. With the desert’s natural beauty, the ruins’ grandeur, the story’s profundity, the site sweeps us up.

Masada stimulates the kind of imaginary time-travel that brings history alive. Walking along the dusty rock-strewn trails, it is hard not to scrutinize every rock, expecting to stumble over another piece of evidence, another living link to our past. And while contemplating the story’s meaning, the unhappy, tragic dilemma Masada’s final defenders faced, it is hard not to scrutinize your own life, your own values, wondering whether you would have the courage of your convictions they had, wondering just what core ideals you live for – and which defining beliefs you would be willing to die for.

Of all people, Barack Obama in 2008 praised Zionism as representing “the incredible opportunity that is presented when people finally return to a land and are able to try to excavate their best traditions and their best selves.”

Obama understood that by coming home, tending roots, engaging history, the once-wandering Jews returned to their more normal condition – while becoming poised for new greatness. This tension between the prose of everyday living and the poetry of potential transformation shapes all liberal democratic nationalist movements. It is a major issue in Zionism, and is part of Masada’s meaning.

The Zealots built dwellings using simple stones next to King Herod’s majestic palaces. Both individually and communally we should build our lives with the simple everyday building blocks for natural living infused with the soaring ideals that help make individual lives meaningful and nations great.

Gil Troy is Professor of History at McGill University on leave in Jerusalem. He is the author of Why I Am a Zionist: Israel, Jewish Identity and the Challenges of Today. His latest book The Reagan Revolution:  A Very Short Introduction, was recently published by Oxford University Press.

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Anti-Israel week elicits yawning, not yelling

By Gil Troy, Canadian Jewish News, 4-8-10

On Feb. 25, the Ontario legislature unanimously passed, by voice vote, a resolution condemning “Israeli Apartheid Week” (IAW), days before it began in Toronto, as well in 11 other Canadian cities and another two dozen locations worldwide.

This all-party amity on any issue is rare. Just as the Obama Administration was gearing up for an unnecessary, counterproductive showdown with Israel, Canada once again took the lead in supporting it.

MPP Peter Shurman, should be hailed for leading the fight against what he branded a “hateful… odious” comparison that insults Israel, all democratic countries that share Israel’s values, and millions of black South Africans who endured racism under apartheid, which separated people on the basis of colour systematically, legally and brutally.

Shurman’s resolution proclaimed: “I move that in the opinion of this house, the term ‘Israeli Apartheid Week’ is condemned, as it serves to incite hatred against Israel, a democratic state that respects the rule of law and human rights, and the use of the word ‘apartheid’ in this context diminishes the suffering of those who were victims of a true apartheid regime in South Africa.”

Shurman understood that these resolutions are not binding. Moreover, they do not squelch anyone’s right to free speech, no matter how aggressive or untrue that speech may be. Rather, he explained, the resolution was a tool of “moral suasion,” reflecting the feelings of a democratic body, appalled by an unreasonable, undemocratic assault against the democratic nation of Israel.

By contrast, in a video circulated on the Internet promoting the bash-Israel-fest, Toronto-based activist Naomi Klein proclaimed: “Nothing about this week is motivated by hate. It’s motivated by justice. It’s about using our freedom to defend the freedom of Palestinians to exist in peace and dignity and with full equality in their land.”

In fact, Palestinian nationalism’s great failure is its nihilism, the fact that so much of the movement’s energies are dedicated to destroying Israel rather than building a Palestinian state. A week celebrating Palestinian nationalism could be about “peace and dignity.” But a week demonizing Israel and celebrating the false, misleading comparison with South African racism is about hate – and, not surprisingly, has often degenerated into hooliganism and anti-Semitism.

There is much to debate regarding Israel, Palestinians and the quest for Middle East peace. But someone committed to “peace and dignity” would acknowledge how much of this constant Israel-bashing is fed by the crudest Arab anti-Semitism. The disgusting images rooted in Nazi propaganda that still appear in the Arab press feed a demonizing discourse that led some York University students to yell “die Jew” and recently led a student at Oxford University protesting an Israeli government official to yell in Arabic “Itbah al-Yahud,” which means “Slaughter the Jews.”

Nationalism is a double-edged sword: it can elevate and enlighten, as it does in democracies such as Canada, or it can rouse and ruin. Becoming addicted to hatred of one’s defined adversaries gives a fleeting feeling of unity, but it ultimately degenerates into violence and destructiveness. Too much of the Palestinian national movement – and far too much of it on campus and in North America – is devoted to Israel-bashing. It creates a culture of martyrdom that celebrates suicide bombers rather than nation builders. It honours leaders such as Yasser Arafat, who preferred the purity of perpetual violence to the complexity of compromise. It results, in a cult of violence, sometimes feeding Hamas-versus-Fatah bloodshed, usually aimed at Jews.

Too much of the Arab world seems engulfed by this irrational hatred of Israel and Zionism. That this hatred is perfumed, rationalized and masked on campus in the language of human rights, then ennobled with the sacred mantle of the anti-apartheid struggle, is perverse.

Fortunately, most of our students are too smart to be swayed by such distortions. Initial reports this year suggest that “anti-Israel week” 2010 was a bust.

Students repudiated this festival of historical distortion, nationalist nihilism and Israel-bashing by yawning, not yelling. Most demonstrated the good sense to avoid the tumult and let the haters shout to mostly empty rooms – a perfect response.