One hardly expects the British Broadcasting Corporation to present an objective or comprehensive picture when it addresses the Middle East. But a recent BBC radio documentary may set some sort of record for myopia.
The second installment of a series entitled “The Crescent and the Cross” aiming to examine “turning points in the relationship between Christianity and Islam” focuses on the Third Crusade.
Not long after the death of Islam’s founder, in the early 7th century, Muslims captured parts of the holy land, including Jerusalem. But Jerusalem, the documentary text explains, “had great religious significance not only for Muslims but for Christians too.” And thus were born the marches of death and destruction known as the Crusades. In 1099, Christian soldiers took the city.
At the end of the 12th century, after nearly a century of Christian rule, Jerusalem was re-conquered by Saladin, Sultan of Egypt. Pope Gregory VIII called for a Crusade – the third – to retake the city, and Richard I of England (“the Lionheart”) captured much of the Holy Land but stopped short of asserting Christian rule over Jerusalem, negotiating a treaty with Saladin that allowed Christian pilgrims to enter the city. All of this is dutifully reviewed by the program.
The Crusades, of course, had great impact on Jewish communities as well. Thousands of Jews in communities along the Rhine and the Danube were massacred by participants in the first Crusade; and Jews fought and fell alongside Muslim defenders of Jerusalem when the Christians invaded. Unknown numbers of Jews were slaughtered in subsequent Crusades as well. But the documentary’s concern, as per its title, is the Christian/Muslim nexus. Jewish victims of the era’s wars, no matter their numbers or the hatred directed toward them, are regarded by the program as peripheral casualties.
What is remarkable, though, is that while the documentary amply describes the conflicting claims of Muslims and Christians to Jerusalem it somehow neglects to note that the original revered edifice that stood in Jerusalem – what initiated its veneration as a holy city – was the Jewish Temple. The BBC treats the Temple’s site as if it came into being ex nihilo in the Byzantine Period.
The myopia morphs into truly monumental chutzpah with the documentary’s droll observation that today “the Crusades are seen by many Muslims as evidence of unceasing Western aggression against their faith,” and that since “it is the Jews who control most of Jerusalem… many Muslims see that as a continuation of the crusaderism.”
The microphone is then offered to Dr. Mohsen Youssef of Birzeit University, who endorses that view and adds a prediction: “It took the Muslims 200 years to get rid of the crusaders; many Muslim people believe that they will defeat Israel in much less time than 200 years.”
And so, an ignorant but attentive student of the BBC will conclude from the network’s history lesson that Jerusalem is sacred to Christians and Muslims, and that adherents of the two faiths have fought over it for centuries. He will further be given to understand that the city has been usurped in our own day by Jewish newcomers who, understandably, are regarded by the Muslims who held it before 1967 as new crusaders.
What our novice historian won’t have been taught is that the Jewish people, too, have an ancient connection to the Holy Land and the Holy City – in fact, an older and stronger one than anyone. Neither Christianity nor Islam, after all, even existed when the Jewish Temple in Jerusalem functioned for centuries as the focal point of the Jewish people. And over the centuries since, no Christian or Muslim ever prayed even once, much less thrice daily, that G-d “gather us to our land” and “return in mercy to Jerusalem Your city,” or that “our eyes see Your return to Zion.” No, only Jews have ever done that; only Jews, in fact, have been doing that without interruption for thousands of years.
The ugly icing on the rancid cake whipped up by the BBC consists of the sentiment conveyed by the sole Jewish speaker featured in the installment, a professor at Hebrew University.
Asked about the fact that Arabs identify contemporary Jews with the crusaders of the Middle Ages, his response provides the installment’s final comment. “It is nonsense,” he responds. “What is the relevance of what happened 800 years ago to the present?”
The professor thus dismisses history as bearing no pertinence to the present. He is, of course, astoundingly wrong, and is given the last word by the documentary not to promote his point of view but rather to expose his utter cluelessness. The BBC knows well that the import of the past on the present is both real and critical.
What it somehow misses, or chooses to ignore, is that history extends farther back than 800 years.
© 2009 AM ECHAD RESOURCES
[Rabbi Shafran is director of public affairs for Agudath Israel of America.]
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