Piers Paul Read's Week
Fools step in where angels fear to tread. I opened the Spectator this morning, half-hoping that a letter I sent in last week would not be printed. My last contribution to its correspondence columns, with a letter signed jointly two other writers, was deemed "symptomatic" of the anti-Semitism of the British Press by the Spectator's proprietor, Conrad Black. But I find that my letter heads a page of correspondence under the title Christians v. Jews. These are in response to an article by Melanie Phillips in last week's issue, illustrated by a graphic image of a priest burning the Israeli flag, reporting that certain Christians had adopted "replacement theology", a doctrine holding that God's promise to the Jews of "the land flowing with milk and honey" had been transferred, under the New Covenant, to his new chosen people—the Christians. My letter states that, though a life-long Roman Catholic, I have never heard of "replacement theology", nor heard of any Christian claim to the land of Israel. In a second paragraph, I outline the dilemma of the Christian when considering the legitimacy of the state of Israel. This is that, if it has no divine provenance, then it surely founders on the principle of self-determination which, if it had been conferred on all the inhabitants of the former British protectorate of Palestine (including those displaced after the establishment of the state of Israel), it seems unlikely that they would have chosen to be governed by Ariel Sharon.
As always, when one enters into a controversy, one starts composing rebuttals to one's own arguments. What about the Crusades? Surely they were based on the premise that the Catholic Church claimed sovereignty over the Holy Land? In fact, as I discovered when doing the research for my book on the Templars, it was more complex than that. If anyone claimed a residual sovereignty over the Holy Land after it was conquered by Islam, it was the Emperor of Byzantium, not the Pope in Rome. True, the Popes at the time of the First Crusade claimed a universal sovereignty as Vicars of Christ, and they would insist upon freedom of access for pilgrims to the sacred sites. But the decision of Pope Urban II to call the First Crusade was taken in response to a request for help from the Emperor of Byzantium against the Seljuk Turks, who had defeated his army at the Battle of Manzikiert and now threatened Constantinople. His making the "liberation" of Jerusalem the objective of the First Crusade was not to satisfy a territorial ambition: It was an early instance of "spin". Pope Urban knew that the Frankish knights would not risk their lives simply to save Constantinople, or support a foreign potentate, Christian or not. And when Jerusalem was taken, it became a Kingdom following the feudal pattern prevailing in western Europe at the time.
The crusades have had a bad press for many centuries and are cited as instances of inhuman behaviour by Christians by both Muslims and Jews. My riposte to the Muslims is simple: Who started it? The Christian religion grew peacefully over its first 300 years, whereas Islam, from its inception, was spread through the use of force. Had Muslim armies not been defeated in Poitiers in 732, and before the gates of Vienna in 1683, Christianity would have been obliterated in Europe. There have unquestionably been good and peaceable Muslims; and it is incontestable that the Islamic culture of Baghdad at the time of the First Crusade, and Cordova during the Reconquista, was superior to the Christian culture at the time. But as we see only too clearly today, there is at the core of Islam the concept of Jihad. And how does the Christian defend his church against its treatment of the Jews? Well, here as well one could point to the enmity of many Jews felt towards the Christian religion from its inception. The Saducee establishment conspired to assassinate St. Paul; and, according to Eusebius, Jews enthusiastically joined in the persecution of the Christians by the Romans .
The massacre of Jews in the Rhineland during the First Crusade, and in Jerusalem after its capture, are indefensible atrocities that shocked many Christians at the time. But the overall treatment of the Jews by the Catholic Church during the Middle Ages was perhaps less abominable than we now suppose. It is the old question of whether a glass is half-full or half-empty. Certainly, Jews were confined to ghettos and made to wear distinctive clothing. But given that Christendom was constantly at war with Islam, and that the Jews were, on the whole (and understandably), more sympathetic towards Islam than towards Christianity, and that they were regarded as an ideological Fifth Column, is this treatment worse than, say, the internment of Germans in Britain, or of Japanese in the US, during World War II? It must be remembered that in the Middle Ages dissent from the Christian consensus was considered a poison more dangerous than anthrax, because it led to the death of the soul. Yet, while Protestants were burned at the stake, Jews were not. The oldest Synagogue in France is found in Carpentras precisely because Carpentras was in a county attached to Avignon and therefore ruled by the Popes. It should be remembered that, while Jewish exclusivity—their belief that they were defiled by social contact with non-Jews—antagonised gentiles in the Roman Empire before the time of Christ, the first systematic attempt to exterminate them came when Christianity had lost its sway over the minds of Europeans.
This long and unhappy history of antagonism between the two religions persists today, as we see from two other letters in this week's Spectator—one from Israel Shamir living in Jaffa, another from Robert O'Brien from the US. The latter bemoans the failure of American Catholics to defend their church against the unhistorical slanders, and sees this as evidence of "the lack of vitality to be found in American Catholicism which, frankly, appears moribund". Well, here is a British Catholic doing his bit—or a fool stepping in where angels fear to tread.
Piers Paul Read is the author of Alive: The Story of the Andes Survivors and, more recently, a history of the order of crusading monks, The Templars. His most recent work is a novel set at the time of the Russian Revolution,Alice in Exile.