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The lesson of Masada

August 4, 2016

I am writing this from Israel. Since my first visit in 1965 I have visited Israel many times, the last time before the current visit being just this past January. Each time that I come, my perspective on life changes with a richer appreciation for the gifts that G-d has given me and a deeper understanding of history, the Jewish people and my place in the continuing story of this unique, extraordinary nation. This visit has been no exception. I visited Masada again. Although I have been there many times before, this visit changed my view of this incredible place.

 

First, a brief overview of the story of Masada (see the excellent 1981 movie, “Masada,” for a reasonably accurate re-telling). Masada was a fortress/palace built by King Herod the Great as a summer residence and its construction was an engineering marvel. It sits on the top of a spectacular plateau in the Judean desert, overlooking the Dead Sea. During the final phase of the first Jewish-Roman War (73-74 C.E.) in which the Judeans rebelled against Rome, about 900 men, women and children fled to Masada. The Roman Emperor Vespasian ordered General Flavius Silva to defeat them and to bring them back to Rome in captivity. He intended to demonstrate the power of Rome by using these rebels as an object lesson.

 

The Romans laid siege to the stronghold, but the Jews were able to hold out for months due to the ingenious water system built by Herod. Finally, the Romans constructed a huge ramp reaching all the way up the plateau and built a siege tower with an enormous battering ram that they used to breach Masada’s walls. When the Romans finally entered the fortress, all they found were the dead bodies of the men, women and children. The only survivors were two women and a child who had been left to tell the story.

 

As told by Flavius Josephus in his book The Jewish Wars (written contemporaneously with the events), the walls of Masada were breached by the Romans on the first day of Passover — ironically the holiday on which Jews celebrate their freedom from slavery. Josephus recounted the words of Eliezer ben Yair, the leader of the Jewish defenders:

 

“Since we long ago resolved never to be servants to the Romans, nor to any other than to God Himself, Who alone is the true and just Lord of mankind, the time is now come that obliges us to make that resolution true in practice. ... We were the very first that revolted and we are the last to fight against them; and I cannot but esteem it as a favor that God has granted us, that it is still in our power to die bravely and in a state of freedom.”

 

As told to Josephus by the two surviving women, the defenders knew they would be taken the following day. Rather than submit to slavery at the hands of the Romans, they decided that they would kill themselves. They selected, by lots, 10 men who were charged with killing the rest. After that was done, one of these ten was chosen to kill the other nine and then he himself committed suicide. The lots — clay shards on which the names had been written — have been found and are on display at the Museum at Masada.

 

Some 2000 years later, when the site was excavated, the archaeologists discovered a trove of parchment fragments. The fragment that was most intact and legible was part of Chap. 37 of the Book of Ezekiel, in which the prophet sees himself in a valley filled with dry bones that become re-animated and are revealed to be the Children of Israel, who are to be returned to the Land of Israel.

 

I had always looked at Masada as a cursed place, where suicide was the horrible result of a disastrous moment in Jewish history. However, as a result of my recent visit my perspective changed. I came to realize that those who died at Masada died because they refused to cede to anyone their G-d given freedom to determine their own futures; only one person committed suicide; he took that sin upon himself to spare all the others; Masada symbolizes the refusal of the Jewish nation to put their fate in the hands of others; and the battle cry “Masada shall not fall again” has become a rallying cry for the Jewish people in the face of the searing experience of the Holocaust and the continuing hostility towards the state of Israel.

 

All of this brings me to something that happened just a few weeks ago. Someone wrote a letter to the Charleston Post and Courier recently spewing a full litany of lies about the state of Israel. He condemned those who resist the application of pressure on Israel to “reach a settlement with the Palestinians.”

 

The letter writer referred to “five decades of Israel’s illegal occupation of the West Bank” and claimed that “the United States has to stop supporting the current Israeli policy of never allowing a Palestinian state and to push Israel toward a just settlement of this issue.”

 

The letter writer continued with his lies, claiming that “the Israeli government hasn’t had a leader seeking a just settlement with the Palestinians since the assassination of Yitzak Rabin in 1995.” He stated that “because the United States has been such a staunch supporter of Israel... we are effectively co-conspirators in the oppression of the Palestinians.”

 

He ended his letter with a partial quotation: “Rabbi Hillel put it:  ‘If not now, when?’”

 

Those of you who know anything about me know that I refuse to allow a lie about Israel to go unanswered, so I wrote a letter in response to the above lies. In that letter I referred interested readers to Alan Dershowitz’ comprehensive demonstration that Israeli settlement of Judea and Samaria (improperly called the “West Bank” by many who prefer to ignore the fact that Jews have resided in that area for millennia) is certainly not “illegal.” [His piece is available to read at wsj.com/articles/SB10001424052748704698004576104043350034886] I condemned the lie that it has been Israeli policy to “never allow … a Palestinian state.” In 1948, the state of Israel accepted UN partition, but the Arabs refused and declared war on the fledgling Jewish state. The Arabs could have had their state at that time, but because of their blind obstinacy, the Arabs lost that opportunity. On four subsequent occasions, the Israeli government has offered a state to the Palestinians, but each time, their leaders refused those opportunities. As the noted Israeli statesman, Abba Eban, wisely noted (and the late Morey Lipton often quoted), “the Arabs never miss an opportunity to miss an opportunity.” It is the Palestinian position that no part of what is the current state of Israel should remain. Their “policy” is to drive the Jews into the sea. It appears that the July letter-writer lacks sufficient respect for the Palestinians to believe them when they actually tell the truth.

 

There is no “oppression of Palestinians.” Arabs, both Christians and Muslims, living in Israel have been elected to and serve as full members of the Israeli Knesset (Parliament). They live freely and unmolested in all neighborhoods and cities in Israel. And they also live unmolested in their own self-designated enclaves, where signs are posted indicating that Israelis (Jews) who enter are in danger of being killed. There are no signs threatening Arabs anywhere in Israeli areas.

 

Finally, in my letter I expressed amusement at the writer’s chutzpah in quoting the great 1st century B.C.E. teacher Rabbi Hillel only partially and distorting its contextual meaning. Here is the full quotation:  “If I am not for myself, then who will be for me? And if I am only for myself, then what am I? And if not now, when?”

 

The Jewish people have learned to look out for themselves, in addition to looking out for others. It was the tiny country of Israel that was the first to land in Haiti with an entire mobile field hospital following their big earthquake several years ago. It is Israel who is teaching African countries how to manage their agriculture with new and innovative methods of irrigation. (A similar offer was made by Israel to assist California in the recent drought, but California being California, the state turned down the offer.) It was Israel who sent rescue teams to Nepal to help when it suffered an earthquake last year. It is Israel that, despite having to focus so much of its GDP and efforts on defense from constant attacks from its neighbors, is a leader in medical innovation, having made incredible strides in the fight against cancer. It is a leader in high tech industries. All their innovations and inventions are shared with the world — including Palestinian murderers who are treated in Israeli hospitals after being wounded while pursuing their terrorist activities.

 

Fortunately, we still have people who understand Israel’s contributions and values. Recently, the Republican Party, thanks to the efforts of South Carolina State Representative Alan Clemmons, adopted a platform that proposes to reverse many years of American interference with Israel’s future. It rejects the lie that Israel is an “occupier” of Palestinian lands. It rejects the idea that a “two-state solution” should be imposed, opting instead for the novel concept that the shape of the future belongs in the hands of the parties who are directly involved and that whether or not Israel chooses to agree to a Palestinian state is entirely up to Israel, without American interference. It opposes those who are pushing for a boycott of Israel and it confirms once and for all that Jerusalem is the undivided and eternal capital of the state of Israel. Bravo to the Republicans for standing against the liars.

 

Israel will not commit suicide to further the disgusting predilections of Israel haters. Here is a message for the letter-writer and for all others who want the Israelis to commit suicide:  Masada shall never fall again!

 

Stuart Kaufman is a retired lawyer, investment banker and businessman. He relocated from New York to Mount Pleasant in 2012. A friend recently told him that he has been a South Carolinian all of his life ... but he just didn’t know it.

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