Jerusalem knights, or Christian jihadists?

Jerusalem will commemorate the depredations of European crusaders against the Jews and Muslims of Seljuk Palestine.

Ancient crusader hospital rediscovered by the IAA 370 (photo credit: Yoli Shwartz/Courtesy of IAA)
Ancient crusader hospital rediscovered by the IAA 370
(photo credit: Yoli Shwartz/Courtesy of IAA)
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 “Disneylandification.”
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.
“Let 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 shoes.
She did her housework quickly, and always spoke the truth.
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.”
The door 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 them.
I put my trust in the Judge who decreed my sentence...”
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 infinitely cheap.
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.
Styling 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, slowly.
Above their heads flows the might ocean, Beneath it, their mighty home...
And I, their good son, am like a lyre Whose radiant melody has been stopped, As I stand, towering with Time, on the seashore.”
For the “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 problem.
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.
“How 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.
Though 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.