Friday, January 16, 2009

The Lesson of the Story

The BBC News Web site has a story that Paul Moss filed while on a visit to Masada. Here is how it begins:

"You cannot surrender, you cannot give up. You should fight to the last second," the young Israeli boy said after scratching his head and thinking for just a few seconds.

He was talking about what he had learned from his tour of Masada, the ancient site where a band of Jewish rebels once held out against the might of the Roman Empire.

The tour prompted a similar conclusion from one of his female classmates: "It's really important to stand up for yourself."

"Especially now that we're at war. We need to do whatever it takes," she told me.

It is something of a rite of passage for Israeli schoolchildren - a trip to Masada - as obligatory a part of their upbringing as exams and sports days.

And Masada is a remarkable story, albeit one that is mired in legend.

The rebels, or Zealots as they were known, are supposed to have held the Romans at bay for several years before retreating to their final hold-out in about 70 AD.

Then, rather than be captured, they committed collective suicide - men killing their own families, afterwards each other, until one remained to kill himself.

Unsettling lesson

"We want to show the children that this place is where people fought for their freedom, that you have to fight for your freedom, and give even your life," one of the teachers at Masada told me.

She makes an explicit connection between what happened at Masada and Israel's present conflict in Gaza.

"They want us to vanish from the world. But it will never happen. Masada will never fall again!"

I asked her if it was not perhaps manipulative to teach such a profound and unsettling lesson to young children.

"No," she insisted. "it's just realistic."

I would actually agree with that final sentence, but I would fault Wood for failing to ask a far more critical question. Is the Masada story just as relevant to the "zealots" of Hamas in the embattled Gaza Strip? It is all very well and good to glorify defiance, but what do you do when your enemy is as defiant as you are? Israel should have recognized the relevance of these questions when they discovered that they could not subdue Hezbollah with the same strategies that won them the territories occupied during the Six-Day War. Unfortunately, they share with the Bush Administration this faith-based fixation of being on "the right side" in a battle of good against evil, which may explain why the only "international dialogue" that Israel wishes to conduct seriously over the current situation in Gaza seems to be with the United States.

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