Holy Wars


In the period following my aliyah in 1988, I would often write and lecture about how great Israel was in terms of Jewish identity. I loved living in a country, went my standard shtick, where the Hilton didn’t have a Christmas tree.

What I didn’t realize, in my idealism, was that one big reason for the absence of Christmas trees in hotels was that the Chief Rabbinate had threatened to strip kashrut certification from establishments where one was found. The rationale, as expressed recently by an official spokesman for the Rabbinate: “According to Jewish law, Jews may not be in a place where idol worship is taking place.”

Idolatry means different things to different people, and considering current controversies surrounding the Western Wall, the spokesman’s statement did not lack for unconscious irony. Nor did Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu’s Christmas message, proclaimed to the world on YouTube: “I want to wish you all the merriest of holidays. … Today, Christian communities throughout the Middle East are in danger,” he said. “This is, of course, not true in Israel. Here, [the] … Christian community participates fully in the life of our country.”

These fine words are construable, should one be so inclined, as an implicit echo of the Crusader mentality: Islam is a menace to Christianity and must be staunchly challenged. It is safer for Christians to entrust their holy places to the Jews.

In December 1998, I attended the marvelous Limmud conference in England, held at the University of Nottingham. In the historic town, I visited Ye Olde Trip to Jerusalem, a pub claiming to be the oldest in the country, dating from 1189 C.E. Why the unusual name, I disingenuously asked the bartender. “It’s from the Holy Wars,” he replied, and sold me a useful brochure, which explained that when King Richard the Lionheart, the storied sovereign of Robin Hood, ascended to the throne in 1189, he “answered the call to crusade against the Saracens who occupied the Holy Land of Christian religion . . . The knights and men at arms who answered his call stopped off for welcome refreshments at the Inn.”

I took the brochure home to Jerusalem.

What the brochure omitted to mention was that after the coronation of King Richard in London, on Sept. 3, 1189, a murderous anti-Semitic riot erupted outside Westminster Hall. This was followed, the following spring, by massacres of Jews in Lynn, Norwich, Stamford and, most fam-ously, York, where more than 150 Jews committed mass suicide rather than be slaughtered. Throughout the period, European Crusaders en route to Jeru-salem expressed their violent enthusiasm by practicing on local Jews before they took their ill-fated whack at the Arabs.

After an exhausting pogrom, they could have stopped for a refreshing pint at the pub.

Israel playing Crusader in the year 2013 is not only ironic, it’s risky.

Stuart Schoffman, a journalist and translator, is a Shalom Hartman Institute fellow.

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