From Gush Shalom
A FEW days ago I found myself in Caesarea, sitting in a restaurant and looking out over the sea. The sunbeams were dancing on the little waves, the mysterious ruins of the ancient town arrayed behind me. It was hot, but not too hot, and I was thinking about the crusaders.
Caesarea was built by King Herod some 2,000 years ago and named after his Roman master, Augustus Caesar. It once again became an important town under the Crusaders, who fortified it. These fortifications are what now makes the place a tourist attraction.
For some years in my life I was obsessed with the Crusaders. It started during the 1948 "War of Independence," when I chanced to read a book about the crusaders and found that they had occupied the same locations opposite the Gaza strip which my battalion was occupying. It took the crusaders several decades to conquer the strip, which at the time extended to Ashkelon. Today it is still there in Muslim hands.
After the war, I read everything I could about these Crusaders. The more I read, the more fascinated I became. So much so, that I did something I have never done before or after: I wrote a letter to the author of the most authoritative book about the period, the British historian Steven Runciman.
To my surprise, I received a hand-written reply by return of post, inviting me to come and see him when I happened to be in London. I happened to be in London a few weeks later and called him up. He insisted I come over immediately.
Like almost everyone who fought against the British in Palestine, I was an anglophile. Runciman, a typical British aristocrat with all the quaint idiosyncracies that go with it, was very likeable.
We talked for hours, and continued the conversation when my wife and I visited him later in an ancient Scottish fortress on the border with England. Rachel, who was even more anglophile than I, almost fell in love with him.
WHAT WE talked about was a subject I brought up at the very start of our first meeting: "When you were writing your book, did you ever think about the similarities between the Crusaders and the modern Zionists?"
Runciman answered: "Actually, I hardly thought about anything else. I wanted to subtitle the book A Guidebook For the Zionist About How Not To Do It." And after a short laugh: "But my Jewish friends advised me to abstain from doing so."
Indeed, it is almost taboo in Israel to talk about the crusades. We do have some experts, but on the whole, the subject is avoided. I don't remember ever having heard about the Crusades during the few years I spent at school.
This is not as astonishing as it may sound. Jewish history is ethnocentric, not geographical. It starts with our (legendary) forefather, Abraham, and his chats with God, and continues until the defeat of the Bar Kochba rebellion against the Romans in 136 AD.
From then on our history takes leave from Palestine and dances around the world, concentrating on Jewish events, until the year 1882, when the first pre-Zionists set up some settlements in Ottoman Palestine. During all the time in between, Palestine was empty, nothing happened there.
That is what Israeli children learn today, too.
ACTUALLY, LOTS of things did happen during those 1,746 years, more than in most other countries. The Roman, Byzantine, Arab, Ottoman and British empires followed each other until 1948. The crusaders' kingdoms were an important chapter by themselves.