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an oath and a chant
This is a chapter from Eric Black's book, Parallel Realities. It is reprinted here with permission of the author and the Minneapolis Star Tribune. Copyright 1992, Star Tribune. (See below for further information about the author and the book.)

"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 home.

» Masada

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."

» Saladin

"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 1291.

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 Liberation Organization.

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 affront.

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 seize power.

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 acronym, Hamas.

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 uprising.

» 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 a state.

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.

Parallel Realities

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 hallway.

» 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 land.

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.

»About the Author

Eric Black is a reporter for the Minneapolis Star Tribune, where he specializes in pieces that put the news in historical context. Parallel Realities is based on a series of articles he wrote for the newspaper. The book describes the history of Israel/Palestine, from biblical times until just before Oslo, from the perspectives of each side of the ethnoreligious divide.

» About the Book

Parallel Realities is available for $9.95 per copy plus $2.00 shipping/handling for up to 10 copies. Orders should be sent to Eric Black/Star Tribune/425 Portland Ave., Minneapolis, MN 55488. There are discounts available for classroom orders of 10 or more (15 percent) and 30 or more (25 percent). Details or inquiries can be directed to the same address, or to

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