• Email
  • Single Page
  • Print

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,1 and, beginning in 1981, three collections of essays, reviews, and prefaces devoted to the past and present of the Jews, as well as Les assassins de la mémoire (1987), a merciless analysis of the claims of Faurisson and other deniers of the Holocaust.2 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, as Vidal-Naquet points out, have no relation to reality. For nearly nineteen centuries Masada was just “one rock among others”; in fact it was first identified by two American travelers, Edward Robinson and E. Smith, in 1838. “Before it could be endowed with the symbolic quality it has since acquired, the advent of Zionism and the formation of the modern State of Israel were required.”

Quite apart, however, from the late twentieth-century canonization of the Masada martyrs, the story itself, for which Josephus is our only authority, is not without its problems. Its author, Joseph ben Matthias, was opposed to the rebellion in the first place, but once it started, he reluctantly accepted a command in Galilee, where, after an unsuccessful defense of the city of Jotapata, he surrendered to the Romans. Later, when the Roman general Vespasian left for Rome to become Emperor, Josephus followed the campaign in the entourage of Vespasian’s son Titus and was present at the fall of Jerusalem to the Roman army. Josephus had, in effect, changed sides, and later changed his name, adopting the Roman name Flavius, one of the names borne also by Vespasian, Titus, and Flavius Silva, the Roman general who stormed Masada. Josephus has little good to say of any of the leaders of the rebellion but is particularly virulent in his denunciation of the leaders of the resistance at Masada, who belonged to a hard-line sect known as Sicarii, the Roman word for assassins (sica means “dagger”). He indicts them as the “first to begin this lawlessness and this barbarity to kinsmen,” as men “who left no word unspoken, no deed untried, to insult and destroy the objects of their foul plots.”

Josephus’ account of the end at Masada offers a striking parallel and a sharp contrast to the story he tells of his own surrender at Jotapata. In both cases the leaders make long speeches to the remnant of the defenders: Eleazar at Masada champions self-destruction as the Romans move in for the final assault; Josephus urges surrender on a group of forty survivors hiding in a cave, where they had been discovered by the Romans, who offered Josephus a pardon. At Masada the men killed their wives and children, and then chose ten men to kill the others; the ten then drew lots to appoint one man to kill the other nine and then himself. At Jotapata, Josephus’ appeal was indignantly rebuffed; his fellow soldiers threatened him with death if he should try to surrender. He suggested a lottery: the man who drew the first number to be killed by number two and so on down the line until the sole survivor would kill himself. Josephus—“shall we put it down” he writes, “to divine providence or just to chance?”—remained alive with just one other man, whom he persuaded to join him in his surrender.

For both these events our only authority is Josephus himself. But how could he know what happened at Masada? “An old woman escaped,” he explains, “along with another who was related to Eleazar, in intelligence and education superior to most women, and five little children.” They had all been hidden in the subterranean water conduits. “Here,” Vidal-Naquet comments,

Josephus uses what Roland Barthes calls “the reality effect”…. What is required, indeed, is not only one survivor, but an exceptionally educated person with a companion and children to serve as that person’s witnesses. Now, even if Josephus leaves the anonymous and educated female relative of Eleazar the time needed to listen to the speeches and the possibility of witnessing the first throat-cuttings before going underground, this suspect narrative tale can hardly be believed.

Vidal-Naquet is not, of course, questioning the reality of the mass suicide itself; that is an action with many parallels in ancient history and is not unexampled in recent times; later in the book, for example, he mentions the military leader of the insurrection in the Warsaw ghetto, Mordecai Anielewicz, who “in a renewal of the gesture of the besieged at Masada… committed suicide on May 8, 1943, along with a number of his comrades and after he had killed his girlfriend.” The men of Masada had no illusions about what would happen to them if they were taken alive; they knew that after the fall of Jerusalem the women and children were enslaved and some 2500 of the men were burned alive or killed in the arena by wild beasts or gladiators. But the speeches of Eleazar can hardly be anything other than products of Josephus’ inventiveness, and the details of the Masada suicide pact may be based on the similar arrangement Josephus proposed at Jotapata and which turned out so luckily for him. He assigns his lucky strike to divine providence or blind chance; but in the Slavonic version of his book,3 which may be a translation of a Greek version of the original Aramaic circulated earlier than the one that came down to us,4 a different explanation is offered. “After saying these things [i.e., proposing the lottery] he counted the numbers cunningly and so deceived them all.” Since we are given no idea of how Josephus’ lottery system worked we can only wonder how he could have rigged it in his favor, but a possible scenario was suggested in a problem posed in a recent French mathematics textbook, which assumes that Josephus was a brilliant mathematician:

[The forty Jews] decided to form a circle and number themselves from 1 to 40. Every seventh man was then to be killed until only one was left; the last man left was to commit suicide…. Josephus…positioned himself so that he would be the last…. Determine the number Flavius Josephus chose.5

Even more suspect than the details of the suicide pacts, Vidal-Naquet writes, are the tenor and content of the speeches attributed to Josephus and Eleazar. The first is inspired by Josephus’ conviction, expressed in his “secret prayer,” that God had visited his wrath on the Jewish people, that all prosperity had passed to the Romans, and that God had chosen him, Josephus, to reveal the things to come, among them Vespasian’s assumption of imperial power. The speeches of Eleazar, on the other hand, derive from an apocalyptic vision of God’s condemnation of the Jewish people and what Vidal-Naquet rightly characterizes as a “pagan encomium to suicide based on the Greek doctrine of the immortality of the soul.” Josephus might have tried to justify the improbable length and detail of these speeches by appeal to his model Thucydides, who explained his procedure in the famous words: “I have…put into the mouth of each speaker the views that in my opinion they would have been most likely to express as the particular occasion demanded….” But Thucydides’ important qualification—“while keeping as nearly as I could to the general purport of what was actually said”—is not applicable for the case of Masada, and the speech Josephus ascribes to himself at Jotapata is an attempt to justify conduct that most of his Jewish readers might well regard as cowardice if not downright treason.

One of the recurring themes of Vidal-Naquet’s discussion of the Jewish War is the fractious disunity of the Jews themselves. “They fought with each other,” says Josephus of the defenders of Jerusalem, “doing everything their besiegers could have desired.” Another is the existence, even before the capture of Jerusalem and the destruction of the Temple, of a Jewish diaspora. There was, for example, a Jewish population of over one hundred thousand in Egypt as well as Jewish enclaves in Pergamum, Miletus, Sardis, Damascus, Ephesus, Cyprus, and Rome. These Jews were, in varying degrees, Hellenized (it was for the Jews of Egypt that the Greek translation of the sacred books, the Septuagint, was made in the third century BC) and “assimilated” in Greco-Roman society; it was from their ranks that, much later, the first Christian communities emerged. Between them and the Orthodox Jews of the homeland, who after the destruction of the Temple rallied to the new idea of “Judaism as a religion separated from its State” proclaimed by Johanan Ben Zakkai at Yabneh, there was a gulf like that which, many centuries later, separated the Western European Jews, released from the ghetto, enfranchised and increasingly assimilated, from the rural Jewish population of Poland and tsarist Russia.

  1. 1

    L’affaire Audin (1958); La raison d’Etat (1962); La torture dans la République (1975); Les Crimes de l’armée française (1975); L’affaire Audin 1957-1978 (1989); Face à la raison d’Etat. Un historien dans la guerre d’Algérie (1989).

  2. 2

    Assassins of Memory: Essays on the Denial of the Holocaust, translated and with a foreword by Jeffrey Mehlmann (Columbia University Press, 1992).

  3. 3

    For excerpts from and discussion of this text, see Josephus, The Jewish War, translated by G.A. Williamson (Penguin, 1959), pp. 396-401.

  4. 4

    On the controversial dating of the different versions, see, in addition to Williamson, Tessa Rajak, Josephus: The Historian and His Society (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1984), p. 195.

  5. 5

    Mireille Hadas-Lebel, Flavius Josephus: Eyewitness to Rome’s First-Century Conquest of Judea, translated by Richard Miller (Macmillan, 1993), p. 109.

  • Email
  • Single Page
  • Print