Book Reviews

The Israeli Masada Myth Exposed

By Robert H. Countess, Ph.D.

Nachman Ben-Yehuda, The Masada Myth. Collective Memory and Mythmaking in Israel, University of Wisconsin Press, Madison 1995, 401 pp., paperback, $24.95

Hebrew University Professor Nachman Ben-Yehuda of the Sociology Department dropped a cultural-historiographical bombshell on the Jewish State of Israel when he wrote (p. 3):

"How does one develop a sociological interpretation for an important belief system that turns out to be based on a series of deceptive and very biased (even falsified) claims? Moreover, what should one do when this belief system turns out to be not only an important building block for the development of receptive young minds but also a cornerstone of an entire nation?

The so-called Masada mythical narrative is such a belief system: a fabricated moralistic claim. The startling discovery of its falsehood descended upon me in 1987. However, while the sociological interpretation presented in this book is based on an Israeli experience, it would be a grave mistake to assume that such a mythology and deviant belief system constitutes a cultural idiosyncrasy, typical of Israel only. On the contrary, such myths and deviant beliefs are characteristic of many cultures. Hence, the sociological lesson embedded in this particular tale has wide-ranging ramifications, as we shall see later."

Background

Who is the Israeli academic who would write such a-seemingly-outrageous statement as quoted above? Has he written with similar boldness in the past?

In 1993, the State University of New York Press published Ben-Yehuda's Political Assassinations by Jews. A Rhetorical Device for Justice,[1] in which he focused on how Jews killed-for the most part-other Jews. He placed this in a particularly Jewish cultural matrix and described how this specific form of murder had been conceptualized so as to become an alternative system for moral justice. He also authored Deviance and Moral Boundaries[2] and The Politics and Morality of Deviance.[3]

For several years now I have enjoyed informative, humane, and spirited correspondence with Professor Ben-Yehuda, and I hold him in the highest regard on all levels.

The Historical Masada of King Herod The Great

The fortress in the Judaean desert toward the south end of the Dead Sea-some 1290 feet below sea level and about 80 miles south of Jerusalem and on the western side of the Sea-has been made famous in a Hollywood style film of that name, but perhaps most of all by Israeli archaeologist Yigael Yadin in his 1996 book Masada. Herod's Fortress and the Zealots' Last Stand.[4] His excavation on site began in 1963 with a large team and government sponsorship.

Built by King Herod the Great between B.C. 36-30, it was a marvel of engineering, defense, and luxuriant living for escaping the hot summer weather of Jerusalem, his capital. At the beginning of the year 66 A.D., a group of Jewish Zealots took over the Roman military garrison at Masada and held it throughout the rebellion against the Romans (66-70 A.D.). It became the final holdout for these Zealots after the rest of Palestine had been restored to Rome's control. By late fall or Winter of 72 A.D., the Roman Governor Flavius Silva marched on Masada with his Tenth Roman Legion, some auxiliary troops, and thousands of prisoners of war. The Roman siege ended on April 16th in the year 73 A.D.

The number of men, women, and children atop Masada is placed at 967 (p. 37). Joined by the Sicarii, which were Jewish rebels who used knives for their assassination of Romans and fellow Jews who would not rebel with them, the Zealots and Sicarii discussed their options in the face of the inevitable Roman storming of the fortress. Elazar Ben-Yair made "two fiery speeches to persuade the reluctant people to agree to be killed or to kill themselves. The two speeches succeeded, and the Sicarii killed one another and themselves." (p.37) Ben-Yehuda terms this action "collective suicide." (p. 42)

As it turned out, seven survived: five children and two women. The murdering took place on April 15th. When the Romans entered, they found only silence. When the two women heard noises, they came out of hiding and told the Romans what had happened.

Today, Masada is a most impressive tourist site with lodging and eating facilities, an electric cable car to convey tourists who do not choose to walk up and down "the Snake Path." The tram up took about five minutes, but it took me about an hour to walk down again in 1994. The site is basically closed on the Sabbath.

Organization of the Book

Part One is "The Puzzle and the Background." In this section, Ben-Yehuda demonstrates his own existential experience with discovering the myth itself and his struggle with facing the truth of having been deceived for so many years. He writes of his denial, his anger, his resentment, and then his motivation to learn the full story. In short, this professor of sociology experienced what untold numbers of serious thinkers over the years have experienced about all sorts of deceptions served up by governments, organizations, religions, and individuals, but with Ben-Yehuda, his own effort to revise the Masada Myth away from its mythic elements and to arrive at a complete picture of how and why the myth became so widely accepted, is filled with implications for other Israeli promoted ideas and myths. Thus, the question must be asked: What other myths are Israelis believing about their "history" that may require radical revising in the future?

This, I believe, is the greatest value of this book: it opens an important door for a scientific-historiography in Israel and by Israelis and Jews of the Diaspora to re-examine and-if found necessary-to revise their dogmatically held concepts about 1) the Land of Palestine, 2) their special, unique "Chosenness" by YHWH, 3) the rightness of the establishment of the Jewish State of Israel with its narrowly conceived Jewish-racialist ethno-centric focus, 4) the ethnic-cleansing of the indigenous Semito-Palestinians, and 5) supporting ideologies such as the Jewish Holocaust Story with its traditional content of enormity and qualitative uniqueness.

Part Two of the book covers "The Masada Mythical Narrative" and goes into great detail of development by Shmaria Guttman, youth movements, underground Jewish groups prior to 1948, the Israeli IDF (= military), school textbooks, media and tourism, children's literature and art, and the mythical narrative itself today. Ben-Yehuda discusses on pages 243f. "the Masada Complex" and "the Masada Syndrome."

The first has to do with suicide heroism as a last stand, a siege mentality against enemies everywhere, and more. An excellent example of it was given by US Secretary of State William Rogers (p. 244) of the Nixon administration, who remarked that Israeli Prime Minister Golda Meir displayed a "Masada complex" and that this was a chief obstacle to real peace in the Middle East.

"The Masada Syndrome" is similar in that it takes up the historical facts, wraps them in a moral covering, and then challenges Israelis to die with Samson and the Philistines (Judges 16:30) rather than give up the Land.

Follow-up: Ben-Yehuda's second assault on one of Israel's founding myths[5]

Part Three is "Analysis, Discussion, and Summary." In it, Ben-Yehuda emphasizes that one of the "extremely important element(s) in a myth is the symbolic, awe-inspiring dimension" (p. 261). For myself, I see the Al-Qaeda Moslems to be so caught up in the myth of Islam as absolutely true and Allah as personally directing them that they give their lives freely without regard to personal pain or loss. The Masada Myth has worked similarly for Israelis, but for how much longer?

Ben-Yehuda writes that the myth began its ascent in the early 1920s, peaked during the 1940s-1960s, but saw a marked decline during 1970s and thereafter. Again, from my own observation standpoint, the Masada Myth has been somewhat replaced recently by the 'Saddam Hussein is Hitler' myth, truly this is awe-inspiring to millions who beat the drums for a Bush-Sharon-Blair Axis to invade and remove this 'Hitler' who threatens 'the entire world,' as our media unceasingly inform us.

Is Nachman Ben-Yehuda a "Revisionist"?

It seems to me that my first acquaintance with the term "Revisionist" may have been in the 1980s when I read Alfred Lilienthal's fine work The Zionist Connection II. What Price Peace?[6] On page 190, Dr. Lilienthal refers to "the Jabotinsky Revisioinist movement of the 1930s and Menachem Begin's Irgun Zavai Leumi of the 1940s," and he associated this with Gush Emunim (Hebrew for "bloc of the faithful"), "a paramystical, ultrachauvinist movement insisting that as the Chosen People and through biblical revelation, the Jews have the right to all of Palestine, and that Israel must hold onto all the occupied territories, with the possible exception of portions of the Sinai."

This Gush Emunim was drawn from the extremely right-wing Likud party, itself being the successor of Vladimir Jabotinsky's "Revisionist movement."

Later, I read extensively in works by Harry Elmer Barnes and found that he and certain historians in the early 1920s had attempted to revise the background of World War One so as to display more accurately the contributing factors that brought about the World's first great war that seems to have involved so many combatant nations that it was properly called a "World War."

Then I became aware of the Institute for Historical Review and its "Revisionist History" journal The Journal of Historical Review and related occasional conferences, usually held in Southern California. The IHR promoted in its journal and conferences an open, unfettered forum for speakers to offer data and interpretations of the two great World Wars, the so-called American "Civil War," the Jewish Holocaust Story and especially the problem of the alleged homicidal gassing chambers in German built and administered camps for detainees, prisoners, and slave workers, as well as of many other topics of 19th and 20th century.

Then I heard popular talk shows using the term "revisionist" as a sort of "four-letter word" to brush off anyone and any idea that the host did not 1.) either agree with, or 2.) did not want to take seriously and thus allow for extensive time commitment on the show. It is this latter and quite popular use of "revisionist" that most Americans are perhaps familiar with. In Germany since the end of WW2, "revisionist" has been used for the German attempt to revise the Treaty of Versailles after WWI and to regain territories and sovereignty for Germany, especially in the National Socialist years between 1933-45. But also in Germany, "revisionistisch" and "Revisionismus" have been used as a Keule (animal bone used as a club) to beat down anyone who dissents from the orthodox German philosophy of history imposed by the victorious Allies after 1945.

That orthodox German philosophy of history comprises 1.) the sacred story of the innocent Six Million Jews exterminated by Germans in homicidal gassing facilities of a uniquely ghastly nature allegedly erected in several countries; 2.) the intent of Germany to exterminate physically the Jews of Europe and then on all of Planet Earth; and 3.) the historic truth that Germans have been and still are preponderantly "anti-Semitic" and must be carefully watched and controlled by the Allies and Israel and by Jews themselves living in Germany and all other countries.

Therefore, when one asks if the author of the book The Masada Myth is a "revisionist," one must define the term in order to avoid a vague generality and also avoid a specifically harmful label to a professor at Hebrew University in Jerusalem.

In Theses & Dissertations Press' first book, Dissecting the Holocaust: The Growing Critique of 'Truth' and 'Memory',[7] one can read on page 6 the support for a mind-set of scientific revisionism as follows:

"The Natural sciences [like other scholarly disciplines, Ed.] are extremely conservative and dogmatic. Any corroboration of a paradigm is welcome, whereas any innovation or revision will long meet with resistance; the instinct for preservation (including self-preservation!) is stronger than the search for truth. Therefore, new findings usually gain acceptance only when sufficient numbers of researchers vouch for them: then the dogmatic status quo topples and a 'scientific revolution' occurs, a new paradigm replaces the old. [...] The bottom line is that no student, no researcher and no layman should believe any facts to be 'conclusively proven', even if the textbooks present them as such.[...]"

This powerful statement comes from Professor Dr. Walter Nagl in his book Gentechnologie und Grenzen der Biologie[8] and it is this concept so powerfully expressed here by Nagl that so-called "Historical Revisionists" I am acquainted with employ when they research and write and publish books and magazines such as Dissecting the Holocaust and Vierteljahreshefte für freie Geschichtsforschung or The Revisionist.

It is Professor Nagl's definition of "revision" (-ist, ism) that I have in view when I seek to answer the question: Is Nachman Ben-Yehuda a "revisionist"?

"The proof is in the pudding," as one says, and if one rereads Ben-Yehuda's statement on page 3 about the Masada myth, then one is most likely to conclude that he is clearly a "revisionist" in his intellectual commitment to historiography as well as in his method of research and writing. Whether or not he may be called a "Revisionist" is not for me to decide.

Conclusion.

If I may offer an illustration of the profound insight and courage of this Professor in Jerusalem, I would refer to his first book that I became aware of: Political Assassinations by Jews. A Rhetorical Device for Justice. I remember well, upon contemplating this provocative title, asking myself this question: What would be the Jewish reaction in general or in governments and academia and the media if a German published a book entitled Political Assassinations by National Socialists. A Rhetorical Device for Justice?

The axis of Planet Earth would most likely have been dislodged from its position in space, I suggest, as a result of the uproar and tumult and rage that would certainly have followed such a book's appearance by a German!

Readers everywhere must ask themselves this question: What makes a non-Revisionist into a Revisionist? And the answer has

to be: new data, new methods of evaluating data, and a willingness to revise long standing orthodoxies. That is the principle that Professor Nagl lives by and, I suggest, every historiographer 'worth his salt' must live by the same principle or be judged by later generations to have been a Feigling (=coward).

I conclude with registering my complete agreement with Professor Pat Lauderdale of Stanford University who praised The Masada Myth on the book's cover:

"The Masada Myth is both scholarly and a passionate book, analyzing with great clarity the relationship between deviance and mythology. The careful descriptions and provocative ideas will create new controversy, one that is timely and important for our understanding of what has become the new world dis-order."

Multitudes of serious readers wonder when a Norman Finkelstein or Ruth Bettina Birn or a Nachman Ben-Yehuda will research, write, and publish a book with a title such as "The Jewish Holocaust Myth. Collective Memory and Mythmaking in Israel", because the time has come for serious scholars outside the present realm of "Historical Revisionists" to produce such a book. Jews and Goyim deserve such a work that will provoke and create new controversy, as Pat Lauderdale above wrote, and a book that will advance "our understanding of what has become the new world dis-order."

Just perhaps, Planet Earth might be able to keep its course at 23.5 degrees of axis if such a book were produced. For me, I am willing to take that chance!


Notes

[1]State Univ. of New York Press, January 1993.
[2]Deviance and Moral Boundaries: Witchcraft, the Occult, Science Fiction, Deviant Sciences and Scientists, University of Chicago Press, reprint September 1987.
[3]The Politics and Morality of Deviance: Moral Panics, Drug Abuse, Deviant Science, and Reversed Stigmatization, State Univ. of New York Press, April 1990.
[4]Random House, New York.
[5]Sacrificing Truth: Archaeology and the Myth of Masada, Humanity Books, June 2002, 300 pp., $35.-
[6]Brunswick, NJ: North American, 1978.
[7]Edited by Ernst Gauss aka Germar Rudolf, Capshaw, AL, 2000, 608 pp.
[8]Darmstadt: Wissenschaftliche Buchgesellschaft, 1987, pp. 126ff.

Source: The Revisionist 1(2) (2003), pp. 222-225.


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