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Young historian focuses on religious tolerance

ben_ezraIt’s really not such a big leap to go from Harry Potter to the Sixth Crusade. For Ilana Ben-Ezra, it was simply a matter of following her imagination.

Many students progress from J.K. Rowling’s fantasy world to J.R.R. Tolkien’s re-fashioning of Norse mythology in The Hobbit to Arthurian legend and eventually to medieval history. But Ben-Ezra is taking a larger step: to understanding how one political campaign nearly 800 years ago still applies to today’s socio-political realities.

“My interest lies in how the three major religious groups get along,” says Ben-Ezra, a Binghamton University undergraduate majoring in history and political science. Her research, supported by the Institute for Advanced Studies in the Humanities, fills in details of how Christians, Jews and Muslims could demonize each other.

During the Sixth Crusade in 1228, Holy Roman Emperor Frederick II, already excommunicated by Pope Gregory IX, negotiated control of Jerusalem and several other cities held by Egypt.

Sound like a hallmark for diplomacy over militarism? Think again, Ben-Ezra says. Papal supporters in Italy demonized Frederick for finding a diplomatic rather than military solution. He was demonized both as a propaganda tool and, quite literally, in religious documents portraying him as the Anti-Christ. However, she also found intolerant references to Muslims eventually dried up in German documents.

Ben-Ezra admits her insight faces its limits. She speaks excellent Hebrew and is learning Arabic, but her Latin is rudimentary and she doesn’t speak German or French. She must rely on translations.

However, not all history is written, and Ben-Ezra has talent examining artwork and religious iconography, says Elizabeth Casteen, an assistant professor of history and Ben-Ezra’s adviser. “The material she is working with is material that’s incredibly complex,” Casteen says. “The texts are very, very strange. … You have to see the images themselves as text.”

The Sixth Crusade created as much conflict in Christian Europe as it resolved in the nexus of the three religions in Jerusalem, Casteen says.

“She’s fascinated by questions of identity. She’s fascinated by questions of tolerance,” Casteen says. “It’s part of what makes Ilana’s research incredibly relevant now.”

Ben-Ezra and Casteen hesitate to draw direct parallels between the 13th century and the 21st century, but they have common elements: the demonization of political and religious competitors; the balance between military and political solutions; the ways social groups create self-identity by segregating themselves.

All this from Harry Potter? It’s actually a pretty common progression, Casteen says. Many of her students found their interest the same way, or through the TV series Game of Thrones.

For Ben-Ezra, the Sixth Crusade is one step on a path that started with a major in pre-medicine and may lead to work in policy, Near-Eastern studies, international relations or perhaps law.

“It’s all part of a larger interest,” she says, “in the growth of intolerance.”

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