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New Book Challenges the “Myth” of Heroism by Zealots at Masada

Allan C. Brownfeld, Editor
Special Interest Report
May-June 2003

In 66 C.E. the Jews rose up in what has come to be known as the Great Revolt against Rome, which called it the Jewish War. Even after defeat by the Romans, a group of Zealots were not ready to surrender. They barricaded themselves with their women and children in the mountain fortress of Masada and for three years held out against a Roman siege. Their resistance, which had no military purpose, ended in collective suicide. In recent years, the Zealots have become heroes to Israelis and to Jews elsewhere in the world.  

The story of Masada gained an international audience in the early 1960s when Yigael Yadin, Israel’s most celebrated archaeologist, excavated the Masada site. His work cemented Masada as a potent symbol for Israel. Now an Israeli scholar is raising questions about Yadin’s account.  

In a new book, Sacrificing Truth: Archaeology and the Mirth of Masada (Prometheus Books ), Nachman Ben-Yehuda, a professor in the department of sociology and anthropology at Hebrew University in Jerusalem, accuses Yadin, who died in 1984, of deliberately distorting his findings “to provide Israelis with a spurious historical narrative of heroism.” Yadin ignored damning information about the rebels, Ben Yehuda charges, pointing out that they belonged to a radical sect known for assassinating both Romans and Jews who disagreed with their own militant position.  

In addition to allegedly falsifying some of his archaeological findings, Yadin did not, Ben-Yehuda argues, own up to the dark side of Masada’s defenders. He quotes the Jewish historian Josephus as writing that the rebels belonged to a Jewish sect known as the Sicarii, from the Greek word for dagger. During the battle for Jerusalem, they had gained notoriety for killing not just Romans but also moderate Jews. Josephus wrote that Masada’s Sicarii massacred over 700 women and children in the nearby town of Ein Gedi. Yet Yadin described the rebels as defenders or patriots, U.S. News and World Report (March 10, 2003) reports that, “Yigael Yadin isn’t the only national icon getting a closer look these days. Israel is in the midst of a broader reassessment of its Zionist past. This questioning extends to those first archaeologists, like Yadin, who hoped to provide pioneers with heroic tales or document Zionist settlers’ claims to the land. As for Masada, Ben-Yehuda, doesn’t deny the power of the place. But for him, it is no longer a symbol of courageous resolve but a cautionary tale of the consequences of extremism: ‘Never get trapped on a mountain with no good options,’ he says, ‘Instead make alliances; negotiate your way.’”

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