"Masada shall not fall again."
"Tell Shamir, tell Rabin; we are the sons of Saladin."
The first declaration above is a solemn oath taken by all inductees to the
Israeli Defense Forces. The second rhythmic announcement is chanted by
Palestinian protesters at some demonstrations during the intifada.
The oath and the chant connect the past of Israel/Palestine to the present and
the future of the conflict. They are not unique in this regard. As the previous
chapters have suggested, the complex mosaic of the Israel/Palestine dispute
comprises ten thousand facts, incidents, grudges, diverse viewpoints and
differences of interpretation. This final chapter focuses on two historical
chapters--call them Masada and Saladin--and tries to show how the past can hold
hostage the present and the future in the land that two peoples consider their
To understand "Masada shall not fall again," you have to return to the first
century a.d. when Judea, as the territory was then called, was inhabited mostly
by Jews but ruled by Rome. The Jews made lousy Roman subjects, which is to say
that although they had not been truly independent for about six centuries, they
did not accept Roman rule and gave Rome frequent headaches.
In the year 66 a.d., a full-scale Jewish war for independence broke out. By 70
a.d., Roman legions had sacked Jerusalem, razed the holy Temple, slaughtered
Jews by the score, expelled the survivors and banned all Jews from their
ancient capital. The last holdouts were a group known as the Zealots who holed
up in Masada, a nearly impregnable fortress on a stark but majestic mountaintop
between the desert and the Dead Sea. King Herod, of New Testament fame, had
built it in the previous century as a combination winter palace and getaway in
case his subjects ever chased him out of Jerusalem.
When some of the fleeing survivors from the rout of Jerusalem joined the
Zealots on Masada the total Jewish resistance force numbered 960 men, women and
children. They were soon besieged by a Roman legion that vastly outnumbered
them. But Masada was nearly impossible to storm. The bleak standoff lasted
three years, as the Romans methodically built a ramp up the mountain, then a
tower on the ramp, then brought in a huge battering ram and finally battered a
hole in the fortress wall.
When the wall was breached, the Zealots knew they would be overrun the next
day. Those that survived the battle would be crucified or enslaved. After a
dramatic speech by their leader, they agreed to die in freedom by their own
hands rather than accept defeat and slavery.
First the adult men killed their wives and children. Then, by lot, ten were
chosen to kill the rest of the men. Those ten drew lots again to choose the one
that would kill the other nine. That man set fire to whatever would burn, then
fell on his own sword.
By tradition, some inductees to the Israeli Defense Forces take their oath of
loyalty to the Jewish state on top of Masada. Others take it at the Western
Wall, the remnant of the sacred Temple in Jerusalem. But wherever they take it,
the oath ends: "Masada shall not fall again."
"Shamir" and "Rabin" of the chant "tell Shamir, tell Rabin, we are the sons of
Saladin" refer to Yitzhak Shamir and Yitzhak Rabin. When the intifada
broke out in 1987, Shamir was Israel's prime minister and Rabin, as defense
minister, headed the military government of the occupied territories. But the
names of any two Israeli leaders could be substituted as long as they rhymed
with the key name in the chant, Saladin.
To understand the significance of the Saladin chant, fast forward 1,000 years
from Masada. Palestine had been under Muslim control since Arab holy warriors
drove out the Romans in 636.
Starting in 1095, Western European crusaders invaded Palestine. Jerusalem fell
in 1099 to the crusaders, who established a European Christian kingdom there.
Some crusaders were motivated by a desire to rescue the birthplace of
Christianity from Muslim infidels. Others were out for plunder. But through
Muslim eyes, the Crusades were a brutal, destructive, unprovoked attack.
In retrospect, it is clear that the crusaders could not have prevailed if the
Muslim world had been united against them. But power was divided between the
two great Islamic strongholds of Egypt and Syria.
In the middle 1100s, the Sultan Saladin, a man of humble birth who had risen
through ability, integrity and piety, united all Islam to drive the Westerners
from their midst. In the summer of 1187, Saladin fed an army of 20,000 Saracens
(as the Europeans called the Muslims) across the Jordan River. They met the
Franks (as the Europeans were called) near the Sea of Galilee and crushed them
in the devastating battle of Hattin. Saladin broke the power of the crusader
kingdoms, which led to the Muslim reconquest of almost the entire region.
Although pockets of crusader power remained, and subsequent Crusades were
attempted, the last crusader outpost was driven out of the Middle East in
It took 200 years to get rid of the crusaders. After 200 years, the crusaders
may have felt that they were a permanent fixture in Jerusalem. But through Arab
eyes, they were still unwelcome outsiders who were too far from home to
prevail. With enough patience, unity and steadfastness, Saladin was able to
send them packing because the home court advantage cannot finally be overcome.
By chanting that they are the sons of Saladin, Palestinian protesters imply
that Islam will again prevail and expel the European invaders. In the modern
context, this refers to the Zionists.
» Importance of Masada
Masada isn't the central event of Jewish history, nor is it the fundamental
metaphor shaping the soul of Israel. But it nonetheless casts a large shadow
over the past and the present.
Masada gains in historical importance because of what followed it. The
rebellion against Rome marked the end of more than 1,000 years of Jewish
presence in their homeland, and the beginning of almost 2,000 years of
wandering. During those centuries, the Jews were despised, oppressed,
persecuted and nearly annihilated. The early Zionists concluded that the
central problem of the Jews was their homelessness; that trouble and hatred
would follow them to the ends of the earth and that to defend themselves they
needed a state of their own.
The centuries of homelessness ended in 1948, just after the Holocaust, the
greatest tragedy in Jewish history.
The Holocaust overshadows Masada as an event and as a lesson. But the grim
grandeur of Masada also benefits by the contrast between the two tragedies.
Most of the six million who died in the Holocaust went quietly to the death
chambers. The survivors helped create a state that has fought for every year of
its survival. The Jews of Israel, like those on Masada, feel themselves
besieged. Masada, like Israel, represents the Jews who won't go quietly.
A mass suicide is, of course, no happy ending. Masada is not an example to be
followed but a warning that Jews must never again allow themselves to be faced
with a choice between statelessness or suicide. This is part of the mentality
that shapes Israel today.
» The Masada Mentality
To an outsider, the Masada mentality can seem ludicrous. Israel in 1992 has the
strongest military in the Mideast. The strongest power in the world, the United
States, is Israel's ally and benefactor. Israel has won all its wars. Its
adversaries now offer peace almost on Israel's terms.
But to focus overmuch on the latest negotiating position of an adversary misses
important aspects of the Masada mentality, which suggests that trouble always
lurks around the next corner.
Yes, Israel has won all its wars. But the Masada mentality teaches that if it
ever loses a single one, the Jews will find themselves at Masada again.
In the time of Kings David and Solomon, Israel was also the dominant power in
the region. Its ally was no less a power than God. Anyone looking at that
situation might have said, "Don't be ridiculous. Lighten up. Nothing bad can
happen to you. Take chances for peace." But from that position of strength, the
Jews later found themselves at Masada.
The Masada metaphor, you might suppose, is a special friend of Israeli
hardliners, but that isn't really so. If the lesson of Masada is that the Jews
must never again be faced with a choice between suicide and slavery, then every
Jew would embrace it.
I noted in the introduction that one of the weaknesses of the "Parallel
Realities" approach is that it tends to deemphasize differences within
Jewish or Palestinian opinion.
» Four Groups
On the question of how to implement the lesson of Masada, there are many
parallel realities within the overall Israeli/Jewish reality. To illustrate,
consider the key issue of whether Israel ever agrees to the creation of a
Palestinian state. Leave aside, for the moment, what the borders of such a
state might be or what special conditions might be negotiated to address
Israel's security concerns. Perhaps the parties will agree to an interim
arrangement of Palestinian self-government in the occupied territories under
continued Israeli sovereignty. But any final settlement will have to address
the Palestinian demand for an independent state.
Here is how the Israeli electorate might be divided into four rough groups on
this question, with special attention to how they might factor the lesson of
Masada into their thinking:
» Group 1: The Idealistic Doves/ Agree to a Palestinian state
because justice demands it. Until the Palestinians get justice they will always
hate us. The way to avoid a new Masada is to get them to stop hating us.
» Group 2: The Pragmatic Doves/ Agree to a state because we need
peace more than land. Our intransigence on this point is undermining our
important position in U.S. public opinion. Don't expect the Palestinians to
stop hating us. That may never happen, or may take a century or two. But let
them hate us from outside our country. We will still have to defend the border,
but that is easier and more consistent with our democratic values than policing
a large, hostile, disenfranchised population inside the borders. The way to
avoid Masada is to make an enforceable peace.
» Group 3: The Pragmatic Hawks/ Never agree to a state because
someday it will be used against us. Yes, Arafat has changed his stated
position. One year he wants to kill us all. Now he wants to be our peaceful
neighbor. We doubt his sincerity, but even if he is sincere, he can't guarantee
who will lead the Palestinians next year or next century. International
guarantees and promises of peace can be unmade in a day. The lesson of Masada
is that trouble always finds the Jews and no one will defend the Jews except
the Jews. So when the next war comes, we'll be glad we didn't permit the
creation of a hostile state in such a sensitive place on the neck of Israel.
» Group 4: The Religious Hawks/ God intends us to have this land.
God promised it to Abraham and to Moses. The scattering of the Jews after
Masada and the regathering of them after the Holocaust are all part of God's
plan for his chosen people.
» Saladin as Metaphor
While most Israelis can find a use for the Masada metaphor, not all
Palestinians embrace Saladin equally. Saladin's victory over the crusaders is a
favorite metaphor of the growing Islamic movement. But several aspects of the
metaphor discomfit the nationalist groups that comprise the Palestinian
Saladin, for starters, was not a Palestinian, nor even an Arab. He was of
Kurdish descent, born at Takrit, the same town that gave Saddam Hussein to the
world. In Saladin's time, before the advent of modern nation-states, this was
no problem. Nationality was a detail within the Muslim world. As sultan of all
Islam, Saladin could command the loyalty of Muslims everywhere, whether they
were Arabs, Turks, Kurds or Moors. Similarly, the pope in this period could
dispatch knights from all over Christendom (as Europe was then sometimes
called) on a holy war.
The Islamic movement of today advocates a Pan-Islamic nation, as in Saladin's
time. Many Islamicists believe such a nation, which today would unite a billion
believers, could not be deterred by any earthly power from accomplishing its
goals. Palestinian Islamicists especially hope the liberation of Palestine
would be among the first goals because the existence of Israel in the heart of
Islam, and the occupation of Jerusalem, Islam's third holiest city, is such an
The Islamic movement unites several organizations in different countries.
Members of the Egyptian branch of the movement assassinated President Anwar
Sadat in 1981. According to the Islamicists Sadat had defied Allah by several
actions, including his 1979 peace treaty with Israel.
The Muslim Brotherhood is the largest party in the Parliament of Jordan and
Islamic parties won the 1992 elections in Algeria, which impelled the Army to
In the West Bank and especially in the Gaza Strip, the leading Palestinian
proponent of Islamicism is the Islamic Resistance Movement, known by its Arabic
Hamas has refused to join the PLO, has opposed Palestinian participation
in the current peace talks and opposes any agreement that would recognize the
legitimacy of Israel.
The Saladin metaphor is nearly perfect for the Palestinian Islamicists. It
evokes an image of a Pan-Islamic effort for the total liberation of Palestine,
which would eventually become part of a Muslim empire under Islamic law. It's
no coincidence that the chanting of the rhyme about Saladin was popular during
the intifada, because the influence of Hamas has grown during the
» Saladin and the PLO
On the other hand the PLO, which commands the political loyalty of most
Palestinians, advocates a secular, democratic state. The PLO argues that the
conflict over Israel/Palestine is not about religion but about
nationality--specifically, the denial of the Palestinian national right to have
So the Saladin metaphor, with its religious overtones, troubles the advocates
of secular, Palestinian nationalism. Saladin's conquest, after all, did not
result in the creation of a Palestinian state.
Furthermore, since about 1980, the PLO has moved away from the language of its
charter, which calls for the total liberation of Palestine by force of arms.
The governing majority of the organization now calls for a two-state solution
to be achieved by negotiations, which means accepting Israel at least within
its pre-1967 borders.
So the Saladin metaphor is also troublesome for the PLO because it conjures up
an all-or-nothing prescription.
Most chapters of this book discussed how a single historical issue looks
different to Israelis versus Palestinians. Sometimes the realities are
separated by a dispute over facts. But even when the two realities coincide on
the facts, they differ on the interpretation.
The tragedy at Masada and Saladin's victory, are different. There is no Arab
version of Masada. The Arabs weren't present in Palestine until six centuries
later. But it doesn't really matter. In the Jewish reality, the world is
divided into the Jews and the non-Jews.
The Arabs do the same thing. A Jewish critic of the metaphor of Saladin versus
the crusaders might say: "Don't substitute us for the crusaders. They were
foreign invaders. We Jews are the heirs of David and Solomon, unjustly exiled,
come back to claim our homeland." But in the Palestinian reality the Zionists
were just another group of Europeans who are trying to steal the birthright of
the Palestinian people.
Chapter One started with a quote from a 1967 essay by I.F. Stone, the American
journalist. Stone was Jewish and a one-time Zionist who deconverted from
Zionism during the 1960s. But he didn't become an advocate of the Arab cause
against Israel. In the same 1967 essay, suffering through a fit of pessimism
after the 1967 war, Stone wrote of the warring parties that "their conflicting
ambitions cannot be fitted into the confines of any ethical system which
transcends the tribalistic. This is what frustrates the benevolent outsider,
anxious to satisfy both peoples."
In 1991, 19 centuries after Masada, eight centuries after Saladin, Arab and
Jewish delegates sat at the same table in Madrid and showed off their parallel
realities. Each gave their version of the root of the problem and,
unsurprisingly, found their own side blameless and accused the other of a
thousand atrocities. The meeting was pronounced "historic" by all observers and
hopes were expressed that they would soon get past the rhetoric of tribal war
and begin to seek a settlement.
As the second round of talks approached, based in Washington in December 1991,
the two sides first couldn't agree on a starting date, then talked to each
other in a hallway because they wouldn't get into a room together, then
quarreled about where the next round of talks should be held, if at all.
At the third round, also in Washington, the delegates tried to discuss whether
there was a means beyond tribal warfare to settle the ancient dispute. The
results were not inspiring, but at least the talks weren't held in a
» An Optimist
During a Twin Cities appearance in November of 1991, Amos Oz, the Israeli
novelist and peacenik, said he believed a breakthrough has occurred that will
ultimately lead to peace. He didn't mean the talks in Madrid, Oz specified, but
a revolution of attitudes on both sides of the tribal divide.
Until recently, Oz said, the Jews and the Palestinians each believed the other
could be gotten rid of completely. Until the 1967 war, the Arabs thought they
could drive Israel into the sea. Until the intifada, many Jews thought
the Palestinians could be induced to leave the occupied territories and
disappear into the vast Arab world, at which point they would cease to exist as
a distinct tribe with a competing claim to Palestine.
Those grim hopes are gone, Oz said, at least for a majority of Jews and
Palestinians. Each side is now resigned that the other will always be there.
That resignation is the psychological breeding ground for a deal to share the
It's not that Jews had found any merit in the Arab claim to be the true owners
of the land, nor vice versa. Both sides still view the dispute as a Wild West
movie from the old days, in which one side is all good and the other is all bad
and a happy ending is guaranteed.
But this has been no Wild West movie, Oz said. It is a tragedy. Literature
offers two models of tragic endings. There's the Shakespearean model in which
all of the major characters kill each other off in the last scene. Then there's
the Chekhovian model in which the characters end up sadder but wiser,
frustrated and forced to accept that life is unfair and they cannot have their
dream come true. But when the curtain falls on the Chekhovian ending, the cast
is still alive.
The story of Israelis and the Palestinians has been a tragedy, Oz said, but he
hopes and believes it will have a Chekhovian ending.