AS A teenager on a trip to Israel, I sat in the excavated synagogue in the 2,000-year-old mountain fortress of Masada and heard an inspiring story. A story of the brutal Roman suppression of a Jewish uprising here in the first century AD. Of a last brave group of rebels, the Zealots, who after fleeing Jerusalem, then resisted a long siege in this desert stronghold. And of their last night, when they chose mass suicide over surrender to Titus's legions.
The story is a founding myth of modern Zionism and of the Israeli state. Almost every single Israeli has at some point in their lives gone to Masada and heard it. The only problem with it is that it is less than the truth.
Israeli academics - notably Nachman Ben-Yehuda of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem - have exposed how this heroic myth is significantly different from the only source: the writings of the first-century historian Josephus Flavius.
Josephus describes the rebels at Masada not as Zealots, but "Sicarii" - a name derived from the sica, a short Roman dagger. The Sicarii were notorious for political assassinations, including of fellow Jews suspected of collaboration with the Romans. The Jewish majority forced the Sicarii out of Jerusalem long before the city fell.
Josephus says the Sicarii then used Masada as a base to ravage the surrounding countryside. In a single raid on the nearby town of Ein Geddi, they killed 700 women and children. Josephus depicts not heroes, but extremists who divided the Jews and who never engaged in a single direct battle with the Roman enemy.
This account may be biased. After all, Josephus himself was a Jew who defected to the Romans. But it is clear that, when Zionist pioneers seized on the story in the 1920s as an example of Jewish heroism, they simply ignored the inconvenient details.
The greatest promoter of the Masada myth was the youth …