Tag Archives: religion

Masada Falls Yet Stands

6 Apr

My family and I are stationed at the base of Mt. Masada to buy cable car tickets.  After a three-minute ride inside a crowded car with some one-hundred eager tourists, we’re whisked to the very top.  We are released into the thick, still air.  The Dead Sea shimmers in the east.  The sun pounds the chalk-white terrain.  To describe the landscape is to describe the craters of the moon.  Neil Armstrong of Apollo 11 could have easily practiced his lunar walk around here.

Masada Cable Car

Masada Cable Car

Map of Masada

Map of Masada Plateau

Tourists disperse on the wide plateau, their maps unfolded, their eyes searching for 2000 year-old antiquities.  They follow their tour guides who speak of King Herod’s palatial rooms, mosaic floors, and bathhouses atop Masada.  French, Spanish and English is heard everywhere.  The guides are retelling the heroic story of the Jews against the Roman Empire.  The few against the many.  The narrative goes something like this: The Romans destroyed the Jewish Temple in Jerusalem.  The remaining Jews escaped to the Judean Desert and took refuge on Masada.  The Romans lay siege to the place.  The Jews put up a good fight but in the end the Romans breached the fortress walls only to find that the 960 men, women and children had committed suicide, choosing death over slavery.

The End.

Or is it?

For years Masada stood for bravery in the Israeli consciousness.  The mountain and its story had forged a new generation of hard-core Israelis, much different from the submissive Jews of the Diaspora.  “Masada shall never fall again!” was chanted at school rallies, in the army.

Back view of Herod's Palace

The climb to King Herod’s palace

The drum beat today is not as loud.  Attendance by Israelis at Masada is at an all-time low.  Paratroopers who once celebrated the end of their training at the top of Masada choose today to celebrate the event at the Western Wall and elsewhere.

Why the change?

The seeds were already planted in 1946, by Ben Gurion, who was to be Israel’s first prime minister in 1948.  He didn’t care for all that “suicide” story.  To win the battle against the Arabs, he advised his men to fight to the bitter end.  To him Masada was a symbol of hopeless resistance.

In the 70s the American State Department urged Golda Meir, the then prime minister, to ditch the “Masada Complex.”  In other words, to ditch the view that everyone’s after the Jews, that they’re one step away from extinction.  Golda shot back and said, “We suffer from the Masada Complex, the Pogrom Complex, the Hitler Complex.”

Menachem Begin, the hard-line prime-minster who’d eventually signed a peace treaty with Egypt, he too didn’t care much for the suicide narrative.

The attitude towards Masada and its significance is changing.  Maybe it has to do with Israel now being all grown up.  It doesn’t need a hard-luck story to justify its existence.  And there’s also archeology and historical data.  They are now being questioned.

Take, for example, the number of Jews killed or committed suicide.  Yigael Yadin, Israel’s renowned archeologist of the 1960s, led a highly public excavation of Masada, partly funded by the English newspaper, The Observer.  Three human remains were found.  The hair braids of one woman were also found.  Yadin claimed they were Jewish.  After much Rabbinical debate, the remains were given a proper Jewish burial ceremony.  Years later, after further forensic investigation, it is believed they were Romans.  Twenty-eight other human fragments were also found.  With them, pig bones were buried, a typical Roman burial ritual.

View from Masada plateau

View from Masada plateau

So where are the Jews?  We live in an age when we want quick answers and want all the puzzle pieces to fit nicely.  Their absence doesn’t mean they weren’t there.  It just means, for now, they weren’t found.  Or they were carried away, disposed of, burned.  Or…put in your own theory.

And what about the drawn-out siege that lasted almost three years, until 74 A.D.?  It is now believed the siege lasted several weeks or months at best.  The slopes of the mountain are steep and impassable on all sides, except the western.  The Romans with their 10,000 warriors, auxiliary fighters, Jewish POW, and slaves dumped thousands of tons of rocks and stones to create a ramp to the top.  It was all over sooner rather than later.

Cooling off at Ein Gedi Falls

Cooling off at Ein Gedi Falls

And what about the heroic Jews who chose death over slavery?  The fighters were called the Sicarii, or the dagger-men.  For good reason.  The conventional story was that they fled burning Jerusalem and took refuge on King Herod’s abandoned place – MASADA.  Many now believe they were driven out, kicked out of Jerusalem, because they were blood-thirsty trouble-makers.  Before being holed-up in Masada, these Sicarii men had raided Ein Gedi, a Jewish desert oasis, killed its 700 inhabitants, then looted their food and provisions.

Then there’s the suicide?  Did it happen?  Eleazar Ben Yair, the Sicarii leader, proposed drawing a lot, a “Roman Roulette” of sorts.  The men would first kill off their wives so they will not be defiled by the Romans.  Then the men killed each other off.  Only the last man standing committed suicide.  The story tells of “one old lady” who survived to tell of the horror.  In fact, Josephus Flavius, the Jewish-Roman historian stationed in Rome and the only known person to write about Masada, in Greek, spoke of 7 survivors…

Lastly, what business did the Romans have in this desolate, remote, barren place?  Weren’t they better off splashing water on each other’s back in some bathhouse in Rome?  Weren’t they better off nibbling on a bunch of grapes and watching gladiators fight in the arena?  Why trek across a harsh desert to chase after a few hoodlums?  It can only be that it was all part of the Roman war machine.  No one takes over a fortress and calls it its own.  It all belongs to Rome.  The cost in human lives, in material was inconsequential.  Punish and all will learn.  All will fear.

For 1900 years Masada stood as a rock in a desert until it was “discovered”.

Rome fell and is long gone.

Yet Masada stands.

Israel stands.

Two hours later we take the cable car down, see the minerals fog lift off from the face of the Dead Sea.

“How about lunch?” I ask.

“Yeah, Dad, we’re hungry!”

“Roman pizza, anyone?”

Maybe something Roman did survive.


Maurice Labi is an Israeli-American who lived in Los Angeles for many years. In 2011 He returned to Northern Israel (Galilee) with his wife and twin teen-age daughters. He is of two lands, of two cultures and he blogs about his experiences in Israel, particularly from Galilee where Jews and Arabs dwelled for centuries.

He has also written three novels: “Jupiter’s Stone,” “Into the Night,” and “American Moth” — available at Amazon.com or BN.com.

Your Flag is (not) my Flag

9 Nov

Galilee is home to Arabs and Jews – a short sentence that’s long on unfinished business.  After Israel’s War of Independence in 1948, Arabs fled, or were driven out.  Yet many stayed in their homes, in their towns and villages.  They became part of newly established Israel.  They became citizens, like it or not.  Many will admit they do not like living under Israeli rule, but recent surveys have shown time and again that they’re in no great rush to move to the West bank, to Jordan, or any other neighboring Arab country.

Israeli Flag in Upper Nazareth

It’s not perfect, but they accept it as a fact of (better) life.  The Arabs here live in a democracy; they gripe about the usual issues: discrimination, unequal opportunities to education, jobs.  Yet the Israeli Arabs of the past are gone; they’re upwardly mobile, they run businesses, and they want to move where Jews live.

A case in point: Nazareth.  To be specific, Lower Nazareth is exclusively Arab, home to Christians and Moslem.  They lived there for centuries.  In the 1950s, Prime Minister David Ben Gurion had a vision to “Judify” Galilee, to build Jewish towns and villages as a counterweight to the Arabs.  That’s how Upper Nazareth came into being.  My wife Pnina grew up in Upper Nazareth, then a backwater town on the “Frontier.”  Its main export was dust, isolation, tired-looking grocery stores.  For years Jews and Arabs in Upper and Lower Nazareth co-existed.  Pnina’s mother shopped for live chickens, produce and coffee at the Arab souk (market).  In time, the Jewish town grew.  Built from the ground up, hundreds of apartment units covered the hilltops.  Industrial parks shot up to provide work for Jews.  Schools, government buildings soon followed.

Fast forward to the 90s.  Jewish Russian immigrants settled in Upper Nazareth in great numbers.  The city expanded.  Lower Nazareth also grew (pop. 75,000) but was limited by available land.  Flush with cash and eager to join the middle class, the Arabs started moving to Upper Nazareth, buying up homes.  Jews panicked, moved out.

Today 17% of Upper Nazareth’s 40,000 population is Arab, and growing.

The mayor, Shim’on Gapso, wants to reverse the tide.  He wants to take back the city street by street.  He started renaming them after Israel’s founding fathers.  Recently he erected 4 giant Israeli flags in the entrances leading from the Arab villages and into the city.  He plans to erect 3 more in other strategic locations.

The Arabs don’t like it.  They contend that  his patriotism is misguided, offensive.  An Arab city councilman says it borders on provocation.  He’s okay with flags; he’s not okay with their size.  Other Arabs join in.  They say the mayor suffers from an identity complex and that he tries to shove Israel down their throats.  A woman Arab Member of Israel’s parliament, Hanin Zo’abi, says, “The flags’ size are unnatural and their location opposite Lower Nazareth send a message to the Arabs that the Israeli flag does not represent them.”

Nazareth City Emblem

The mayor is not backing down.  “They can go screw themselves, if they don’t like the flag.  America waves its flags proudly.  Why can’t we?”

The Israeli flag is greater that the sum of its parts: fabric and color.  The flag embodies identity, history, heritage, patriotism, inexplicable feelings.  It speaks of one people – the Jews.

To most Jews the giant flag is a source of pride and beauty.  To Arabs it’s an eyesore, an attack.

The controversy led to a fire storm.  The support for the mayor is overwhelming.  It’s not even close, more like 95% are in favor of hoisting the flag even higher, bigger.  Here are some of the comments on-line:

“Ban all Arab businesses in Lower Nazareth, then they’ll see.”

“Upper Nazareth is a Jewish city.  You don’t like it  – move!”

“You Arabs like your welfare checks, avoiding the draft, and your standard of living, but the flag bothers you?!”

“Put up cameras by the flag poles.  Punish anyone who vandalizes them.”

The support is genuine, widespread, emotional.  Yet, it rings hollow.  Many of the comments undoubtedly come from Jews living in Tel Aviv, far, far away from Galilee.  They’re not unlike Americans who send $10 to the Red Cross after a disaster strikes a distant state.  They’ve done their share from the comfort of their living room armchair.  Their conscious is clear.  They wrap themselves with the flag.

Yet 65 years after Israel’s independence, Galilee is 50% Arab, 50% Jewish.  How Galilee will look like in 50 years is anyone’s guess.

Beef, Politics, Religion – it’s a dicey stew

27 Oct

Be patient, this paragraph will have an electrifying end.  Twice a week I ride my mountain bike with a couple of veteran bikers in the fields beyond Kfar Tavor, Galilee.  One day we come across a meadow blocked by metal wires.  My two friends get off their bikes and crouch under the wire and continue to pedal on the trail.  I follow their lead but accidentally graze the wire with my shoulder.  ZAP!!!  The live wire meant to keep cattle from wandering off sends an electric jolt down my spine.  It sends me flying with rattling teeth.

Cattle in meadow near Tavor Creek

Welcome to cow country, Galilee-style.  It’s not the endless territory of the West, but Israelis take cattle seriously, at least their meat.  Talk about beef and everyone’s eyes light up.  Tongues begin to drool.  Around here, chicken is cheap, plentiful, but lacks “charisma.”  Pigs are off-limits.  Fish is scarce and overpriced (flown from Cyprus, Greece) and comes with too many bones.

Beef – it’s what’s for dinner.

Unlike the U.S. where beef consumption is down, in Israel it’s up.  The standard of living is higher than ever before, more people have backyards in which to grill, they have an SUV to haul meat to the campsite, and they watch grilling shows on TV — all things that were unheard of just 20 years ago. Talk of beef and health issues fall on deaf ears.  Maybe they’re plugged with plaque.

On a recent outing on my bike I maneuver the tires around gobs of cow manure.  Up ahead, cows are grazing, about a 100 of them; they lift their lazy heads, take scant interest in me.  A young man comes down the trail, greets me with a raised arm.  I wave and brake the bike.  Turns out he’s a 21st century Arab herdsman from a nearby village.  He tells me the cattle eats the pasture in spring and summer, hay in winter.  “Who owns them?” I ask.  The answer surprises me.  A cattle baron from Gaza leases the land from Jews in Galilee, fattens the cattle, delivers them to the slaughterhouse.  “Isn’t there a blockade against Gaza?” I ask.  He tells me business is brisk; he sells the meat in Israel.

It isn’t always this simple.

A 2010 Israeli documentary film, loosely translated as “Luxuries,” by director David Ofek, shows how beef is used as political weapon.  Gilad Shalit, the Israeli soldier who was kidnapped by Hamas terrorists, was still a captive behind enemy lines in Gaza.  A cargo ship from Australia carrying 500 calves destined for Gaza is blocked.  The reason:  So long as Gilad Shalit is a prisoner, Hamas will not eat steak.  This is decided by the “coordinator” for the Territories, following directives from the Ministry of Defense.  That same coordinator allowed bananas and mangoes to enter Gaza, but not kiwi, a luxury.

The Australian calves cannot stay on board the ship.  They’re unloaded, kept in Israel by a rancher.  He bills the Gaza importer for each day he stores and feeds the calves.  A year later the calves have grown from 500 lbs to 2200(!) – double the “normal” slaughter weight, and no solution in sight.  No one wants them; their meat is tough; eventually they’re slaughtered into ground beef, sold to Arabs in Israel.

In this small country, space is limited.  Cattle has to compete with people, cities, agriculture, open spaces.  This explains why 2/3 of the total beef comes frozen from…Argentina.  In the wide pampas of Argentina, the Shohet, the person certified by the Rabbi, performs the slaughter prescribed by Jewish laws. Once the frozen beef gets here, it’s sold to distributors where it’s defrosted, injected with 10% of total weight with water and additives to “bring it back to life.”  The pan sizzles with as much fat as water.

You’d think that after a vast ocean crossing and so many intermediaries that  the cost of frozen meat will be high.  Well, it is by American standards, about $10 a pound.  Yet it pales in comparison to fresh beef slaughtered in Israel: $17 a pound.

I went to find out why.  Culturally, Jews and Arabs prefer fresh meat.  High demand jacks up the price.  So does the cost of keeping out wolves and thieves from the lands of Galilee and the Golan Heights.  Yet the biggest contributor to high cost are Kosher laws.  They dictate the feed type, the slaughter ritual, what part of the cow gets eaten, and what part gets thrown out.  One week before Passover and the week of the Holiday, the ranchers have to remove “wheat” from the cows’ feed because it’s Chametz, not Kosher.  What does a cow know about Moses and the parting of the Red Sea is beyond me.

The change in diet does a number on their stomachs.  During these two weeks the animals suffer from diarrhea and weight loss.  The ranchers take a loss, transfer it to the consumer.  The Kosher-prescribed slaughter, the salting of the meat to absorb the blood, the triple rinsing in water, the classification to Glatt Kosher, Kosher and unfit–they all add to the price.

And then there’s the ultimate reason why fresh beef costs plenty.  According to Kosher laws the hindquarters of the animal is forbidden.  In a sense, 1/3 of the animal cannot be eaten, yet the consumer covers the loss on behalf of the rancher, the meat industry, the rabbinical establishment.

Imagine going into an auto dealership to buy a new Buick.  You pay full sticker price and skid off the lot with the trunk and the rear tires missing.

I got to stop.  My wife Pnina is calling me to come to the dinner table.  I shout back, “Did you say you’re making tofu burgers?”


Playing a Game of Daylight Savings with God

25 Sep

In the Book of Genesis: “God saw that the light was good, and God separated the light from the darkness.”  On the face of it, it’s a “heavenly” solution: man rises in the morning, gathers, hunts, eats, prays, loves, and when he’s tired, he sleeps at night.  All is good in the world.

Messing with Daylight Saving

Until man takes out his pocket watch and begins to meddle with the calendar.  Until he bends the hands of time to his will.   Historically, winter daylight saving was adopted to take advantage of more daylight hours early in the morning.  It enabled the farmer to till his land, tend to his animals.  That was the upside.  The downside was that it turned dark sooner, in late afternoon.

Tending to the Land

To some Jews in Israel, specifically the ultra-orthodox, dark is good.  They went as far as legislate a law that sets the winter clock in September, a month a half ahead of Europe and the U.S.


Yom Kippur is the Day of Atonement, the Jews’ holiest of days.  It is also a day of fasting, from sunset to the next sunset, 25 hours, to be exact.

Yom Kippur

It stands to reason that they want the dark to arrive sooner.  They’d eat sooner.  But not everyone is thrilled.  The secular Jews in Israel accuse the religious of hijacking the country to conform to their will.  The secular want more light at the end of the day.  Last year 400,000 had signed a petition to repeal the law.  They contend that by the time they get home from work, they’re unable to spend time outdoors with their kids.  Since it get dark earlier, they claim that their electricity bill is higher.  They went as far as enlist transportation experts who argue that auto accidents are more frequent in the dark, by 46%.

“Be Free Israel,” a grassroots movement whose mission is to promote pluralism and freedom of religion, organized a demonstration in Tel Aviv against the rolling back of the clock.  Only 50 attended.

Could it be that they didn’t synchronize their watches?

The secular may be complaining about daylight but it’s more about where the country is heading, a clash of cultures.  It’s a covert and overt cover for all their gripes about the religious getting government support, generous childcare support, exemption from military service, the taking up of secular neighborhoods in Jerusalem, to name a few.

Eli Yishai, Israel’s Minister of Interior, is a member of Shas, a religious party.  During a recent parliament session he headed, ministers discussed moving the winter clock to October 1st, as a compromise.

They spoke and shouted.  Nothing happened.   This year the clock was rolled back on September 22nd.  And since the Jewish holidays run on the Jewish calendar, in 2013 the clock will roll back even sooner, to September 9.  This means that while it’s still hot out, people act as if it’s winter.

Dr. Doron Lavie, head of Economics School at Tel Chai College in Galilee was quoted on the radio this week.  “Since we do not match our time with that of Europe and the U.S., the loss in productivity to the Israeli economy could run into the tens, possibly hundreds of millions of shekels.”

I’d like to stay and chat, but Yom Kippur is about to start in 4 hours.  I’m no math genius, but I did some calculations of my own.  Tomorrow morning, if I synchronize my Galilee watch with that of Los Angeles, I’ll be able to eat at 9 in the morning….

Oops, I’d better atone for my transgression.