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Crusader Shadows

If History Repeats Itself, Then Today's Israel Has a Problem
March 2, 2003 |
Maybe Israel could be, or at least should be, to the Middle East what Hong Kong is to China -- the entrepot for a new era of political liberalism and profitable entrepreneurialism.
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What if Israel turns out to be another Crusader State? What if the Jewish state turns out to be temporary, just another character on the stage of history, taking a turn and then departing?

Those questions came to me touring the Jewish state. But they were first put into my head by an Israeli, journalist Yossi Klein Halevi, who wondered two years ago in The Washington Post, if his country might "be like the Crusader kingdom, a passing phase in the Middle East." Which is not to say that the Crusaders didn't have a pretty good run: they held Jerusalem from 1099 to 1187, and then again from 1229 to 1244. Indeed, they hung on to the coastal city of Acre until 1291. That's a span of almost two centuries.

But of course, the Israelis have grander ambitions than that; they aim for Israel to be the permanent home for the Jews. But if so, perhaps they might pause to ponder what the Crusaders did wrong, as detailed by Joshua Prawer, a professor at Hebrew University, in his 1972 book, "The Crusaders' Kingdoms: European Colonialism in the Middle Age." If history repeats itself, then today's Israel has a problem.

An Israeli, or foreign friend of Israel, might consider what Prawer had to say about the foreshortened fate of the Crusaders, so many centuries ago. Describing the failure of the Crusader Kingdoms, Prawer notes that they failed to integrate -- economically, culturally, or anything-ly -- into their neighborhood in their two centuries in the Holy Land.

They didn't even wish to make friends with the surrounding "Saracens"; indeed, the Crusaders, their name notwithstanding, didn't even wish to convert the locals to Christianity.

And so, fortified behind their armor and walls, they withered. Indeed, one of Prawer's main arguments is that the common notion about the Crusades -- that they opened up routes for commerce and culture between Christendom and Islam -- is, in fact, false. Instead, he writes, the creative and productive interchange between Christian and Muslim took place along other frontiers, notably, Sicily and Spain.

So what's the answer? Israel, as a Jewish state, can hardly be expected to embrace Islam. But perhaps a certain amount of Levantine leavening would help. Israel may think that it can survive forever in the Middle East as a Western outpost -- it may think it doesn't have a choice -- but the Crusader experience should be considered as a cautionary tale. Here is what Prawer wrote about the Crusaders:

"A society which raises barriers against the new and the alien tends to entrench itself ever more deeply in its own heritage. The latter becomes sacrosanct as much as in its essential as in its non-essential components. Resentment against alien innovations fossilizes the perspective of one's own heritage, which is perceived as perfect at the earliest stage of transfer.

"This is followed by a wholesale apotheosis of the past. The same, though not total rejection which dominates the attitude to an alien culture, is expressed by looking askance at new developments in the original home of one's heritage. Apotheosis of the past and the link with tradition, important at a certain state of growth in a new society, turn into a dead weight of anachronistic postulates."

I showed this passage to my colleague Lloyd Green, the Middle East bureau chief for the Talk Radio News Service, and he had an interesting reaction. Although one thinks of the Crusaders in terms of their religion, he noted, they brought a whole culture with them as well. And in the past half-century, that has also been the case for Israel.

It is easy to argue that the country is increasingly influenced by its large and influential ultra-Orthodox Jewish minority but that is only half the story. Yes, a popular slogan of the Shas party reads, "L'hachazir atarah l'yoshna" -- "to return the crown to its past glory" -- and that is a reactionary sentiment if there ever was one. But many of the secular parties, too, Green continued, are reactionary in their own way.

Yosef "Tommy" Lapid of the Shinui party, now justice minister in Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's new government, says that his ideal for Israel is Amsterdam. And the substantial population of recent Russian emigres still, look -- no surprise here -- to Russia for many of their cultural and political cues.

To be sure, just as one should never ignore the past, so one should never be tyrannized by the past. Perhaps the Crusaders failed, as Prawer maintains, because they did not integrate into their new Levantine neighborhood. But maybe this time around, the situation is reversed; it will be the Arabs who fail because they can't or won't integrate with Israel -- and beyond Israel, with the West in general.

Maybe Israel could be, or at least should be, to the Middle East what Hong Kong is to China -- the entrepot for a new era of political liberalism and profitable entrepreneurialism.

For his part, Green had a different worry. To him, a bigger concern is the economy, stupid. "The Israelis have never faced up to the need to restructure their economy," he noted. "They enjoyed a software boom in the late 90s, but now that's over. Maybe that will come back, but maybe it won't. After all, there's a whole world out there -- places full of smart people, far away from war zones -- for capital to alight, from the Czech Republic to China."

Right now, concerns over the intifada and Iraq have taken priority, but isn't that always the dilemma -- the crisis muscling out the chronic?

America will likely grant Israel much or all of the $12 billion in special aid it seeks, but the Israelis are "dreaming," Green concluded, if they think that aid-receiving is a viable long-term plan.

And so maybe Prawer has a point, after all. The Crusaders faced the challenge of fitting into their region. And they flunked. Today, Israel faces the challenge of fitting into the globe, economically -- even as they must defend themselves geostrategically. The jury is still out on whether the Jewish state can succeed in that dual mission.

And that's the dilemma for Israel. A country based upon ancient history must find a way to break free of that history and its painful precedents.

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