When Donald Trump travels to Israel later this month as part of his first foreign trip, he plans to give his main speech at Masada, a hilltop fortress soaked with bloody symbolism.
It looks like a strange choice. Trump’s trip is theoretically about combatting religious extremism, but the historic event that made Masada famous—960 Jewish rebels chose to commit mass suicide there in the first century rather than die at the hands of the Roman Empire—was arguably pretty extreme. Trump’s trip is theoretically also about advancing peace between Israelis and Palestinians, but speaking at this site—nowadays one of the ultimate symbols of Zionist nationalism—is likely to alienate Palestinians.
But viewed another way, it’s perfectly appropriate: Masada is largely about pageantry, and specifically the pageantry of the underdog.
Trump loves a pageant. Before he was the president of the United States, he was the owner of the Miss Universe Organization. Six years ago, he inquired about whether he could hold the Miss Universe Pageant at Masada, according to Eran Sidis, the spokesman for the Knesset Speaker. It’s unclear when and how Trump first learned about the hilltop fortress, but Masada—synonymous with epic showdowns both gory and glorious—holds a clear appeal to the imagination.
Trump also loves an underdog. Throughout the presidential campaign, he repeatedly depicted himself as one. Cultivating an image as a man spurned by the political establishment, the media, and liberal elites, he endeared himself to voters who likewise saw themselves as “the little guys.”
Now he’s about to embark on a high-profile mission to solve what may be the world’s most notoriously unsolvable conflict, and it’s a mission that combines these two passions. In this scenario, too, he is an underdog, as an inexperienced statesman tackling a problem that’s stumped some of the most skilled diplomats for decades. But he’s a confident underdog, one who believes he can and will make a historic deal. So why not throw some spectacle into the mix?
Masada has been a centerpiece of the Zionist national myth for decades. In a famous 1927 poem, Yitzhak Lamdan used Masada imagery to describe persecuted European Jews returning to Zion as an act of desperation triggered by existential threats; he wrote, “Masada shall not fall again.” That line became a refrain repeated in unison by army recruits at their swearing-in ceremonies, which took place at the fortress itself. The image of the fortress became inextricably associated with the Zionist project, to the point where former prime minister Golda Meir said, “We have a Masada complex.” And the former military leader and politician Moshe Dayan once said, “Masada gave Jewish history a grandeur steeped in blood and valor, faith and pride, not only in facing death, but also in facing the trials of life.”
The fortress also became an extremely popular destination for Jewish tourists to Israel. Nowadays, for the young Jews who come on Birthright and other group trips, a visit to the site is practically de rigueur. Once they’ve climbed to the top of the hill, teenagers are often treated to a tour guide’s speech valorizing the heroic Jewish stalwarts who refused to give up their beliefs when faced with mortal enemies. The implication is that contemporary Jews should take inspiration from these forebears when facing their own modern enemies.
For Trump, who often speaks of the West as facing an existential threat and civilizational struggle, a location that conjures up such threats and struggles is a natural fit.
Trump will not be the first American president to visit Masada. As my colleague David Graham noted, Bill Clinton and George W. Bush both visited the site. But neither spoke there, possibly because they understood that speaking at such a symbolically weighted place can’t help but send a very positive message to Israelis—and, consequently, a not-so-positive message to Palestinians. Regardless of the actual content of Trump’s speech, the platform for its delivery will constrain its meaning.
When Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas visited the White House on Wednesday, Trump pledged to serve as “a mediator or an arbitrator or a facilitator,” echoing a promise he sometimes voiced on the campaign trail to act as a “neutral” force in peace negotiations. But by choosing the famous hilltop fortress as the location for his main address, Trump has already tipped the scales. Masada is anything but neutral.