The Masada Myth
Scholar presents evidence that the heroes of the Jewish Great Revolt were not heroes at all.
It is not too difficult to establish the fact that the Masada mythical narrative was created by secular Zionism. (Religious Jews, Zionists and non-Zionists were, to a very large extent, not part in the creation of the myth. Many even objected fiercely to the myth). It is clear that the Masada mythical narrative began to be created at the turn of the century. It received a big boost in the 1920s. Before he 1920s Masada, as an heroic tale, was used in a debate between two famous secular Zionist ideological leaders (Achad Ha'am and Berdyczewski). In 1923 the excellent Hebrew translation of Josephus by Dr. Simchoni was published. In 1927 Y. Lamdan published his most popular Masada poem. Moreover, two key and powerful secular Zionists who were promoting Masada as a heroic tale, Shmaria Guttman and Prof. Yoseph Klosner, were operating in the late 1920s and early 1930s.
Clearly, the crystallizing Zionist movement was desperately looking for heroic Jewish tales. It needed these tales for a few reasons:
- To counteract the poisonous European anti-Semitic image of the Jew as non-heroic
- To create a new secular Jewish consciousness and identity
- To establish a strong and unquestionable bonding of the Jews to Palestine (then) and Israel (later).
The need for this bond became very acute in the early 1940s when the threat of a Nazi invasion of Palestine was imminent (from Rommel's Korpus Afrika). These years saw the crystallization of the Masada mythical narrative in its most powerful form. The creation of the myth then, no doubt, was justified from a functional point of view as it helped many members of the Yishuv to face some truly formidable historical challenges. Thus, the Masada mythical narrative has become a major and important ingredient in shaping the national and personal identity of the new secular and Zionist Jew—proud, rooted in his/her land and willing, indeed able, to fight for this land to the end if necessary. Clearly, the Masada mythical narrative has a strong generational effect for some generations who were influenced by it the most (including that of the author). This identity connection is exactly the element that explains the negative emotional reaction stirred by connecting the word "Masada" with "Myth" and thus implying something that is untrue.
The archaeological excavations of the early 1960s headed by Prof. Yigael Yadin helped to solidify the myth. However, following the Six Days War (1967) the opening up of new sites as well as some profound changes in Israeli society, created a process where, starting in the late 1960s, Masada lost its sacred place in the secular Zionists pantheon of heroism. Basically, Masada was transformed from a shrine of heroism and a sacred place for pilgrimage into a tourist attraction. The overwhelming majority of people visiting Masada these days are non-Israelis.