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Massada Myth - Summary of MA
Dudi Holtzman

מיתוס מצדה - תקציר עבודת מאסטר

מצדה כמיתוס התיישבותי

מצדה - קישורים נוספים


This work describes the development of the Massada myth, which evolved from an almost unknown occasion in Jewish history, to one of the main myths of the Jewish home land (Yishuv) during the 1940's. The movement toward a main myth took place in the midst of heroic and tragic events: the 1936-1939 clashes and the Second World War.

Solidarity with Massada arose when the Yishuv stood against the demonic evil of the Nazi regime; the project was named "Massada on the Carmel".

 When the state of Israel was established, Massada became a part of the "Civil Religion" of the state. Still, this solidarity with the Massada myth has encountered "ups" and "downs".

1 Myth and Collective Memory:

In this work, we have defined "myth" as a method or mode of providing meaning. This meaning has historic boundaries, that is, the meaning changes from period to period. Within a social crisis time, myths strengthen social solidarity.

Collective memory is a collection of data and outlook regarding the future of a specific society. Works by Barber, Lowenthal, Mead, Warner, Geertz and Halbwacs, emphasize that "collective memory" explains the past according to present thoughts. On the other hand, Durkheim and Shils say that collective memory explains current society according to past thoughts. B. Schwartz states that both viewpoints coexist in most societies.

Collective memory includes events that were not necessarily experienced directly, but transferred from generation to generation by various means of communication. Collective memory is conveyed by myths and ceremonies, that are the formal "tools" of civil religion. Myths can be divided into historic myths, that are related to a specific past event, and to geographical myths, that are connected to a specific place. Massada is both a geographic and a historic myth.

2 Massada Story:

If the Maccbean revolt is the "open event" of Jewish independence in the Second Temple period, Massada is the "final event" of this period. These two events, more than any others, influence today's thoughts regarding ancient times.

The Massada story is known from two resources: Josephus Flavius' books (History of Jewish War Against Romans) and archeological excavations. Flavius writes about Massada that was constructed by King Herod. From this period, we have most of the impressive ruins revealed n Massada - palaces, bathes, storage units and a sophisticated water reserve system. In the year 66 AD, during the great Jewish revolt, Massada was conquered by a group of Sicarii Jews. They remained seven years on the mountain, till the Roman empire crushed the revolt. During this time, these Sicarii Jews robbed the surrounding villages, including Jewish villages. The Sicarii made Massada more "Jewish" - they built a synagogue and two Mikvaot.

The roman soldiers besieged Massada for 3 months. On Passover eve, 73 AD, Elazar Ben-Yair, the Jewish revolt's leader gathered all the people, and in two fiery speeches, full of pathos and Greek-stoical philosophy, convinced the people to commit suicide, instead of entering captivity.

 The men killed their families, and afterwards killed one another. Some women and children escaped, and told this story to the astonished Roman soldiers, that entered the Massada castle. The Romans discovered a castle full of food, left by the rebels to prove that they did not commit suicide out of hunger.

Archeology affirms the majority of this event. Flavius' physical description is precise. Scholars differ as to whether the suicide story is correct, since it involved the mass suicide of hundreds of people.

 The "suicide speech" is the core of the Massada myth. Without it, Massada would be just another historical site. Scholars' opinions are widely reviewed in chapter 2 of this work. The main catalyst of the Massada myth were Shemaria Gutman, the first that combined research and hikes to Massada (especially by youth movements) and Yigael Yadin, who was the lead archeologist during the excavations at Massada during the 1960's. Both men emphasized that the ruins proved the truthfulness of the suicide speech, such as the ceramic "lots" with letters on them.

During the past years, other scholars have denied the truth of the Massada story and the importance of the Massada Myth.

3 Massada Myth Development:

The Massada site was revealed to the world's scholars only in the middle of the 19th century. The Jewish pioneers that came to Palestine during the First and Second Aliyahs were not interested in Massada. Only during the 20th century did the Jewish Yishuv begin to display an interest in Massada.

The Zionist pioneers used symbols of the past, mainly Biblical, to bind themselves to the present. They wanted to imitate ancient Jewish heroes, like the Maccabeas, Bar-Kochva and others. Massada became a part of the Zionist ethos as well. In 1923, Simchony translated the "Jewish Wars Against the Romans" from Greek to Hebrew. In 1927, Yizhak Lamdan wrote a famous poem called "Massada". High school pupils traveled to Massada, and the Zionist-socialist youth movements made Massada the main goal of their long hikes.

The 1930's were years of prosperity in Palestine, while the Nazis persecuted European Jews, and the Arabs started to riot against the Jewish Yishuv. During this period, the importance of Massada as a "no choice" symbol became even more significant. The Right and Left political parties found a perfect symbol in Massada.

The 1940's Holocaust period for European Jewry were almost peaceful in Palestine. But, for 3 years, war was a close neighbor: The German army invaded Egypt; Syria and Lebanon allied with pro-Nazi France; Italian airplanes bombed Tel Aviv and Haifa. The British Empire planned to leave Palestine in 1942.

For the Jews, Massada almost became reality - to be left alone in the "last fortress". The Jewish leadership planned to gather as many Jews as possible into the Carmel Mountains, and to fight till the last person.

 They called it "Massada on the Carmel". Although not mass suicide events, this act was similar to what the British soldiers did in Tubruk, Libya, or what the Warsaw Ghetto Jews did in Poland.

This is was the "shift" of the Massada story - it was more convenient to feel solidarity with a fight than with a suicide. During that time, youth movement hikes to Massada were very impressive, including pathos-filled ceremonies. Palmach fighters, in the spirit of youth movements, carried out swearing-in ceremonies on Massada, following a long hike. After the State of Israel was established, the armor brigades carried out swearing-in ceremonies on Massada as well.

The establishment of the State of Israel lessened the impact of the Massada myth. Massada is a "destruction" myth, and a Jewish state meant "construction". Yet, Massada excavations, by Prof. Y. Yadin, and the blockade feeling among Israelis till the Six Day War, maintained Massada as an active myth.

During the past years, the Massada myth has been extinguished. Israeli society has changed - no more an ideological society, but a consumption society. Massada is no longer t a distant and dangerous target of hiking - a road from Jerusalem and a cable car can take anyone to the mountain's top. Only one of 7 visitors to Massada is an Israeli - the others are tourists. For Israeli teenagers, Massada is one of Arad's rock festival sites.

4 How the Myth was Expressed:

Along the years, Massada has served as a different symbol by each political groups: the Left socialist movements hiked to Massada and carried out pathos full ceremonies, emphasizing the experience of re-connecting to the land and to its past. The Right movements emphasized its heroism and the preference of freedom over everything.

The most interesting thing is that the "facts" (if we accept Flavius' account as true) have been changed, to adapt the myth to the educational target - Massada suicides appear as warriors. The scholars Gutman and Klausner described a "battle". Israeli youth, pioneers and soldiers saw Massada as a symbol, but they used it to describe "Samson's "Let me die with the Philistines".

Perhaps the Jewish religious prohibition against suicide influenced the change in the myth, or perhaps those that traveled with young people to the mountain preferred that they learn the following from Massada - "Don't ever get yourselves into this type of situation - be strong". Massada is a place of death and suicide, so we should use it as an example of "what not to do".

Massada has been perpetuated in some Israeli symbols, but not in a large number - some stamps, coins, and streets. In many cases, modern Jewish settlements carry names of ancient places - Ein-Gedi, Yodfat, Lakhish, Gezer etc. Nobody has settled in Massada, mainly because of the extreme desert conditions (in 1937, the Zionist leader Ussishkin attempted to purchase Massada's land). The "Massada" kibbutz is located in the Jordan valley, 200 kilometers north of the Massada site.

5 Conclusions:

The Massada myth was created to satisfy the need of the Zionist movement to link the present to the past. For this, scholars, educators and guides adapted the Massada story to their needs. Suicide was changed to "fight". The myth itself had almost no influence during the 1920's, but when current events served as a reminder, during the Nazi period, the myth regained its importance. For the same reason, its necessity was lessened when Israel was established and became more secure. Today's Israeli society is almost indifferent to it.

 

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