Pinkerton's Progress: Crusader shadows
By JAMES P. PINKERTON
Tulsa Today - March 2, 2003:
What if Israel turns out to be another a 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 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
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 émigrés
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.
(James P. Pinkerton is a columnist for Newsday, a contributor to the Fox
News Channel and a fellow of the New America Foundation.)