The heroic myth
of Masada has been something of a mixed blessing
in the cultural history of the state of Israel and of the Jewish
people in general.
Masada was extensively excavated by eminent archaeologist and former army general, Yigael Yadin, who wrote a popular book about his findings, highly romaticising the last stand at Masada and putting a nationalistic, allegorical spin on the events that took place there and during the Judean revolt in general. At its time of publishing - in the mid-fifties - the attitudes in the country were highly defensive, and with good reason: the nation's population was growing faster than it could really handle, the War of Independance was not very far in the past, and a state of constant military attrition existed between Israel and all of its immediate neighbours.
In addition to the contemporary dangers and hardships, the emergent nation also had to contend with the memory of the Holocaust, which many considered a black mark on the national character of Jews, a manifestation of weakness and cowardice, something to be ashamed of and repress. The myth of Masada came at a time when its combination of staunch nationalism, courageous determination, heroic odds and refusal to surrender made Yadin's readers highly susceptible to his unwitting propaganda.
While it is true that every nation needs its myths, the myth of Masada took root at a time when it was of psychological advantage to the Jewish population of Israel, and was preserved and passed on to an era when it probably did more harm than good. In 1967 Israel won a spectacular victory over its neighbours, more than doubling its territory in just six days and pushing them back for another six years. In this psychological climate, the Masadaic refusal to leave their stringhold was transferred from the idea of statehood and independence in general to the newly concquered terrotories per se. The nascent Israeli right-wing, fueled by religious misconceptions and nationalistic fervor, took that last stand at Masada and ran away with to create what is now the hard core of the Jewish settlement in the West Bank.
The military in particular, perhaps predictably, took to the myth of Masada with great enthusiasm. It was only in the late eighties that the IDF stopped routinely bringing its new recruits to the mountain to be sworn in, when it dawned on them that abject defeat and mass suicide were perhaps not the best symbols for an army to style itself upon. These ceremonies are nowadays held either at the Western Wall or in locations that are of particular significance to the different corps.
Revisionist history has not bypassed Israel, and there are many bright young research students who made their careers upon proving, variously, that the Zealots were nothing but a band of outlaws, that the mass suicide was considerably less than unanimously approved, that Ben Yair's group had no news of the rest of the rebellion and so were unlikely to be aware of theirs being the last stand, etc. The importance of this work is less in the historical and archaelogical detail it illuminates, but in the slow dissolution of the myth of Masada as a sacred text, which it is taught as in the education system, often quoted in the media and is a part of popular culture in general. For a significant and determined minority of Israelis, however, this reeducation has come too late, and they are the biggest force behind the internal opposition to any settlement with the Palestinians active in Israel today.