In the year 67 AD, the Jewish rebellion against Roman rule in what is now Israel was in full flow. Perched on a towering camel-shaped peak overlooking the Sea of Galilee, the town of Gamla was a focal point of the rebellion. The Jewish historian Josephus Flavius wrote that even though other towns in the area "had been persuaded at the beginning of the revolt to submit ... Gamla had refused to surrender, relying on its inaccessibility" to hold out against Roman attempts to invade.
Naturally, the superior strength and tactics of the Roman armies eventually wore down the Jews. Trapped on top of the mountain, faced with enraged Romans swarming up the slopes bent on avenging comrades killed in earlier battles, many of the defenders chose suicide rather than death and dishonour at Roman hands. They "flung their wives and children and themselves too" into the ravine below. "4000 fell by Roman swords," wrote Josephus, "but those who plunged to destruction proved to be over 5000."
That was 1940 years ago. A long time. Yet I write this because it took a visit to Israel to understand that in that land, the ancient is never forgotten, never irrelevant.
Should it be?
For millions of Jews, it is not the "West Bank", but "Judea and Samaria", the names used in the Bible for that stretch of land. Those names, the biblical roots themselves, are fundamental to Jewish claims to the land. "Large numbers of Jews," said an announcement about the time I visited from FLAME, an American Jewish organization, "have been living in Judea and Samaria since biblical times. Most Arabs living there are in fact relative newcomers. [Therefore] the Israeli claim to the 'West Bank' is far stronger than that of the Arabs."
Well, if you go back to biblical times, every subsequent resident is indeed a "relative newcomer." If that's how you measure the strength of claims, we had better shut down any discussion right away.
Noam Friedman would have agreed. On January 1 1997, this young Israeli soldier sprayed bullets from his gun around a Hebron marketplace, wounding several Palestinians. Why did you do it, Noam? He explained to the press: "Our forefather Avraham bought Hebron for 400 shekels and the city belongs to us."
Only in Israel, I thought then, could a figure wrapped in millenia-old myth and religious legend have a role to play in events of today.
Though that was then. Today my country is caught in an angry debate over a bridge built by Lord Ram. Minutes before I wrote this I learnt from my morning paper that some say this is about "nationalist feelings."
Avraham bought a town, Lord Ram built a bridge: for evermore, such events are supposed to close down discussion. Close down minds. Invoke an undefined "nationalism". Such is the power of religion.
And what about Gamla? Aagain while I was there, an ad in the Jerusalem Post offered much about Palestinian "terror" and the "extreme Left", while arguing passionately against handing "Judea and Samaria" over to the Palestinians. But at the bottom of the ad were words that made me comprehend why peace in this torn country is so tragically elusive. Just five words, but impregnated with 1940 years of history as they are, they invoke ancient Jewish fears and defiance.
They read: "Gamla Shall Not Fall Again."
End of discussion.