THOSE WHO are interested in the history of the Crusades ask themselves: what brought about the Crusaders' downfall? Looking at the remnants of their proud fortresses all over the country, we wonder.
The traditional answer is: their defeat in the battle of the Horns of Hattin, twin hills near the Lake of Galilee, in 1187, by the great Muslim Sultan Salah ad-Din (Saladin).
However, the Crusader state lived on in Palestine and the surroundings for another 100 years.
The most authoritative historian of the Crusades, the late Steven Runciman, gave a completely different answer: the Crusader kingdom collapsed because too many Crusaders returned to their ancestral homelands, while too few came to join the Crusaders. In the end, the last remnants were thrown into the sea (literally).
THERE ARE vast differences between the Crusader state that existed in this country for 200 years and the present State of Israel, but there are also some striking similarities. That's why their history always attracted me.
Lately I was reminded of Runciman's conclusion because of the sudden interest of our media in the phenomenon of emigration. Some comments bordered on hysteria.
The reasons for this are two. First, a TV network reported on Israeli descenders abroad, second, the award of the Nobel chemistry prize to two ex-Israelis. Both caused much hand-wringing.
"Descenders" (Yordim) is the Hebrew term for emigrants. People coming to live in Israel are called "ascenders" (Olim), a term akin to pilgrims. Probably the word has something to do with the fact that Jerusalem is located on a hill surrounded on all sides by valleys, so that you have to "go up" to reach it. But of course there is an ideological Zionist connotation to the terms.
Before the founding of our state and during its first few decades, we saw ourselves as a heroic society, struggling against great odds, fighting several wars. People leaving us were looked upon as deserters, like soldiers running away from their unit during a battle. Yitzhak Rabin called them "trash."
What made the TV story so frightening was that it showed ordinary middle-class young Israeli families settling for good in Berlin, London and New Jersey. Some of their children were already speaking foreign languages, abandoning Hebrew. Terrible.
Until lately, "descending" was mostly attributed to misfits, lower-class people and others who could not find their place in ordinary society. But here were normal, well-educated young couples, Israeli-born, speaking good Hebrew. Their general complaint -- sounding rather like an apology -- was that they could not "end the month" in Israel, that their middle-class salaries did not suffice for a decent living, because salaries are too low and prices too high. They singled out the prices of apartments. The price of an apartment in Tel Aviv is equivalent to 120 months' average middle class income.
However, sober research showed that emigration has actually decreased during the last few years. Polls show that the majority of Israelis, including even a majority of Arab citizens, are satisfied with their economic situation -- more than in most European nations.
THE SECOND reason for hysteria was the award of the Nobel Prize to two American Chemistry professors who were educated in Israel, one of them born in a Kibbutz.
Israel is immensely proud of its Nobel laureates. Relative to the size of the country, their number is indeed extraordinary.
Many Jews are deeply convinced that the Jewish intellect is superior to that of any other people. Theories about this abound. One of them is that in medieval times, European intellectuals were mostly celibate monks who did not bequeath their genes to any offspring. In Jewish communities, the opposite happened: the rich were proud to marry their daughters to especially gifted Torah scholars, allowing their genes to start life in privileged circumstances.
Yet here were these two scholars who left Israel decades ago to graze in foreign meadows, continuing their research in prestigious American universities.