MASADA, the Judean Desert -- In Israel, history is inescapable. It almost overwhelms you -- in monuments, museums and memories. Roughly 4,000 years of it, European as well as Middle Eastern, is crammed into a country half the size of New Jersey.
Modern Israel is the redemption at the end of two millennia of exile.
The Diaspora is framed by two historical events -- Masada and the Holocaust. To understand Israel's near obsession with security, start at A.D. 73, then fast forward to 1943.
Standing on the windswept heights of Masada, everything is serene. This desert fortress built by Herod the Great (with its remains of an ancient synagogue, ritual baths and storerooms) has become an attraction for retirees from Omaha in tour-group caps.
In the first century, Masada was not a tourist attraction, but a scene of fire, blood and terror.
During the Jewish revolt against Rome, after the fall of Jerusalem, zealots established their base here. (Pity Secretary of State Colin Powell wasn't on hand to suggest the conflict could be resolved by a Roman state on the West Bank.)
The Jews were besieged by Flavius Silva, commanding the Tenth Legion. After months of desperate fighting, the Romans built a ramp of stone and earth against the western approach to the fortress. Then a battering ram was brought up. When the wall was breached, the remaining defenders -- almost a thousand men, women and children -- chose suicide over defeat and slavery.
Men killed their families. Then 10 chosen by lots slew the rest. The last man dispatched the other nine and fell on his sword.
Above the landscape of history, smoke rising from ruins of Masada mingles with the smoke of the crematoria.
Yad Vashem, the Holocaust Memorial, is 60 miles north of Masada. Its archives include 58 million pages of documentation, 100,000 still photographs, and thousands of films and videos of survivors.
Engraved on limestone blocks are the names of thousands of Jewish communities (from Lithuania to Tunisia) destroyed by Hitler's legions. Displays include canisters of Zyklon B, which fueled the factories of death. In one case, a dress worn by a little girl bears mute testimony to the murder of 1 million children.
Yad Vashem also celebrates Jewish resistance, which peaked in the Warsaw Ghetto uprising. The Germans crammed half a million human beings into the ghetto. Then deportations to the camps began (6,000 to 10,000 a day).
On April 19, 1943, the Jewish Combat Organization rose. Armed with pistols, hand grenades and one light machine gun, its fighters held off tanks, artillery and bombers for a month, until overwhelmed. (Had the United Nations been in existence, it would have demanded to investigate reports of the massacre of S.S. troops.)
Holocaust survivors, arriving in Palestine on transport ships, had rifles thrust in their hands for the next life-or-death struggle. This time the line held, as it has for the past 54 years.
Men and women of the Israeli Defense Forces are spiritual descendants of Masada's defenders and the Ghetto fighters. They, too, know defeat would bring annihilation.
Today, the Jews are again besieged. Instead of the greatest empire on earth, with its invincible legions, or the Third Reich, with an army that had conquered Europe east of the Urals, 22 Arab nations (oil-rich, homicidal, heavily armed) carry the banner of genocide into the 21st century.
The Palestinians are their advance column.
Last week, 16 young Israelis died in another terrorist bombing. What Flavius Silva did with battering rams and Hitler with gas chambers, Yasser Arafat does with explosives. Like the Romans, the Palestinians deny the Jews' national identity. Like the Nazis, they seek to make the territory under their control Judenrein.
"Masada Will Not Fall Again," say the souvenir T-shirts tourists buy. "Never Again" is the slogan of Holocaust remembrance. These are words blown away by the wind over the Judean desert. But as long as memory remains strong in the land of Israel, its people will find the courage to resist -- because history has taught them the alternative, time and time again.
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