On History Repeating Itself, or Not...
Updated: Jun 21, 2019
The idea that the modern State of Israel and the medieval Crusader Kingdom of Jerusalem share a common destiny is one that has found an eager audience among those who regard the medieval Christian crusades and the Zionist establishment of a Jewish state as injustices against Islam that need to be rectified. For a historian, whether or not analogies such as this are academically justified is debatable. Does history indeed repeat itself, and can we actually learn anything from the past? There are always many factors that make seemingly reasonable comparisons problematic. But there are some issues that seem to beg comparison Here are two minor, but interesting examples.
Towards the middle of the twelfth century conditions of security in the Kingdom of Jerusalem greatly improved. Expansion of the kingdom's defences made it possible for the first time for the minority Frankish (Western Christian) population to settle outside the cities and fortresses in the open countryside. For a brief period, probably not much more than two decades, there was a considerable movement of settlers from the cities into the countryside. To facilitate this movement, the authorities made use of a method that was being employed in Europe at the time - the establishment of planned villages set up along existing roads, with the division of land into elongated housing and farming plots on either side of the street; a distinctive form that has come to be known as a 'street village'. They had the advantage of being easy to establish and easy to administer.
After the Battle of Hattin (1187) and the loss of much of the kingdom's hinterland, these villages disappeared entirely from the landscape. However, in the late nineteenth century they quite suddenly reappeared. It was once again Europeans (Zionist settlers and Protestant Templers) who reintroduced this type of settlement, with its advantages of prompt establishment and ease of administration.
In another parallel, in Israeli cities, the exorbitant cost of housing is an issue that, like most other matters, has not been alleviated by the promises of politicians. Purchase or rental costs have made the possibility of living in Tel Aviv or Jerusalem beyond the reach of many young couples. There are a number of reasons behind this, mainly but not solely bureaucratic. One reason for a dearth in housing is the phenomenon of the absentee landlord. Spurred on in some cases by a rise in antisemitism, sometimes by other issues, large numbers of mainly American and French Jews have over the past decade or so purchased houses, whole apartment buildings and even, in one case in Jerusalem, an entire neighbourhood. However, rather than settling in these houses, they generally remain unoccupied for most of the year, inhabited only for a few days when their owners arrive to spend the festive season in the Holy Land.
This phenomenon was also one that faced and worried the leadership in Jerusalem in the early years of the twelfth century. When the city was occupied by Christians at the conclusion of the First Crusade in July 1099, the empty houses, whose former Muslim and Jewish owners had either fled or been slaughtered, were occupied by crusaders. However, at the conclusion of the crusade many of them returned home to Europe, but without relinquishing ownership of the houses. The resulting lack of available housing prevented new Frankish settlers from making their home in the city, which remained largely empty. To alleviate this problem a legislation known as the assise de l'an et jour (Law of a Year and a Day) was passed. It ruled that if a landlord left his house untenanted for that period, he would forfeit its to anyone who occupied it in his place. Somehow, I doubt that this solution would resolve the issue faced by the Jerusalem municipality today.
These are two examples of how similar problems are sometimes faced at different times, and how similar solutions are sometimes appropriate, but sometimes are probably not. That, I am afraid, only leads to a renewed realisation that history is capricious.