Cross-posted from Gush Shalom
Some 60 years ago I wrote an article whose title was just that: "Crusaders and Zionists." Perhaps it was the first on that subject.
It raised a lot of opposition. At the time, it was a Zionist article of faith that no such similarity existed, tut-tut-tut. Unlike the Crusaders, the Jews are a nation. Unlike the Crusaders, who were barbarians compared to the civilized Muslims of their time, Zionists are technically superior. Unlike the Crusaders, the Zionists relied on their own manual labor. (That was before the Six-Day War, of course.)
I HAVE already told the story several times of my attachment to the Crusaders' history, but I can't resist the temptation to tell it again.
During the 1948 war my commando unit was fighting in the South. When the war ended, a narrow strip of land along the Mediterranean Sea remained in Egyptian hands. We called it the "Gaza Strip" and built outposts around it.
A few years later, I read Steven Runciman's monumental "A History of the Crusades." My attention was immediately drawn to a curious coincidence: after the First Crusade, a strip of territory along the sea was left in the hands of the Egyptians, extending a few kilometers beyond Gaza. The Crusaders built a string of fortifications to contain it. They were in almost the same places as our own outposts.
When I finished reading the three volumes, I did something I never did before or since: I wrote a letter to the author. After praising the work, I asked: Did you ever think about the similarity between them and us?
The answer arrived within days. Not only did he think about it, Runciman wrote, but he thought about it all the time. Indeed, he wanted to subtitle the book "A guide for the Zionists on how not to do it." However, he added, "my Jewish friends advised against it." If I ever chanced to pass through London, he added, he would be glad if I called on him.
I happened to be in London a few months later and called him. He asked me to come over immediately.
(The name Runciman was familiar to me: his father, Walter, a viscount, was sent by Neville Chamberlain in 1938 to mediate between Nazi Germany and the Czechs, and scandalized the world by greeting the Germans with "Heil Hitler.")
STEVEN RUNCIMAN answered the bell himself, a tall British gentleman of about 50. Being an incurable anglophile, I was enchanted by his courteous aristocratic manner.
After a glass of sherry, we sank into a discussion of the Crusader-Zionist parallel, and lost all sense of time. For hours we compared events and names. Who was the Crusader Herzl (Pope Urban), who the Crusader Ben-Gurion? (Godfrey? Baldwin?), who the Zionist Reynald of Chatillon (Moshe Dayan), who the Israeli Raymond of Tripoli, who advocated peace with the Muslims? (Runciman graciously pointed to me).
Years later, Runciman invited my wife and me to Scotland, where he had moved to live in an old watchtower near Lockerbie, built as a defense against England. Over dinner served by a lone manservant he spoke about the ghosts haunting the place. Rachel and I were astonished when we realized that he really believed in them.
THE TWO historical movements were separated by at least six centuries, and their political, social, cultural and military backgrounds are, of course, totally different. But some similarities are evident.
Both the Crusaders and the Zionists (as well as the Philistines before them) invaded Palestine from the West. They lived with their backs to the sea and Europe, facing the Muslim-Arab world. They lived in permanent war.
At the time, Jews identified with the Arabs. The horrible massacres of the Jewish communities along the Rhine committed by some Crusaders on their way to the Holy Land are deeply imprinted in Jewish consciousness.