Prime Minister Netanyahu, don’t take us to Masada

Israel survived a night of dark fear. Let's keep it that way.

FILE - Israeli Iron Dome air defense system launches to intercept missiles fired from Iran, in central Israel, Sunday, April 14, 2024. Iran launched its first direct military attack against Israel on Saturday. Israel says more than 300 drones, cruise and ballistic missiles are launched by Iran, an extraordinary assault that was thwarted almost entirely by Israel’s aerial defense array and a coalition of countries repelling the onslaught. (AP Photo/Tomer Neuberg, File)

(RNS) — Saturday night was a “leil shimurim,” a night of watching and waiting.

I have deliberately borrowed that term from the biblical account of the Exodus from Egypt (Exodus 12:42) — which we are preparing to tell during the upcoming festival of Pesach.

I sat glued to CNN, watching the bright lights of the drones and missiles in the skies over Israel, watching them explode, relatively harmlessly — and knowing this was not a video game.

The fate of the state of Israel was at stake.

Thanks to the help of the United States, the United Kingdom, France and Jordan, the Iranian attack was far less grievous than it might have been. Iran called the attack “effective.” As I write these words, Israel is weighing its options for response.

The Talmud says: “Teach your tongue to say, ‘I do not know.'”

I know what I do not know. I do not know much about either military strategy or the complexities of international diplomacy.

I know what I know. I know Jewish texts. I know Jewish history.

For that reason, I hope Israel will not retaliate against Iran. I hope Israel will recognize that Iran made its point — that Israel’s airspace is vulnerable. I hope Israel recognized that the United States, and other allies or partners, were there for them. I hope Israel will accept Iran’s statement that this attack settled the matter (the Iranian attack was, itself, a retaliation for Israel’s attack on Iran’s embassy in Damascus, which killed seven members of Iran’s Revolutionary Guard Corps, including two generals).

My hope that Israel will not retaliate will surprise those of you who might have expected me to offer a more belligerent approach.

It will disappoint some of you as well, who might have hoped I would call for a more aggressive Israeli response.

Not this time.

Here is why. Like I said, I know Jewish texts, and I know Jewish history.

In 73 CE, following the destruction of Jerusalem, a group of Jewish zealots (history will come to know them as the Zealots) fled to the Judean wilderness to the deserted fortress of King Herod — Masada. There, the defenders faced the most existential of existential choices: surrender to Rome or commit suicide. They chose suicide — with husbands cutting the throats of their wives and of their children and, finally, of themselves.

We know the story of Masada — but no thanks to the ancient sages who were the Zealots’ contemporaries. There is no mention of Masada in the Talmud. The story was saved from utter oblivion by Flavius Josephus, the Jewish general-turned-traitor-turned-historian, who recorded the story from the Roman camp at the foot of the mountain.

The story of Masada lay dormant within the Jewish imagination until the poet Yitzhak Lamdan wrote his epic poem about Masada in 1927. Today, Masada is not only a tourist destination — second only to Jerusalem in popularity. It is also a place for rites of passage — bnai ceremonies in the fortress’ excavated synagogue and the military ceremonies at which soldiers take the solemn vow, quoting Lamdan’s poem: “Masada will not fall again!”

I must be honest: I have never loved visiting Masada. Neither have I loved it as a site for bnai mitzvah ceremonies. I do not like the message a ceremony at this place would convey.

Yes, heroism, but combined with — you might say overshadowed by — suicide. The Zealots had refused to negotiate with the superior Roman army. They turned against those Jews who counseled compromise. They burned the food supplies of their opponents.

Why did the ancient sages “cancel” the story of Masada? Joseph Telushkin writes:

Many rabbis still felt a lingering anger toward the extremist Zealots who died at Masada. We know that Rabbi Yochanan ben Zakkai had to flee Jerusalem secretly to avoid being killed by the sort of people who died there. Furthermore, at a time when the rabbis were desperately attempting to reconstruct a Judaism that could survive without a Temple and without a sovereign state, they hardly were interested in glorifying the mass suicide of Jews who believed that life without sovereignty was not worth living.

Masada did not create Judaism. Yavneh, where the sages created a temple-less, sacrifice-less Judaism, created Judaism.

Nevertheless, the Masada narrative did survive, in psychological and historical form, as the “Masada complex.” Fifty years ago, professor of literature Robert Alter told this story:

Golda Meir spoke to (newspaper columnist) Stewart Alsop at a Washington press luncheon during her recent American visit, reported by Alsop in his Newsweek column of March 19. Toward the end of the lunch, Alsop tells us, Mrs. Meir suddenly turned on him, and one can almost hear that gravelly, authoritative, I-brook-no-contradiction voice saying to the journalist: “And you, Mr. Alsop, you say that we have a Masada complex … It is true. We do have a Masada complex. We have a pogrom complex. We have a Hitler complex.”

The Prime Minister proceeded to deliver “a small, moving oration about the spirit of Israel, a spirit that would prefer death rather than surrender to the dark terrors of the Jewish past.” The truth of such affirmations of national faith can hardly be gainsaid, but Alsop goes on in his column to wonder whether the evocation of the horrors and heroism of the past will always provide a lucid perspective on the political complexities of the present (my emphasis).

I understand why Jews would have a Masada complex, a Hitler complex and, certainly, over the past six months since Oct. 7, a pogrom complex.

Those complexes have their historical, psychological, emotional and ritual uses. But they do not make for good national, political and military strategy.

Neither does Prime Minister Netanyahu’s ego, need for self-preservation nor the demands of his right-wing coalition make for good strategy.

An attack on Iran risks the real possibility of a wider and far more destructive war. That would be Iran’s goal.

Moreover, it risks Israel’s further loss of international support and affection, which is already in ever-dwindling supply. You might say that Israel can go it alone, but that, too, is the Masada complex.

More than that even, it distracts Israel from what should be its real goals: the dis-empowering of Hamas as a military and political force and the rescue of the hostages.

Some of you will say that as a non-Israeli, I lack the right to weigh in on what Israel should do, militarily.

I would be willing to accept that reproof — provided my other friends who live in the relative safety of the Diaspora also refrain from expressing their more bellicose opinions.

This is not a football game. Israel is not our home team. We do not get to sit in the bleachers, at a safe remove, and yell: “Hit ’em again — harder, harder.”

Those were not our children and grandchildren who spent Saturday night in shelters.

As the Jewish people prepares for Pesach, let us remember the silent, dark character of the “malach ha-mavet,” the Angel of Death.

Let us ask — no, beseech — the Angel of Death to “pass over” our houses — and all houses.

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