My crusade against 'crusading'

Machlokes / Controversy

Jewish World Review / Aug. 2, 1999 / 20 Av, 5759

My crusade against 'crusading'

By Alan M. Dershowitz -- RECENTLY IN JERUSALEM, a group of 500 Christians from America and Europe made a pilgrimage to seek forgiveness for the Christian Crusades in which tens of thousands of innocent Jews and Muslims were slaughtered in the name of Jesus. Jesus, of course, bears no guilt for the misuse of his name, but those popes, kings, generals and other leaders who ordered Christian soldiers to put non-believers to the sword deserve a special place in hell and in infamy.

The Crusades, after all, were the prelude to the Holocaust. Entire undefended communities babies, pregnant mothers, and the aged were all slaughtered in the name of religious cleansing. Yet the Crusaders are presented in Western literature as brave, noble Christian soldiers performing a sacred religious duty. There is nothing brave about slaughtering a two-year-old child while his mother watches.

Econophone Now that good Christians have taken the lead in renouncing the Crusades and in seeking atonement for their butchery, the time has come to correct history and to eliminate all positive references to the Crusades. “No one has ever endeavored to apologize for the Crusade,” according to Lynn Green, who directed the “Reconciliation Walk.” The Christian group brought to Jerusalem letters of support from the hierarchies of Lutheran, Catholic, and Episcopal denominations. The Chief Rabbi of Israel, Meir Lau, a Holocaust survivor, greeted the group and told them that “this evil century which we are leaving started with those evil events of 900 years ago.”

But there remains resistance to atonement for an event which was so central to the Christian mission of the Middle Ages. Several years ago, I wrote to the then-president of the College of the Holy Cross in Worcester, Mass., urging him to stop using the name “Crusaders” for the Holy Cross athletic teams. I tried to explain how insensitive to Jewish and Muslim memories was the glorification of crusaders. Surely, a Lutheran athletic team would never call itself the Stormtroopers. Nor would a Catholic school name its team the Inquisitors, after the second-worst instance of Christian bloodletting in this millennium. The president wrote an angry letter back, telling me, in effect, to mind my own business. I wish the Crusaders had minded their own business, instead of traveling through Europe murdering Jews and then reaching the Holy Land where they murdered Muslims and Jews alike.

Whenever I hear crowds yell, “Go Crusaders!” I wonder how many students even know about the Crusades. I cannot imagine that the good students of Holy Cross would allow their teams to be named after genocidal murderers if they knew the history of the Crusades. Leiters Sukkah I am certain that few of them know how strongly their Jewish and Muslim friends must feel about the use of the name Crusaders. As one of the Christians who went to Jerusalem seeking atonement correctly put it, “When you ask a Muslim or a Jew from the Middle East about Christianity, a touchstone for them is often the Crusades. That is the lens through which they view Christian history.” It is important that Christians break that lens so that the process of reconciliation may go forward. The philosopher Santayana said, "Those who do not remember the past are condemned to repeat it." In this century of genocide, ethnic cleansing, and religious warfare, it is important that Christians understand the lessons of the Crusades. I went to a Jewish high school, where we learned about the Crusades from the perspective of the victims. I wonder how many young Christian students learn about the Crusades from the perspective of the perpetrators.

Some may say that since the Crusades ended hundreds of years ago, why bother to seek atonement now? The answer is that the Crusades are still glorified in Christian history, Western literature, and daily usage. If you took a public opinion poll today, you would find that most people have a positive image of the word “crusade.” The President and members of Congress repeatedly use it in their speeches. President Clinton has implored the public to join crusades of different varieties, including the “crusade to prevent the spread of HIV and AIDS” and the “crusade to abolish discrimination in our society.” And a search of the Congressional Record alone yielded over 2,000 instances when Senators and Representatives have used the term “crusade.”

I do not wish to impose rules of political correctness on everyday speech. But when an event is as outrageous, brutal, and unjustified as the Crusades, it is important that we say so in clear and direct terms. Until we eliminate the words “crusade” and “crusaders” from our vocabulary of praise, we will not achieve religious reconciliation. Recently, the Lutheran church formally renounced the anti-Semitic writings of its founder, Martin Luther. Can the rest of Christianity do any less with regard to the Crusades?

Alan M. Dershowitz is Felix Frankfurter Professor of Law at Harvard Law School. Send your comments to him by clicking here.


©1999, Alan M. Dershowitz