In a fascinating essay published in Mosaic, Edward Rothstein writes about a recent exhibition at New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art on “Jerusalem 1000-1400: Every People Under Heaven.” According to Rothstein, the exhibition was “sumptuous and ecstatically received,” and Rothstein’s detailed descriptions as well as the glimpses provided at the museum’s website make it easy to imagine that visitors were captivated by the displays and the narrative that was presented.
But as Rothstein demonstrates, the narrative presented in the exhibition (and the catalog) glossed over Jerusalem’s rather bloody medieval history, evoking instead 21st century fantasies of inspiring multi-culturalism. Rothstein argues in chapter IV – which deals with the Met’s failure to adequately present the Jewish connection to Jerusalem (while at the same time ignoring how oppressed Jews were under both Christian and Muslim rule) – that “[n]ot only was no notice taken of these matters but, among the three faiths, a tendentious impulse was at work in the exhibition to celebrate Islam above the other two and, in particular, to claim benignity for Islamic rule.”
According to Rothstein (III), the exhibition presented Christian Crusaders as the primary perpetrators of “Holy War:”
“The Crusader conquest of Jerusalem was, we were to think, a kind of one-off example of ‘extreme ethnic and religious cleansing.’ […] it was the Crusaders who ‘fueled’ the idea of Holy War, turning jihad—until then a concept of spiritual struggle alone—into one of military struggle. So the Crusaders not only introduced Holy War, they also caused Muslim leaders to distort their own religious teachings by adopting a kind of Holy War in response.”
As Rothstein rightly points out:
“If this argument sounds familiar, it should: a similar argument has gained much traction in recent years among those who regard 9/11 and other Islamist terrorist attacks as a form of deserved blowback for prior Western offenses against Muslims. Intent on its own version of this judgment, the exhibition portrayed the Crusaders as both the single exception to, and the primal cause of any further disruption of, the multicultural paradise of medieval Jerusalem.”
Outlining just some of the atrocities that were not perpetrated by the Crusaders, Rothstein provides a rather long list of major incidents that were completely ignored in the exhibition:
“no mention was made of the Muslim massacre of Christians in Jerusalem in the 10th century—long before the Crusader conquest. As Eric H. Cline points out in Jerusalem Besieged: From Ancient Canaan to Modern Israel:
‘When the Byzantine armies won a series of victories in the field against the forces of Islam toward the end of May 966 CE, the Muslim governor of Jerusalem—who was also annoyed that his demand for larger bribes had not been met by the patriarch of the city—initiated a series of anti-Christian riots in the city. Once again churches were attacked and burned in Jerusalem. The Church of the Holy Sepulcher was looted and was so damaged that its dome collapsed.’ […]
In 1070-71, the Turkic emir Atsiz ibn Uvaq al-Khwarizmi captured the city, and six years later he murdered 3,000 Islamic rebels who had plotted against him, including some who had taken shelter in the al-Aqsa mosque. En route to Jerusalem in 1187, Saladin, founder of the Ayyubid dynasty, slaughtered Christian communities throughout the Holy Land. Later, in 1229, despite the city’s alleged centrality to Islam and just decades after the fall of the Crusaders, a subsequent Ayyubid ruler offered Jerusalem to Frederick II, the Holy Roman emperor, in return for military assistance against a Muslim rival for power. In 1244, another Ayyubid ruler lost control of Jerusalem to Khawarezmi Turks who murdered much of the city’s population. In 1263, almost at the center of the era covered by the show, the Mamluk general Baibars attacked Acre and other cities held by Crusaders. As the historian Simon Sebag Montefiore relates in Jerusalem: The Biography, Baibars ‘received Frankish ambassadors surrounded by Christian heads, crucified, bisected, and scalped his enemies, and built heads into the walls of fallen towns.’”
As it is hardly possible to convey the breadth of Rothstein’s essay in just a few choice quotes, anyone interested in this excellent deconstruction of yet another effort to sanitize history in the service of current political correctness should really take the time to read this superb piece.
In his concluding section, Rothstein mentions two other critical reviews. One is by Diana Muir Appelbaum, whose observations include the interesting point that there were “a number of magnificent Qurans on exhibit,” conveying the entirely inaccurate idea that Jerusalem is mentioned in the Quran. The other critical review Rothstein cites is by Maureen Mullarkey, who denounced the exhibit as part of the kind of “jihad-by-other-means” that in her view was also promoted by UNESCO:
“The exhibition was fortuitously timed. Installed at the end of September, it opened shortly before UNESCO’s October 13 resolution to override thousands of years of Jewish ties to Jerusalem and negate any exceptional Jewish connection to the Temple Mount and the Western Wall. By the time day trippers work their way through the galleries, they will have absorbed impressions that lend credence to the UNESCO directive.
Call it jihad-by-other-means.”
A critical Wall Street Journal op-ed under the title “Rewriting the History of Jerusalem” also noted that both UNESCO and the Met exhibition were attempting “to redefine the capital of Israel as a supranational city to which Muslims, Christians and Jews have equal claim,” rejecting “both efforts” as “equally deluded.”