May 15, 2008

Not for Victory

In Israel to help celebrate its 60 years of statehood, George Bush called upon a familiar national symbol for Israelis. As Haaretz reports it:

"In an historic address to Knesset on Thursday, U.S. President George Bush reiterated America's commitment to Israel and said his country was "proud to be Israel's closest ally and best friend."

Bush, on a three-day visit to Israel on the occasion of its 60th anniversary, told a special session of Knesset that "Masada will not fall again," in reference to the Roman-era desert fortress which he visited earlier in the day.

The site is a national symbol in Israel of Jewish fighting spirit and self-sacrifice against powerful enemies and overwhelming odds."

The sacrifice, according to the adopted chronicle by Josephus, was mass suicide. The Jewish revolt led by Bar Kokhba (or Kosiba), and crushed by the counter-insurgency onslaught of the Romans, died by its own hand in the isolated hilltop fortress.

Seeing no way out but through battle or living with the finality of defeat, each took the life of the other in succession until one remained; one left to tell the tale. The hilltop bastion thus became a mass grave and a witness/survivor story of destruction and willed death.

Raised as a special site in the twentieth century's project of developing and promoting a national consciousness, the site of memory and commemoration was finally excavated and "restored" in the 1960s. Masada, as a site and symbol, is a thoroughly modern creation. To invoke it as the standard symbol of national will, and to say at the same time that it will not fall again, both mythologizes the present through the desperate affect of the tragic past and cuts the present free from the painful price held in the story of destruction. The modern nationalist myth uses death as a glorious symbol of sacrifice for the military spirit of the (eternally) besieged nation. The promise made to undo its tragic course, to refuse the hard lessons buried in the myth, comes from a hard, terrifying wish for a final victory.

If Masada exalts the beauty of battle, Yavne stands for the gesture of just escape. In that story Rabbi Yohanan ben Zakkai is smuggled out of Jerusalem in order to surrender the political center for the sake of a new spiritual one. The Second Temple was destroyed but a place of Jewish learning, Yavne, was established in flight, in the spirit of survival rather than self-sacrifice to the enemy.

Charles Reznikoff's poetry, which always tempers loss with presence, with life and remnant and true remembrance, with the true notion that the saving gesture was not in sacrifice but in continuation through memory and adjustment and adaptation, serves, for today, as antidote to the all this:

Not because of victories
I sing,
having none,
but for the common sunshine,
the breeze,
the largess of the spring.

Not for victory
but for the day's work done
as well as I was able;
not for a seat upon the dais
but at the common table.

--"Te Deum"