Victims and Executioners

The Jews: History, Memory and the Present

by Pierre Vidal-Naquet, translated and edited by David Ames Curtis
Columbia University Press, 337 pp., $29.50

On the cover of Les Juifs, la mémoire et le présent II (1991) Pierre Vidal-Naquet is identified as, among other things, “the author of numerous books on ancient Greece and contemporary history.” This brief description covers a remarkable (and still continuing) literary career. He is, in his own words, “by training…a historian and a specialist in the study of the ancient Greek world,” and the author of many brilliant studies of ancient Greek politics, mythology, ideology, and literature, but he also published, between 1958 and 1989, a series of books exposing and indicting the role of the French army in the Algerian War, The book under review is a selection, made by the author, from the three volumes on the Jews, memory, and the present.

I came to Jewish studies late in life,” he remarks in the preface to this volume. He dates his engagement in the field to 1976, when he wrote a long (and fascinating) introduction to a French translation of Flavius Josephus’ History of the Jewish War. Josephus was an important participant in the Jewish rebellion against Roman rule that began in 66 AD and culminated in the capture of Jerusalem in 70 AD, an event commemorated on the Arch of Titus in Rome, where the tourist can still see the Roman legionaries carrying the seven-branched candlestick from the Temple in the Emperor’s triumph. For this work, Vidal-Naquet remarks, “it certainly was not entirely unavailing that I had devoted much time to working on Greek tragedy (which helped me to understand certain modern tragedies) and on mythology (which taught me not to take contemporary myths literally, no matter who had developed them).”

One of the contemporary myths on which he casts a skeptical eye is the story of the last stand of the Jewish rebels on the rock fortress of Masada three years after the fall of Jerusalem. According to Josephus, our only authority, the last survivors of the defenders, three hundred in number, killed their wives and children and then killed each other, the last man committing suicide, just before the Romans delivered their final assault. The site of Masada was excavated between 1963 and 1965 by Yigael Yadin, a professional soldier who had been chief of operations in the 1948 war and later Israel’s chief of staff before becoming an archaeologist. Masada has since become an Israeli pilgrimage site, a monument epitomizing Israel’s determination never to surrender; Yadin’s book on Masada contains photographs of Israeli tank crews taking their oath of loyalty there. The site, he wrote, has been “elevated… to an undying symbol of desperate courage, a symbol which has stirred hearts throughout the last nineteen centuries.” The last words of this sentence, however …

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