Who could imagine that the Crusades could be so much fun?” writes a guileless
tourist blogger, purveying cutesy, costumed images of the “Jerusalem Knights
Festival,” the Israeli capital’s latest program of municipal
This month, Jerusalem will once again commemorate
the depredations of European crusaders against the Jews and Muslims of Seljuk
Palestine – all in the name of marketable Eurocentric fun.
In the past
six-and-a-half decades, Jews in Israel and abroad have become inured to the idea
of the Arab Muslim as hostile “other” – seeking common cause with some of
Euro-American Christendom’s most chemically unbalanced.
In the process,
lay Jews have rapidly begun to unlearn one of their history’s most fundamental
lessons: that over the course of the second millennium, the lion’s share of
persecutions and massacres have been committed in the name of the cross, rather
than the crescent.
At dinner a few months ago, a relative’s wife slipped
into this mode while detailing her travels in Spain. “The Moors turned all the
synagogues into mosques,” she welled up, “They were awful.” I asked if she was
thinking of Santa Maria la Blanca, the 13th-century Toledan synagogue seized by
Catholic Spaniards and remodeled as a church. She retorted sharply: “Christians
would never!” While grape-loving Jews were writing Hebrew wine songs in Moorish
Cordoba and Granada, the Jews of Christendom hunkered down in dark pietism.
While Hasdai ibn Shaprut and Maimonides served professional roles at the courts
of Muslim kings, the first Ashkenazi Jews served as torch fodder for the
Crusaders – who immolated and skewered their Jewish co-continentals the entire
way to Jerusalem.
Before choosing Crusaders over Saracens, I’d advise the
Jerusalem municipality to open up The Penguin Book of Hebrew Verse to pages
387-8, home to “The Murder of Bellet and Hannah,” a scarcely known elegy by the
German Jewish sage Eleazar bar Judah.
IT WAS the night of November 22,
1196, and Christian Germany was in the throes of preparation for the Northern
Crusades against the pagan tribes of the Baltic. Eleazar, a young rabbi, sat
flanked by his students, hard at work on a commentary on Genesis. Growing
wistful, his mind wandered with thoughts of his wife, Dulcina, a scroll
parchment entrepreneur, and his precocious older daughter, Bellet.
me tell the story of my eldest daughter, Bellet: She was thirteen years old, and
as chaste as a bride.
She learned all the prayers and songs from her
mother, Who was modest and kind, sweet and wise.
The girl took after her
beautiful mother, And every night she would make my bed and take off my
She did her housework quickly, and always spoke the
She worshipped her Maker, she weaved and sewed and embroidered,
She was filled with reverence and pure love for her Creator.
For the sake
of Heaven, she sat down next to me to hear my teaching.”
trembled in its frame, giving way to the ax with hardly a warning. The stanza
pivots sharply without breaking: “And that is when she and her mother and her
sister were killed, On the night of the twenty-second of Kislev, As I was
sitting peacefully at my table.
Two wicked men broke in and killed them
before my eyes.
O my lovely wife! O my sons and daughters! I weep for
I put my trust in the Judge who decreed my
Eleazar’s rabbinic idyll – a fortunate life by medieval
European standards – is shattered with the hot-tempered blows of a Christian
jihadist’s ax to his little daughters’ heads. In the Jewish tradition, life is
infinitely precious; to Jerusalem’s vaunted, barbaric Crusader knights, life was
141 PAGES and 750 years later, we encounter the same
story in the post-Holocaust lyrics of Uri Zvi Greenberg – a Polish-born
rightwing firebrand and master of the modern Hebrew verse.
himself a prophet of European Jewry’s destruction, he raged against the British
White Paper of 1939 – an act that sealed the doors of Mandatory Palestine on the
eve of the Holocaust. A decade later, he stuns and stirs with “Songs at the Rim
of the Heavens,” a serialized reverie on his murdered parents: “Like Abraham and
Sarah by the terebinths of Mamre Before the precious tidings, And like David and
Bathsheba, in the king’s palace, In the tenderness of their first night My
martyred father and mother rise In the West over the sea, With all the aureoles
of God upon them.
Weighed down by their beauty they sink,
Above their heads flows the might ocean, Beneath it, their mighty
And I, their good son, am like a lyre Whose radiant melody has
been stopped, As I stand, towering with Time, on the seashore.”
“Judeo-Christian values” types (what are these, exactly?) convinced that the
Arab Muslim hatred of Jews is somehow more eternal, essential and unchangeable
than its European Christian counterpart, the striking millennial continuities
between Eleazar bar Judah and Uri Zvi Greenberg pose a serious
ALONG WITH CUFI plenary sessions and debauached congressional
tours to the Kinneret, the Jerusalem municipality’s glorification of the
Crusades fits into a broader, equally tragic rubric: the desire to identify with
Europe and Christendom, partly predicated on a denial of all things Levantine
and Arab about Israel’s heritage.
Sami Chetrit, an Israeli academic and
poet who deals with the social and political life of Israel’s Middle Eastern
Jewish communities, gets to the heart of this matter in “Who is a Jew?” an
imagined dialogue between himself and a clueless American Jewess.
can you call yourself an Arab Jew when all the Arab wants is to annihilate the
Jew?” she asks.
“And how can you call yourself a European Jew when the
European has already annihilated the Jew?” he shoots back.
Chetrit’s family is from Morocco and mine from Poland, the objective facts of
Jewish history lead us down the same path: There’s no place for Crusaders in our
gallery of heroes.