I have spent the past few weeks reading about Masada.
I won’t need to remind readers of this paper of the significance of the Jewish people’s last stand against the Roman occupiers following the destruction of the temple. Nor will I need to tell them of the importance of the story to the construction of Zionist identity or, indeed, the state of Israel.
The narrative of the defenders of Israel prepared to die at their own hand rather than submit to the imperial yoke was a powerful propaganda tool in the armoury of the young Israeli nation. Masada, originally the site of a palace constructed by Herod the Great, remains one of the most important sites of national pilgrimage in the country and has been made into a national park.
It is now 50 years since the Observer newspaper published an appeal for volunteers for a dig at Masada organised by the Israeli archaeologist and hero of the war of independence, Yigal Yadin. Such was the support for Israel at the time that thousands of offers of help came from 28 countries.
The dig was organised on military lines and took place in appalling conditions, with the desert camp often flooded by storms. It uncovered mosaics from Herod’s palace as well as evidence of the daily life of the Secarii (Assassins) sect who made the final stand in 73CE.
No hard evidence has ever been found for the mass suicide, but this did not stop the establishment of the Masada story as a firm part of the national consciousness, with Israeli army recruits famously sworn in at the hilltop fort.
As I discovered, the meaning of Masada remains a matter of considerable
controversy. Are these religious zealots really such admirable resistance fighters, or more akin to the suicidal Islamist extremists that now oppose themselves to Israel? Recent books by Rich Cohen and Ari Shavit have looked again at the power of the myth to drive a particular view of Israel as a beleaguered fighting nation defined by its martial identity.
My research was carried out for an exhibition to be held later this month at the Guardian-Observer’s London offices to commemorate the original appeal.
It was one of the most difficult commissions I have ever had due to the intensity of the debate over Masada’s history (ancient and modern).
Much has changed in the five decades since the appeal and I hope that the exhibition will enable visitors to reflect on the story Israel tells about itself, and the story we tell about Israel.
‘Masada and the Birth of a Nation’ runs from January 20 at Kings Place, 90 York Way, London N1. Entry is free