Looking to the top of Masada, the task ahead seems unreachable. Small blips of light snake their way along the convoluted path toward the plateau above.
Climbing the steps becomes tiresome, but the urge to carry on is unwavering. Upon reaching the summit the gleam of the rising sun bouncing off the Dead Sea penetrates the horizon, producing a sweeping sense of tranquility.
Today Masada is the most visited paid tourist site in Israel, but it was once the site of an ancient military fort that overlooked an old trading route through the desert. It also served as a safe haven for the last Jewish holdouts during the Jewish revolt against Roman occupation.
The evidence of this siege is seen in the ruins of the Roman camps and siege walls that sit atop the mountain. The site holds no religious value to the Jewish people, so one has to ask why this has become such a place of importance for Israel?
In many ways Masada is a metaphor for the current state of Israel. The climb to the top of the mountain is akin to the long struggle to establish a Jewish state. The walls and Roman forces that surrounded Masada are analogous to the hostile nations that have surrounded Israel for much of its existence. The resistance of the Jewish rebels against the Romans marks the strength and resilience of the Jewish people.
Talking to Likud MK Yariv Levin it becomes clear that the Masada mindset of an Israel under siege is prevalent in much of its politics today. The idea that a country or person can only be pro-Israel or anti-Israel is still commonplace amongst the country’s leaders.
“The true issue is not borders, not settlements, but whether Israel has a right to exist in this land,” Levin said.
Levin went on to say that he doesn’t believe that the settlements are the major issue blocking the peace process with Palestine, but rather a lack of stability in the Arab world. He believes that Israel must preserve its policies for its survival, such as Israel’s approach to the Palestinian question.
“There is no two- state solution. It would be more like five states of one people and nothing for us [Jewish people],” he said.
David Wilder, spokesman for the Jewish Community of Hebron, expressed similar concerns over what a two-state solution could mean for Israel.
“To create a Palestinian state is to create another enemy state,” Wilder said as he talked of the unstable neighbors of Israel. “It’s suicide. It’s crazy. It just doesn’t make sense.”
Levin’s belief that the Jewish way of life is under siege is evident in his recently proposed bill that would make Israel a Jewish state by law. It is his opinion an Israeli Jewish society is more important than an Israeli democratic one. It’s an idea that David Wilder agrees with.
“The state is a Jewish state and will always remain a Jewish state. That’s an essential, integral part of what we are here, and that’s never going to change,” Wilder said.
The consequences of the continual belief of Israel under threat are visible just up the street from David Wilder’s settlement in Hebron, measurable by the number of miles the Separation Walls runs between Israeli and Palestinian territory. It’s a way of thinking that helped the military occupation of Palestine carry on for decades.
There are, however, Israelis that are breaking the trend and speaking out against the voices that promote the current philosophy. One such individual is Nadav Vigernman of Breaking the Silence, an activist organization of former IDF soldiers who are speaking out against the occupation of Palestinian territories.
Vigernman points out some of the current Israeli mentality can be attributed to the mandatory service. He describes that mandatory service engrains the Army into Israeli culture because everyone knows someone within the Army. This causes Israelis to become very defensive when there are verbal attacks against the IDF or criticisms from abroad.
He doesn’t believe, however this rationalizes Israel’s present approach to Palestine and the Arab world at large.
“The problem is the system,” he said. “The problem is the occupation itself.”
The common sentiment amongst Israelis is that of a persecuted people helping many justify the actions the government takes. This perception perpetuates the ongoing conflict and limits new ideas or directions in the peace process.
In many situations progress must come naturally from within a society and can rarely be forced upon a people from abroad. For change to truly come to Israel, Israelis must be able to get past the present-day ideology and open themselves up to new solutions and realities.
The lesson Masada offers is visible in its state of crumbling existence. The Jews had few options available when the Romans attacked Masada except to fight. Today Israel has the opportunity to take a step in a new direction away from traditional thinking in the Middle East. The people of Israel have a chance to keep history from repeating itself, the question remains will they?