Richard the Lionheart's Farewell to the Holy Land
Richard the Lionheart's Farewell to the Holy Land Photo by Alphonse de Neuville
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I took an ordinary commercial flight from Bergen to Oslo about a year ago. A moment before the doors closed, a young man with a plastic earpiece boarded the plane. He was followed by two women; the younger one helped the older one place her bags in the luggage compartment. They sat in the first row - the older woman took the window seat, and the young man sat in the aisle seat. I was sitting in the row behind them.

Before takeoff, the captain said, in Norwegian and English: "Your Majesty, ladies and gentlemen, good morning and welcome aboard." The passenger sitting next to me explained that Her Majesty Queen Sonja, wife of King Harald V, was the elderly woman sitting in front of us. During the flight she was given coffee in a paper cup, just like the other passengers. When we landed she took her own luggage, disembarked and headed for a green Cadillac waiting by the side of the plane. She placed her bag in the car trunk, got in the car and was driven away.

This reminded me of a long-ago era in Israel when President Yitzhak Ben-Zvi would stroll Jerusalem's streets accompanied by just one policeman. Norway certainly won't be the same in the wake of the Utoya island massacre, but contrary to the assessment repeated in the Israeli media this week, there is no guarantee the Norwegians will now "identify with Israel as a country plagued by terrorism."

A few hours before Anders Behring Breivik entered the Labor Party youth camp and murdered some 70 campers, some of them were waving signs demanding a boycott of Israel. As an enemy of Islam, Breivik considers himself a friend of Israel. Hatred of Muslims has been flourishing on European neo-Nazi websites, which are popular in Norway as well. The place where Norway's World War II-era, pro-Nazi Prime Minister Vidkun Quisling was executed is unmarked so that it cannot become a pilgrimage site.

The call to boycott Israel by the Norwegian Labor Party's younger generation does not necessarily reflect the political sophistication of their education at Utoya. Yet it is hard to decide which is more embarrassing: the fact that Israel has turned itself into a universal symbol of evil, or that people like Breivik and various fundamentalist Christians - racist and often anti-Semitic - associate Israel with Divine grace.

Shamefully enough, there are Kahane-style websites no less racist than Breivik's, written in Hebrew. True, they are often written by fanatic Americans in garbled Hebrew and draw no more than a few thousand hits. But those following the reader comments on Yedioth Ahronoth's online news site Ynet this week could not ignore the fact that many Israelis did not entirely dismiss the Norwegian murderer's affinity for Israel; many, like him, are worried about the Muslim presence in Europe.

"Actually he has something there," wrote one commentator from Herzliya. Another wrote: "The ideas are good. Too bad he implemented them the way he did." Which brings us back to history.

Islam gave Europe a good deal of enlightenment and cultural riches, but today's racism looks back not to that golden era, but rather to the dark ages of the Crusades. Breivik's website is full of portraits of Crusaders, their eyes lit with zealous belief. Apparently Breivik particularly admired England's Richard the Lionheart; paradoxically, he may have identified Israel with the Crusaders' Kingdom of Jerusalem. Muslim historians share this view, though they consider it a source of hope that Israel, like the Crusaders' Kingdom, shall not endure. In the time of Richard I, violent pogroms against Jews rocked England; the Crusaders' passion swept through Europe and led to the murder of thousands of Jews in other countries, too. The knights of the Middle Ages fired the imagination of the Nazis, too, receiving ample space in their mythology.

Breivik considered Richard the Lionheart his hero since Richard led his army to the Holy Land to liberate Jerusalem from the hands of Saladin. His soldiers conquered only Acre and Jaffa, murdering 3,000 Muslims in the process. They did not succeed in conquering Jerusalem.

Richard the Lionheart now seems like quite the fool, yet England also regarded him as a hero, mostly during the Victorian era. During the reign of Queen Victoria, a bronze statue honoring Richard was erected in front of the Palace of Westminster in London, where it stands to this day. In Jerusalem, by contrast, a central thoroughfare is named after Saladin.