It was a travesty, wrote Morris Bishop in his classic The Middle Ages (1968).
“Two twelve-year-old boys, Stephen in France and Nicholas in Germany, preached a children’s crusade, promising their followers that angels would guide them and the seas would divide before them,” he wrote.
Thousands followed the two boys’ separate convoys while stories circulated far and wide about butterflies flanking and birds overflying them as they marched south across the Alps. But alas, only a handful arrived in the Holy Land, where they disappeared, while others were duped by merchants who promised them a cruise to the Promised Land but instead shipped them to African slave markets.
In the past, this tale from eight centuries ago would be cited as an illustration of an era marred by social disintegration and religious gullibility that modern people found difficult to imagine. Not anymore.
Nowadays, there is no need imagining all this, and much worse, because it is a fixture of the nightly news.
The terror wave that has so far cost the lives of 120 Palestinians, 35 Israelis and two foreigners, has been dominated by minors, and in a way that is even more mind boggling than its medieval precedent.
Those medieval kids did not wield knives. In fact, in their naivety they thought that just like angels would hover above them and the sea would part ahead of them, they, unlike previous Crusaders, would conquer Jerusalem not by sword but by love.
The crusading children we encounter are also inspired by stark tales of divinity, providence and the afterlife, but they don’t believe in love, and they do believe in the sword. Yet the question about them is the same one that the medieval story raised: Where are the adults? Those medieval kids’ parents were either dead or so uneducated, impoverished, hungry and lacking authority that they were irrelevant when their kids vanished for an otherworldly trip.
This is not the case with the current children’s crusade. Their parents are alive, they went to school and are literate. Most of them do not personally send their children on their suicidal missions and are in fact opposed to them. Some parents hide their kitchen knives, lest their kid take one and do something stupid.
The problem, then, is not the parents. It is the rest of their society’s leadership – teachers, clergy, politicians and literati. And they – some passively and some actively – at best tolerate, at worst endorse, and ultimately fan the crusade that is swallowing their children.
In the medieval Children’s Crusade, some were redeemed from its punishment when they reached the pope of the day, Innocent III, who understood the absurdity of their journey and released them from the Crusader’s Vow they had taken.
There is no Palestinian equivalent right now to this combination of authority, morality and reason. The fanatic impulse that was unleashed with the manufactured crusade for al-Aksa is now reaching holy war’s ultimate destination – infanticide.
IRONICALLY, the Crusader analogy was, and remains, popular among the Zionist idea’s Arab adversaries.
It was particularly dear to Hafez Assad, who repeatedly dismissed Israel as a foreign implant in the Arab world, predicting that it will quickly come apart, like the Crusader kingdom. Since then what has come apart is Assad’s own Syria, during the watch of his son.
The real modern-day Crusaders, as the whole world now realizes, were Assad’s Alawite sect, who imposed themselves on religious and ethnic rivals while themselves inviting foreigners into the Arab world – first the Russians, then the Iranians.
Such, to be sure, is the Crusader dynamic: before it wages its assaults, and even more so once its massacres commence, it is fraught with myth, manipulation and deceit.
Assad, for instance, hung in the reception area outside his chambers a huge painting of the 1187 Battle of Hattin where Saladin handed the Crusaders their pivotal defeat, west of Lake Kinneret.
This is what he wanted his guests to see while waiting to meet him, even while he was himself the Crusader dancing with imperialist wolves, and also the tyrant oppressing the very Kurdish nation to which Saladin belonged.
Crusades have to be delusional because the very idea of God desiring humans to kill each other and displace entire nations because of their faiths is absurd. At the same time, the Crusading vision is a tested temptation that makes the gullible follow the cynic – beyond the horizon, through water, fire and brimstone – to death.
The crusader will always tell you God, or destiny, is with him and also speaks from his throat. The first Crusader who scaled the walls of Jerusalem, having hopped from the mobile tower his army positioned opposite today’s Rockefeller Museum, later claimed to have seen from there an angel atop the Mount of Olives, waving at him his shield.
Never mind that an object the size of a human is too small to be seen from that distance; where was this angel when the Crusaders later surrendered Jerusalem to Saladin? Where was he another 25 years on, when that entire Holy War project had collapsed, and its rear-end battle was taken up by a sick society’s brainwashed kids? YOUTHS get sucked into their parents’ holy wars when all else is lost.
Such was 17-year-old Kamikaze pilot Yukio Araki who died near Okinawa in May 1945 when Japan’s defeat was obvious, but teenagers were coaxed to fly into the enemy’s armor because the supply of adults willing to die this way proved limited.
Such were also the 12-year-old Hitler-jugend whom the fuehrer honored outside his bunker for having obeyed his order to confront the Russian tanks that by then were roaming the streets of Berlin.
Such are also the teenagers Hezbollah has been sending to die in Syria. And such are also the kids who storm pedestrians on sidewalks, shoppers in supermarkets, and mothers in their homes, only to die at a tender age while the applauding adults who promise them the company of angels – live on.