Ammunition Hill, Masada…and our Sons

I went to the first of two Swearing-In Ceremonies that I’ll be attending (this one was Chaim’s, next comes Shmulik’s). This one was at Ammunition Hill in Jerusalem. It’s quite beautiful, there in the middle of Jerusalem – quiet, open areas, tall trees. It was built by the British in the 1930s, when they were held control of the area. They were sent there by the League of Nations, with whatever dreams or expectations they intended to enforce on the local populations (sort of like President Obama’s current attempt to enforce his concept of peace on us today).

The local populations then (like now) had other ideas – and those didn’t include ongoing foreign occupation and so sick of the fighting between the Arabs and the Jews…and their own role which too often had them leaning towards the Arabs…they threw in the towel and tossed the “problem” back to the United Nations (successor of the League of Nations). The United Nations decided to take a Solomon-like decision to split the land. They called it the Partition Plan, which would divide the land (then known as Palestine…or what was left of it after the British took 2/3 of the land and created the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan) roughly according to population centers with Jerusalem to be internationalized.

The Jews agreed and established Israel. The Arabs did not. They figured odds were in their favor – five Arab nations, established, with armies, could defeat a bunch of Jews…many of them having only recently fallen out of concentration camps where they’d been starved, beaten, weakened. The Arabs were probably right on the odds but forgot two major things.

The first is so esoteric you can’t really blame them – as much as they profess to being a religious culture, they didn’t care much for the concept that this land was promised to us by God, that it was ours by history, by ancient wills, longstanding dreams. All things you can’t factor into a battle. Whatever we Jews believed about our land and our right to be here was rejected by them. Their Mohammed and Koran trumped our Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Moses, David…and the Torah, at least in their minds.

The second thing they forgot was something a lot more easily grasped, though also as much concept as reality. When you go to war, you have to take into account the person or nation you are fighting. The Jews at that time…and today…are a people bound by a simple reality. We will not allow Masada to fall again; we will not allow another Holocaust.

It’s funny how these posts take twists and turns. I didn’t set out to write about Masada and yet it feels so right…so let me explain. Masada, for those who don’t know, is a barren hilltop about an hour from my home. It’s in the middle of the desert, high above the shores of the Dead Sea. Two thousand years ago, Jews fled Jerusalem and established a community on its heights. It had been a summer palace for King Herod; it became a fortress, a last stand, a place of such dignity that to this day you can feel it there when you visit. For a few years, the Romans conquered Judea, enslaved the population and hunted down those who tried to resist This was in Judea, as Israel was known before it was called Israel, before it was called Palestine, when it belonged to the Jews, then as now. Those who had fled because they refused to submit to Roman rule established a community there on Masada. They farmed up there, collected water, and for a few years, lived relatively well.

And then the Roman army came and realized they had no real way to reach the Jews. They tried – it took them several years. Far below, miserable in the heat and the barren landscape, the Roman army sat and planned until they finally began building a ramp.

It was inevitable that eventually the Romans would defeat them. There was no escape option…no Israeli air force to come save them, no artillery units, no Kfir ground troops. The Jews met atop the hill and together they decided something that we have been taught many times over the last 2,000 years – something Menachem Begin wrote in his memoirs, The Revolt. (I hope I get this right because I’m too lazy to look up the exact quote.) Essentially, what they learned then was that “There are things more precious than life and more horrible than death.”

When the Roman general had silenced resistance in the rest of the land, he decided it was time to bring Masada down, to quell the final revolt. “Then”, says Josephus – the only historian known from that time, “the Romans returned to their camp full of spirits, and with a fixed determination to attack the enemy by break of day on the following morning; and, in the meantime, to place strong guards, that their opponents might not escape in the night.”

These are the words of the leader of the Jews at Masada, Eleazer ben Yair, Eleazer, son of Yair):

“It has been, my friends, the usual custom with the people of our nation, to deny the authority of every other lord than the great Sovereign of the universe, the eternal God; and this we have done without excepting the Romans or anyone else. The time has come when we must demonstrate our sincerity by our conduct; wherefore let us act like men of resolution.

Till this time we have run every risk in preservation of our freedom; but we must now expect thralldom and tormenting punishments if the enemy take us alive, since we first departed from their dominion and have been the last to resist them. This being the case, we may deem it a favor if we are permitted to choose the death we would die, a favor that has been refused to many of our people.”

Over 1,000 Jews committed suicide rather than fall to the Romans and be forced to defile their God, their religion, rather than be enslaved. Each man killed his family before they drew lots and chose among them who would kill the next.

The Jews of Masada simply had no where else to go, no land that would take them, save their own, which they were about to lose. Had there been an escape hatch, they might have taken it and, in their deaths, they achieved a form of immortality. More, they set in motion a promise we have made to them – Masada will not fall again.

There were many messages that came out of yesterday’s ceremony. I’ll try to write them up, but somehow, without ever mentioning Masada, watching our sons stand there as made their promise to defend their land, their State, their people, Masada was there…one of the places to which they promised, one of the commitments they accepted.


  1. Thank you for writing and sharing your heart and your passion. I learn so much from you and I feel the need to express my appreciation. I have been privileged to stand on the top of Masada and hear that historical account, your retelling brought tears to my eyes. You affirmed what I have felt, Masada rises in my heart as a defining symbol of Jewish resistance, honor and courage.

  2. I think you simplified some facts. But then again, you live in israel so you see thing differently from, say, arab world or EU.

  3. On Monday, I watched the same ceremony for my son who just finished 2 months of basic training in Artillery, in Shivta. Shivta is not Masada, and it is probably the least desired location there is for training. But the oath was the same….to defend and protect Israel…. and the tears were the same, when we, all together, soldiers and families, sang Hatikva. I live in Atlanta, Georgia. and my son made Aliyah 3 years ago. Now he is in the Israeli Army and this is his choice, his passion, his strong Zionist belief. He is a “lonely soldier” but I was touched and comforted to see that all of the other soldiers, commanders and officers have taken special care to make this lonely soldier not be lonely at all. Further, I witnessed the families who arrived to watch their boys’ swearing in, and they brought bags of snacks, treats specifically for my son, the one who has no family visits him on Shabbat. And as I say that I realize that he does have family here in Israel….It is what Soldiers do for each other…it is what Israelis do for one another. I am proud and honored that my son has chosen to join other Israelis as they defend this remarkable country of Israel. I will go back to the States on Friday, but I leave my son with his large and loving Israeli family….and I am at peace.

  4. Hi Kathleen,

    As much as we love our sons, we also find much love in our hearts for “our” lone soldiers. Our sons were raised with the concept that they would finish high school and shortly after, begin their national service. My older son was in artillery – ah, Shivta…yes. Finding it the first time was an experience! What we learn today is that Masada is everywhere in Israel because we carry it in our hearts. I’m so glad you were able to come, able to see, and be comforted that your son is much loved among his brothers here. If he ever needs anything, please be in touch with me and I’ll help if I can.

    Congratulations on his coming this far and just wait for the road ahead…it is an amazing journey for him…and for you!


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