I have always had a complicated relationship with Masada. The site itself is remarkable. King Herod’s narcissistic paranoia brought him to build seven magnificent fortresses in different parts of Israel, and, if anything else, Masada has to be his crown jewel. The story becomes more challenging with the Roman army’s siege of the fortress in their attempt at wiping out the remnants of the Jewish rebellion at the time, including the group of Sicarii that had taken refuge atop Masada. As the story goes, the day before the final push of the Romans into the fortress and before the unavoidable fight, the Sicarii decided as the ultimate act of resistance, to not give the Romans the satisfaction of victory and to enact a suicide pact by which fathers killed their families, ten designated men killed the fathers, and so on until the last one of them.
In its early days, the State of Israel, in search of a unifying national myth saw in Masada a symbol of heroism, resistance and sacrifice. They coined the slogan: “Masada will never fall again.” Nowadays Israeli soldiers are taken up the fortress to swear their military oath of allegiance and shout this newly minted mantra of Masada with pride. But not everyone saw in that story the story of national heroes. Some understood the tale to be a warning against the destructiveness of nationalistic ideals. Frankly, I feel that though both perspectives have merit on their own, they are both missing an even more controversial issue which is often overlooked. Here was a group of fighters, resisting the Roman Empire and engaging them in a fight atop impregnable Masada. Yet in the moment of the final clash, instead of taking down with them as many of their sworn enemies as possible they commit collective suicide? Is this really the model we want for Israel?
Masada has become extremely problematic in Israeli lore because of this multi-layered contradicting symbolism. Yet, at the same time, the question this story is posing remains critically relevant. Should we let ourselves be swallowed up by the global forces of the Roman Empire, or should we resist and preserve what has made us unique even if that means becoming recluses in the last bastion of resistance? Obviously the answer isn’t easy. Jews have wrestled with it since the times of the Sicarii and before. Do we merge with the current culture and risk losing ourselves and disappear as a people, or do we remain faithful to our traditions and way of life even if that means being ostracized (and worse) from the evolving world around us? When it comes to assimilation, how far is too far?
Perhaps the U.S. as a nation has come to its Masada moment in these past presidential elections. A substantial part of our nation asked itself: “When it comes to globalization, how far is too far?” and may have come to the conclusion that the way things are today is, for them, already too far. There are values, a way of life, a certain quality of what makes the U.S. what it is that, as far as they are concerned, are being threatened by the new Roman Empire of Globalization. When the Jews were faced with that question in the 1700’s they responded in different ways. Though the analogy is poor, the Sicarii at the time became the ultra-orthodox Jews that closed themselves off into their own religious fortress with the goal to preserve what they saw as authentic Judaism. Others proposed a compromise half way between preserving tradition and assimilation. These became the Conservative and Reform movements at first and later on the Reconstructionist and Renewal movements to name but a few. Many decided to leave Judaism behind and to fully assimilate into the secular modern world.
It is possible that we will see in America a similar unfolding. Some will remain the American Sicarii, violent nationalists bent on preserving White Supremacist Patriarchal America. Others will come to a place of compromise on the spectrum of preserving a set of uniquely American values and welcoming Globalization. Another group will decide to transform into global citizens away from a uniquely American identity. My concern is that, oftentimes, the voice of the most extreme is the one to dominate the conversation; the acts of the violent to dictate the unfolding of the narrative. We will have to commit to act as counterweight in order to prevent the extremist views to derail the process and to help along whatever transformation is yearning to be born.