“There’s something in what he’s saying,” Ezer Weizman told me, half in awe, half in dread, in 1988, referring to remarks by Syrian President Hafez Assad. Weizman, at the time a minister without a portfolio, was also a former defense minister and air force chief who helped make the peace treaty with Egypt possible. He also promoted peace with the Palestinians and later became Israel’s seventh president.
Assad was also a former defense minister and air force chief, and above all a bitter enemy of Israel. He drew a comparison between the Crusaders and their campaigns of conquest in the Holy Land, and Zionism and the State of Israel – a well-rooted notion still prevalent among some Arabs. He was referring to the fact that the Crusaders’ presence was temporary and their hold feeble.
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The concept was widespread not only in politics but also in Arab literature and historiography in the 1950s and ‘60s, as self-consolation and to compensate for the defeats and humiliation by the Israeli army following the establishment of the Jewish state in 1948. The idea was that the land belongs to the Arabs, and the Jews, Zionists and Israelis, a foreign presence in the Middle East, would eventually be forced back to their countries of origin.
One of the works most popular among Arab scholars and politicians who embraced this analogy was the three-volume work by British historian Sir Steven Runciman, “A History of the Crusades.”
The Arabs’ hopes were echoed in the first 20 years of Israel’s existence in some Israeli narratives. It’s a tempting analogy. The Crusaders were invaders from Catholic Europe, imbued with strong religious faith and ideological zealotry, who conquered the country by force of arms. They introduced Western European culture and Catholic values into the heart of the Muslim world, tried to integrate into their surroundings and failed.
Their Muslim neighbors rejected them, fighting against them in tireless wars. The Crusaders were also divided among themselves. They were armed to the teeth and built isolated fortresses; they lived by the sword and eventually died by it. Muslim power revived and remained until the arrival of the Zionists at the end of the 19th century and the creation of the State of Israel.
Even if there are similarities, almost every historical comparison is simplistic, certainly one between the Zionist project and the Crusader kingdoms.
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To begin with, remember that during the Crusades in the Holy Land, from the end of the 11th century to the middle of the 13th century, the concept of nationalism did not yet exist. And it was Jewish nationalism that laid the ground for the Zionist movement – not religious dreams.
Also, Jews have always possessed a strong historical, religious and sentimental bond with Jerusalem and the Holy Land. The Jews’ roots, experience and history contradict the Arab stance that Israel/Palestine was solely a Muslim possession.
Israel is a strong country, highly developed economically and technologically. It’s also the strongest military power between the Eastern Mediterranean and the Indian Ocean. Yes, the process of its acceptance by the Arab states has been slow, but consistent, and not only because of the realization that Israel cannot be defeated by its enemies.
Most Arabs accept and recognize de facto Israeli existence in this part of the region. Israel has made peace with four Arab states, with a few more expected to follow. And one can assume with high probability that Israel will not be defeated on the battlefield; besides, according to foreign reports, it possesses doomsday weapons.
It is widely accepted by most Israeli security experts – generals and heads of the security and intelligence agencies – that Israel no longer faces an external existential threat, not even from Iran. If a serious danger looms over the country’s future as a free, democratic and Jewish state, it’s from within.
Israel is unraveling as a state and a society. The rifts, factionalism, hatred, growing abhorrence of liberal values, and the political and other disputes between right, center and left, secular and religious, Mizrahim and Ashkenazim are threatening the delicate fabric of existence here. There is also an aversion to Western liberal values and the desire, expressed by more and more Israeli Jews, to suspend democracy or replace it with a strongman regime.
To this must be added the suppression of the Palestinian right to self-determination and the expanding occupation of Palestinian lands, threatening Israel’s status as a Western democracy.
These trends did not begin when Benjamin Netanyahu became prime minister in 2009. The seeds were sowed earlier, but during his 11 years in power, they have been dramatically enhanced, their growth accelerated.
Even mainstream Israelis, especially young people, talk about the fear that their beloved country is on the verge of a civil war. They’re concerned that maybe there is validity in the reflections, expressed many years ago by Ezer Weizman, that Israel will become an episode in history, a new version of the Crusaders, who settled on the land, fought wars, tried to establish a vibrant society but eventually returned to the West, from whence their ancestors came.