Focus on Issues: 900 Years Later, Arab Memories of Crusades Shape View of Zionism

It was just another day in Jerusalem’s Old City, with tourists wending their way among Arab shops as they sought out one historic site after another.

But whether at the Tower of David or on the Via Dolorosa, few people realized that July 15 marked a historic anniversary: On that date, 900 years ago, the first Crusaders conquered the city, plunging Jerusalem into a bloodbath.

“Men rode in blood up to their knees and bridle reins,” wrote a Crusader eyewitness. “Indeed, it was a just and splendid judgment of God that this place should be filled with the blood of the unbelievers, since it had suffered so long from their blasphemies.”

Arabs and Jews were slaughtered together by the Crusaders, yet some modern-day Arab historians, politicians and clergymen are using this legacy as a further wedge between the peoples, equating Zionists with the conquerors of nearly a millennium ago.

The Crusades lasted from the 11th to the 13th centuries, when nobles led armies from across Europe in holy wars aimed at taking the Holy Land from the Muslims or at repelling their various counterattacks.

The Christian faithful who heeded Pope Urban II’s call in 1095 to conquer the “infidels” attached to their outer garments crosses — “croises” or “crociati” in local tongues — from which came the name “Crusaders.”

In the Holy Land, the Crusades resulted in repeated slaughters of Jews and Muslims. In Europe, they led to repeated acts of anti-Semitic savagery.

No one knows for sure how many people were killed in Jerusalem on July 15, 1099.

Estimates range from between 3,000 to 70,000, including Muslims and Jews. The Jews tried to find shelter in a local synagogue; the Muslims gathered at the Al-Aksa Mosque. The invaders set fire to both holy sites.

As they look back over the centuries, many Arabs recall with pride how in 1187 the great Muslim warrior Saladin struck a devastating blow to the Crusaders, who had believed they were in the Holy Land to stay. And they hope a similar fate will befall those now governing Israel.

“The Arabs have leaned on the past with the hope that the fate of the Crusaders will also be that of the Zionists,” said Professor Ben-Zion Kedar of the Hebrew University, an expert on the Crusades. “This is an attempt to use the past in order to mold the present, but it is hardly a historic study.”

The significance of Saladin’s victory over the Crusaders cannot be overestimated. The Crusaders remained in Palestine nearly 200 years, but they lasted only 88 years in Jerusalem. It was only after Saladin’s historic victory that Jerusalem captured a central role in Islam, along with the holy places in Mecca and Medina.

It is therefore not surprising that Arab historical and political writings, frustrated with the development and prosperity of the Jewish state, have tried to draw parallels between Zionism and the Crusades.

“The similarity is there, all right,” said Mohsen Yussuf, a member of the history department at Bir Zeit University, near Ramallah.

He pointed out that both movements originated in the West, adding his belief that both were religiously and militarily motivated.

But Yussuf himself is aware of a weak link in the comparison — that history may not repeat itself.

“I don’t know that the fate of the Zionist movement will be identical to that of the Crusaders,” he said.

The Van Leer Institute in Jerusalem last week devoted a daylong symposium to the place of the Crusades in the history of the region.

Professor Yehoshua Porat, one of the foremost scholars of the Palestinian national movement, said the Palestinian educational system is preoccupied with the Crusades.

The equation of the Crusades with Zionism “is not new,” Porat said, “but the Palestinians, and not only them, bring new life into it.”

Ya’acov Ahimeir, a well-known television moderator, recently wrote in the Israeli daily Ma’ariv that the office of Syrian President Hafez Assad is decorated with a carpet depicting the battle of Karnei Hittin, located near present-day Tiberias, where Saladin defeated the Crusaders, paving the way for the Muslim reconquest of Jerusalem.

“Let the first Israeli guest in Assad’s bureau ask him to replace that carpet,” wrote Ahimeir. “Let this be the first sign of normalization.”

Kedar of Hebrew University criticizes those Arabs — and Israelis — whom he describes as being obsessed with the Crusades-Zionism comparison.

Unlike the Jews who forged the State of Israel, he pointed out, the Crusaders were not returning to their ancient homeland. Nor did they come after suffering a terrible tragedy in Europe.

“This was not their last shelter, and this is a major difference,” he said.

Yussuf of Bir Zeit University noted another important difference.

“At least when you conquered Jerusalem, you did it without destroying the city.”

Recently, a group of evangelical Christians known as Reconciliation Walk visited the Gaza Strip and begged the forgiveness of Muslims for the Crusades.

In response, a local religious leader reportedly told them: “It’s all very nice, but the new Crusaders still occupy our lands.”

Last week, on the 900th anniversary of the conquest of Jerusalem, the Christian mission of apology finally reached the Holy City.

Their arrival in Jerusalem marked the culmination of a journey that began three years ago in Cologne, Germany — where the First Crusade was launched in 1096 – - to trace the path of the Crusaders to the Holy Land.

In Jerusalem, the Christians held hands as they sang and prayed outside the walls of the Old City.

They eventually met with Israel’s chief rabbis and top clerics of the Muslim and Greek Orthodox faiths to beg forgiveness for the crimes committed by their forefathers.

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