The myth of the ‘Zionist Crusader’

"The jihadists libel the Jewish people by calling the Zionists a movement of Crusaders."

Islamic Jihad terrorists in Gaza 311 (R) (photo credit: 	 REUTERS/Mohammed Salem)
Islamic Jihad terrorists in Gaza 311 (R)
(photo credit: REUTERS/Mohammed Salem)
In September 1947, Jewish officials pleaded with the leaders of the Arab League to make peace with the emerging State of Israel.
The League rebuffed the offer, claiming the Arabs would eject the Jews of Palestine as the Muslims had thrown the Crusaders out of the Middle East centuries before.
Twenty years later, Egyptian dictator Gamal Abdel Nasser claimed the medieval Crusades “represented nothing else than imperialism, domination and despotism in every sense of these terms.”
Today, it is the jihadists – Muslim fundamentalists calling for holy war against their enemies – who demand the extermination of the “Zionist Crusaders.” The holy wars of the past obsess Muslim extremists.
But let us look at historical reality.
In 1095, Pope Urban II addressed a council of bishops in the French city of Clermont, calling for Christians to retake the Holy Land from the Muslim Turks. The pope’s “Soldiers of Christ” would avenge the Turks’ harassment of Christian pilgrims to the Holy Land and their desecration of Christian holy places in Jerusalem by hastening “to exterminate this vile race” of Muslims.
While Muslim fundamentalists have seized on the medieval pope’s words to prove that Europeans were out to destroy Islam, the truth behind the Crusade is far more complex. In 1054 the pope in Rome and the patriarch in Constantinople excommunicated each other during an argument over theological issues. When the Eastern Christians called for Rome’s help in preventing the Turks from sacking Constantinople 40 years after the schism, Urban saw an opportunity to unite Christendom.
This was the pope’s primary goal – not the destruction of Islam.
In 1099 the knights of the First Crusade captured Jerusalem from the Seljuk Turks. While the crusade was a disaster for the Jews of the Rhineland, it certainly was as severe a defeat for the Muslims.
Yet, as scholar Bernard Lewis has shown, the Crusades aroused “very little interest” among Muslims.
The Muslim holy war to expel the Christian invaders did not begin until almost a century after the initial Crusader conquests.
The Muslims only took action against the Crusader kingdoms when the Christians launched a series of raids that harassed pilgrims to Mecca. Had the Crusaders not threatened Mecca, the 1187 Muslim victory by Saladin to take back Jerusalem from the Christians might not have taken place.
For all of Nasser’s and Osama bin Laden’s boasting about ousting the “Zionist Crusaders” from the Middle East, the reality of the Muslim response to the Christian holy wars is very different from the way it has been mythologized by propagandists in the post-colonial epoch.
The Crusades were far from a “clash of civilizations.” According to historian Efraim Karsh, “there was no total war on either side, let alone an ideological one.” The native population of Palestine viewed the Crusaders as just another foreign power to dominate them following the Arabs, the Egyptian Fatimids and the Seljuk Turks. Muslim dynasties vied with each other for domination of the Middle East and were not shy about concluding commercial treaties and political alliances with Christians.
The Crusades were not an all-out war of Muslim versus Christian.
For the past two centuries, Western domination of the Middle East has heightened the importance of the Crusades in Muslim eyes.
Jihadists see in Saladin an inspiration to destroy Israel and eliminate the West. The Muslim world, which not long ago exerted great power over the Middle East, has gone into decline. The Ottoman Empire that once besieged Vienna is now a memory. Mustafa Kemal of Turkey abolished the traditional Islamic leadership posts of the sultan and caliph more than 90 years ago.
While the Islamic world today decries “Crusader imperialism,” the reality is that the West has thwarted the imperial dreams of Muslims to control much of the world. The rise of a Jewish state in the heart of Muslim lands in the Middle East has overturned traditional Islamic conceptions of Jews being an inferior people who should be punished for rejecting Muhammad.
Islamic fundamentalists have reinvented the events of centuries ago to suit their agenda. They distort history to justify murder. The jihadists libel the Jewish people by calling the Zionists a movement of Crusaders. But the medieval knights did not yearn for redemption in Jerusalem. The French, English and German warriors who fought under the banner of the cross could not trace their origin back to the Land of Israel. Palestine was not the Promised Land of the Christian conquerors.
Jews have never been Crusaders.
The Jewish connection to the Land of Israel is organic and ancient. Jewish redemption and the Jewish future are centered on the Land of Israel. Anti-Israel propagandists can continue to rob the State of Israel of its legitimacy by portraying Jews as a foreign, imperialist element in the Land of Israel, yet in the end, the truth will win out. The Zionist movement – an anti-imperialist movement to the core – returned the Jewish people to their homeland.
The myth of the “Zionist Crusader” is a distortion of history that has only yielded lies and misery.
The author is the rabbi of Beth Ami Congregation in Boca Raton, Florida.