Shared links to distant past strained by centuries of bitterness Painful memories shape attitudes

November 04, 1991|By Mark Matthews | Mark Matthews,Sun Staff Correspondent

MADRID, Spain -- The reigning king of Spain might have twitched for a moment last week when Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir of Israel said Israelis "are the only people, except for a short Crusader kingdom, who have had an independent sovereignty" in the Holy Land.

One of the relics King Juan Carlos carries around is the title King of Jerusalem, handed down from a Crusader ancestor who lost the place to the more memorable Muslim warrior Saladin.

It might also have been observed that after Saladin's victory, the Muslims held sway over Jerusalem for more than seven centuries. But when it comes to negotiations like the ones being held here about who should possess the Holy Land, history is largely the function of selective recollection.

And, although King Juan Carlos might not care at all about a title covered with the dust of a near-millennium in the royal attic, the history of the Middle East weighs heavily on the modern belligerents gathered in the Spanish capital.

Each of them shares roots in ancient civilizations that produced three great religions.

The Israelis date their claims back four millenniums to the time of Abraham.

It was no fault of theirs that a renegade Jew named Jesus of Nazareth walked into history more than 2,000 years later and gave birth to a religion eventually adopted by the Europeans who would torment them for many centuries. Or that six centuries after that, Mohammed would claim prophecy from God, start the most recent of the world's monotheisms and leave his followers believing that he ascended to heaven from Jerusalem, the same place the other two claim as their holiest shrines.

The parties in Madrid all feel some link to that ancient past, but they agree on little that has happened since. Passions and bitter memories shape their attitudes and guide their tactics.

Jews, said Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir, "are the only people who have lived in the land of Israel without interruption for nearly 4,000 years."

Not so, said Syrian Foreign Minister Farouk al-Sharaa:

"Arabs are the only people who have lived in Palestine for thousands of years," he said.

The two men draw wildly divergent lessons from the Jewish Diaspora. To Mr. Shamir, it was 2,000 years of wandering, yearning for Israel since the destruction of the temple in Jerusalem by the Romans.

"Some countries barely tolerated us," he said. "Others oppressed, tortured, slaughtered and exiled us."

Paying tribute to Spanish hospitality this week, he couldn't avoid mentioning the expulsion of Jews from Spain 500 years ago. (He did not mention the Inquisition's brutal oppression of Muslims.)

Syria's treatment of its Jews is the latest manifestation of Diaspora hostility, according to Mr. Shamir.

"The ancient Jewish community in Syria has been exposed to cruel oppression, torture and discrimination of the worst kind," he said. "Most of the Jews fled the country over the years, and the few thousand left are living in perpetual terror."

Mr. al-Sharaa bitterly rejected that, saying that the Diaspora saw Jews living among Muslim Arabs "without ever suffering any form of persecution or discrimination, either racial or religious."

Jews in Syria, Mr. al-Sharaa said, are treated the same as other people under Syrian law. Mr. Shamir would have them granted a special status, he said.

For Israelis, the Nazi Holocaust that eliminated one-third of the world's Jews is catastrophic proof of their need for a permanent home with secure borders and its own defenses. And Haj Amin al-Husseini, the Muslim mufti of Jerusalem, collaborated with the Nazis in the days leading to World War II, Mr. Shamir said.

Arabs reject any responsibility for the suffering, but some say they are being made the victims of Jewish grievances against others.

Jordanian Foreign Minister Kamel Abu-Jaber said Israel "continues to cling to yesterday, nursing its mental and physical wounds."

More recent history, which includes five wars in four decades, triggers personal memories and still-fresh anger.

Mr. Shamir said the Jews settled a barren land that "no one wanted."

Palestinian spokeswoman Hanan Ashrawi retorted that Mr. Shamir was trying to legitimize Israel's occupation of Arab land and "negate not just our history but our national identity."

The Israeli prime minister said Arab rulers attempted to overrun the Jewish state even before it was born and have since waged a continuous war against it, enlisting Cold War friction, the United Nations and the plight of Palestinian refugees in their quest.

The Syrian foreign minister blamed Israel's "settler-colonialist" policies for the uprooting of millions of Palestinians, Syrians and Lebanese from their homes.

For now, all parties have agreed to sideline the toughest dimension of the dispute -- religion -- postponing for at least four years negotiations over Jerusalem's future.

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