In 73 A.D., legend has it, 960 Jewish rebels under siege in the ancient desert fortress of Masada committed suicide rather than surrender to a Roman legion. Recorded in only one historical source, the story of Masada was obscure for centuries. In The Masada Myth, Israeli sociologist Nachman Ben-Yehuda tracks the process by which Masada became an ideological symbol for the State of Israel, the dramatic subject of movies and miniseries, a shrine venerated by generations of Zionists and Israeli soldiers, and the most profitable tourist attraction in modern Israel. Ben-Yehuda describes how, after nearly 1800 years, the long, complex, and unsubstantiated narrative of a Romanized Jew, Josephus Flavius, was edited and augmented in the twentieth century to form a simple and powerful myth of heroism. Ben-Yehuda looks at the ways this new mythical narrative of Masada was created, promoted, and maintained by pre-state Jewish underground organizations, the Israeli army, archaeological teams, mass media, youth movements, textbooks, the tourist industry, and the arts. He discusses the various organizations and movements that created "the Masada experience" (usually a ritual trek through the Judean desert followed by a climb to the fortress and a dramatic reading of the Masada story), and how it changed over decades from a Zionist pilgrimage to a tourist destination. Placing the story in a larger historical, sociological, and psychological context, Ben-Yehuda draws upon theories of collective memory and myth-making to analyze Masada's crucial role in the nation-building process of modern Israel and the formation of a new Jewish identity. An expert on deviance and social control, Ben-Yehuda looks inparticular at how and why a military failure and an enigmatic, troubling case of mass suicide (in conflict with Judaism's teachings) were reconstructed and fabricated as a heroic tale.
Ben-Yehuda's fascinating and controversial work researching the Sicarii mass suicide at the Masada fortress in 66 A.D. claims that historical evidence does not substantiate the assertion that the group were Zealots whose last stand against the Romans has become a national rally point. Rather, he performs a sociological archeology which unearths the group as assassins who escaped to the fortress site, but never fought the Romans there. He traces the Masada narrative as it is transformed and then dispersed to the public, becoming part of youth movements, the army, textbooks, and finally an economic source of tourism. An important treatise on myth and truth, sensitive but tough in its treatment. Paper edition (unseen), $22.95. Annotation c. Book News, Inc., Portland, OR (booknews.com)