The legacy of Masada: How Jewish resistance has shaped Israeli military policy

Ceremony of receiving berets in Masada, IDF Caracal battalion. (Photo: Wikimedia Commons)

The city of Jerusalem lay in a smoldering ruin. The few Jews who had managed to escape fled to an escarpment on the edge of the Judean desert, the last outpost of the rebellion against Rome.

Herod the Great built Masada as a hilltop retreat around 35 B.C., but the fortress’s beautiful terraced palace – perched at the top of sheer cliffs – was now surrounded by a Roman legion. The siege lasted from 73–74 A.D., by which time the Roman governor’s army had constructed a giant earthen ramp so their battering rams could reach the outer walls.

Eleazar ben Ya’ir, the leader of the remnant who had taken refuge at Masada, addressed the rebels and their families:

Since we, long ago, my generous friends, resolved never to be servants to the Romans, nor to any other than to God himself … I cannot but esteem it as a favor that God hath granted us that it is still in our power to die bravely, and in a state of freedom.

Rather than be defeated by the Romans, the Jewish fighters chose to commit mass suicide with their families. In all, 960 men, women and children died before the fortress was breached.

In the 1920s, Yitzhak Lamdan, a Ukrainian Jewish poet, wrote a verse immortalizing the siege, which mixed history and Biblical sacrificial imagery in an epic reminiscent of the Psalms. The poem was adopted by the Zionist movement in the interwar period, with its most famous line becoming a rallying cry: “Never again shall Masada fall.” Lamdan’s words are credited as one of the inspirations for the Jewish uprising against the Nazis in the Warsaw Ghetto in 1943.

The murder of more than 6 million Jews during the Holocaust seared into the hearts and minds of many a determination that echoed ben Ya’ir: that they would rather die bravely and in a state of freedom than see their families slaughtered again. This “never again” narrative has come to define the modern Israeli state’s military policy.

The prospect of history repeating itself has always exercised Israel’s leaders. In a letter to President John F. Kennedy in 1963, Israeli Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion wrote, “I know that it is difficult for civilized people to visualize such a thing – even after they have witnessed what had happened to us during the Second World War. I do not assume that could happen today or tomorrow. But I cannot dismiss the possibility that this may occur. As a Jew, I know the history of my people, and carry with me the memories of all it has endured over a period of 3,000 years.” That fear would lead Ben-Gurion to become a powerful advocate of Israel’s developing nuclear weapons.

When a soldier friend of Benjamin Netanyahu’s was killed carrying out a Special Forces raid in Egypt in 1969, the response of the mother stayed with the man who would later become Israel’s prime minister. “She felt no bitterness. At least, she said, her son had died wearing the uniform of a Jewish soldier defending his people. I was 19 years old then, and these words had a profound effect on me.”

Militarily, Israel has repeatedly and unequivocally asserted the statement of “never again.” Whenever the nation has been under threat, successive leaders have rarely flinched from taking direct military action. Most famously, in 1967, as Arab armies massed on the country’s borders, the Israeli Air Force launched a series of devastating preemptive strikes that annihilated the Egyptian and Syrian air forces and paved the way for a dramatic Israeli victory in the Six-Day War. In 1981, Israeli jets bombed the Osirak nuclear reactor in Iraq, all but ending Saddam Hussein’s hopes of making Iraq a nuclear power; before the attack, the chief of staff of the Israeli Defense Forces personally briefed the pilots and told them that if they failed, “the alternative is our destruction.”

The following year, Israel took the first of what would become many military actions against Hezbollah in Lebanon. Since 2011 and the outbreak of the Syrian conflict, Israel has also launched strikes to prevent arms transiting through Syria to Hezbollah. There is a clear and consistent determination to deal decisively with external threats – a stance that has led to much international criticism of Israel. But for successive Israeli governments, military aggression has been viewed as the only way of preserving the nation’s existence.

Until recently, before recruits for the Israeli Armored Corps were formally accepted into the army, they were required to complete a dawn trek to the top of Masada. There, on the site where the Jewish fighters ended their own lives, they would take their oath of allegiance to the nation of Israel. Masada is ingrained in the Israeli psyche as a monument to Jewish resistance: an ancient symbol for the defiance of the modern state that rose from the ashes of the Holocaust.

This article originally appeared on Philos Project, May 10, 2017, and reposted with permission.