Masada as Pilgrimage Site

The publication of Simchoni’s updated Hebrew translation of Josephus’s Jewish War in l923 and of the poem ‘Masada’ by Isaac Lamdan in l927, enhanced the impact of the Masada resistance and the defenders’ suicides as a model of heroism. The Josephan narrative of Masada (perhaps coloured by the traditional saga in Sefer Yosippon) became a national-historical myth. Zionist high schools took to hiking to the desert mountain, in pilgrimages comparable to those to other sites of national significance and heroism, such as Modi’in, home of the Maccabees, and Trumpeldor’s Tel Hai. The earthquake of l927 thwarted the Masada efforts, which eventually passed to the Zionist youth movements.

The dominant figure was Shemariah Guttman, member of Kibbutz Na’an, and highly influential in the activist wing of the labour movement. His fostering of the Josephus-based ‘Masada myth’ as an educational tool increased in urgency with the Jewish future in peril. In January l942 Guttman ran a five-day seminar on Masada for 46 senior counsellors, devoted to archaeology, improving the site, and to ideological discussion, in which Josephus’s Jewish War and Lamdan’s poem both figured. In December 1942, 250 members of the Mahanot Ha-olim youth movement made the ascent in the shadow of what had recently become known worldwide to be happening to the Jews of Europe, having received with relief news of the halting at El Alamein of Rommel’s westward advance through North Africa. They observed a minute’s silence for ‘the Diaspora that perishes in its own blood’, and on a rock, they supposedly engraved the words: ‘If I forget thee, O Diaspora…’.

Pilgrimages to Masada during the 1940s were modeled on the January l942 seminar; and they were conducted not only by the youth movements but also by the Palmach (elite Military Units), for whom Masada served as a recruiting slogan, while the rigorous desert hikes were a training ground. The pilgrimages ended with (often nocturnal) ceremonies on the mountain, and the utterance of the declaration ‘Masada shall not fall again’ (drawing on Lamdan’s poem). A direct link between the Palmach tradition and the IDF (Israel Defence Forces) is to be found in the tradition, eventually abandoned, of swearing in recruits of the Armoured Corps on Masada.

The hikes (now far less dangerous) were continued by schools and youth movements in the early decades of the State of Israel. They would often climax in the reading of words from Eleazar Ben Yair’s final oration (Josephus, Jewish War 341-88). In 2012 the kibbutz educator Yariv Ben Aharon organized a seminar on Masada to mark the 70th anniversary of Guttman’s 1942 event, which seems to be evolving as a myth in its own right.

Ben-Yehuda, N., The Masada Myth: Collective Memory and Mythmaking in Israel. Madison, WI, 1995.
Ben-Yehuda, N., Sacrificing Truth: Archaeology and the Myth of Masada. Amherst, MA, 2002.
Brog, M.,‘From the Top of Masada to the Bottom of the Ghetto: Masada –“Lieux de Memoire” of Heroism in the Land of Israel’, in: Myth and Memory: Transfigurations of Israeli Consciousness, eds. D. Ohana and R. Wistrich. Jerusalem, 1996: 203-27 [Hebrew]. English translation online.
Haskin, G., The Masada Myth, its Rise and Decline in Israeli Ethos (online), part I: 6-7; part II: 1-2, 3-4 [Hebrew].
Schwartz, B., Zerubavel, Y., Barnet, B.M., ‘The Recovery of Masada: a Study in Collective Memory’, The Sociological Quarterly 27.2 (1986): 147-64.
Shavit, A., My Promised Land: The Triumph and Tragedy of Israel. London, 2014: 80-97.

JRA entry contributed by Zviah Nardi