Column: Masada revisited

Virtually every Jew who makes aliyah to Israel will visit the ruins of Masada. Some of the Jewish applicants to this school probably wrote their application essays on the experience. Every Israeli soldier, too, will at some point climb its many steps to say prayers as dawn breaks over the Negev desert. On the grounds below you can see the campsites where the Roman army laid siege to the fort for several months. Almost a thousand Masada Hebrews chose suicide over surrender, and became an enduring symbol of the Jewish will for solidarity and sacrifice in the face of oppression.

What is not so glorified is how those Hebrews came to be trapped in Masada. A massive uprising against the Roman occupation of Judea had been a catastrophic failure, and the obscure desert fort was a last refuge for the remnants of the rebellion. The instigators of the uprising, which had originally begun as a movement of passive resistance, were known as the Zealots--a group of fanatical messianic Jews who relentlessly provoked the occupying Roman army with suicidal assassination attempts on the streets of Jerusalem. Historians consider the Zealots to be the first terrorists and remark at their striking similarity to members of modern groups like Hamas.

Hegel said the only thing we really learn from history is that we've learned nothing from history. But this isn't just history repeating itself--something has gone awry in the last stage of Jewish history that now reveals a string of sad ironies like Masada. Like how Jews once wore yellow stars on their sleeves and now bear yellow license plates as they drive past the hordes of blue- or green-plated Palestinians lined up at a checkpoint. How Jews were once walled out of cities, and now must wall themselves in. How anti-Semitism has for centuries demonized Judaism as a disease, when now Israeli extremist politicians publicly call their Arab citizens "like a cancer" and lobby for legislation that would remove them. The occupation of the West Bank, now 30 years in the running, has become mercilessly intensified in the last few months��the West Bank's economy, public life and education and medical services all paralyzed by the siege. Wittingly or not, and with whatever justification, Israel has created another Masada, three and a half million strong.

The Jews have indeed learned something from history, and what we're seeing now is that maybe it was a miseducation. Jews have been persecuted for so long that we can't perceive ourselves as oppressors��the self-image remains of the perpetual victim, even though we are less vulnerable to annihilation than at any point in history. Now Israel looks more like the tyrant father who once was an abused son.

In the future looking back on this past decade, there will be no escaping this shameful irony. Right now many Jews don't catch it, or willfully ignore it, because there is a self-imposed war-time moratorium on doubt. Any news unfavorable to Israel must be anti-Semitic; any sign of uncertainty on our part will provide Them with the long-awaited chance to wipe our homeland off the map. Many American Jews, whose grandparents came to America when their homes were taken, now turn a blind eye when American helicopters and weapons are used to demolish Palestinian residential areas. They have sealed themselves off within a fort, blindly demanding great human sacrifice with absolute solidarity in the name of Zion. "If we give them this land, they'll want that land next, and then where will we go? Into the ocean!"

"Hitler is dead," answered Leon Wieseltier, literary editor of the New Republic, last May. He wrote that behind this bracing defensiveness lies a barely-contained, "grotesque" and "purely recreational" apocalyptic fear of a Second Holocaust. There is no possibility for compromise, even no real desire for peace when "every enemy of the Jews is the same enemy, and there is only one war, and it is a war against extinction, and it is a timeless war." A convenient side effect of this fantasy is that it shuts down the thinking process, or at least reduces it to the point where childish and racist assumptions are acceptable.

Almost one year ago, when the situation was much better than now, I expressed my frustration at this poisoned discourse in a column. "There are no right answers," I wrote, "but surely claims such as 'We were here first' or 'They started it' are wrong ones."

A close family member responded in anger: "Being born to two Hebrew parents does not a Jew make," he wrote in e-mail. "A Jew is a person who defends Israelï¿½Ä because modern politics and the instability of global hegemony have created a world against us. As they did in 1967, 72, etc."

Although a great many American Jews would have agreed with him, this sentiment is very mistaken: Central to Judaism's vitality is a capacity for self-criticism and doubt that is virtually unique among the world's cultures. Like our central text, the Talmud, Jews always engaged a problem from every conceivable vantage point��hence a room with three Jews and five opinions. And anyone who has sat at a Jewish dinner table knows that love can be infuriatingly expressed through criticism. They would also know how rare it is to hear the following words: "You've hurt my feelings. (You've bombed my buses and restaurants.) But I was wrong, too, and I'm sorry. (We can each have our own state.)"

I've been told that my generation is too young and spoiled by privilege to know the true nature of anti-Semitism, and will be unprepared to face another crisis. But that crisis won't come from the Palestinians--it will come when Israel and world Jewry has to grapple with the moral ramifications of staying in our fort.

I'd been to Masada twice, both as Bar Mitzvah and student, and each time I was told that at that moment I was more connected to Jewish history than I had ever been. But it didn't feel quite right--I can't identify with stubborn, zealous martyrs. And though I'd been told that a voice critical of Israel cannot be a truly Jewish voice, the irony that I appreciate most of all is that I'd never felt more Jewish than when I'd finally found that voice.

Greg Bloom is a Trinity senior and a senior editor for Recess.


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