Mitri Raheb. Faith in the Face of Empire: The Bible through Palestinian Eyes. Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 2014. See here to purchase the book.
Mitri Raheb is a Lutheran pastor in Bethlehem. He was born in Bethlehem to a family of Palestinian Christians. His father was Ottoman. I learned about this book from Christena Cleveland’s post, 15 Books for Fighting for Justice in the Trump Era. I hope to read more books on that list.
Here are some of my thoughts about the book:
A. Raheb places Israel in the same category as the previous empires that occupied or controlled the land of Palestine and oppressed its inhabitants, such as the Roman empire. In my opinion, what Raheb fails to appreciate, at least in this book, is the emotional and religious connection that Jewish people have with the land of Palestine. They are not merely using the land of Palestine as a strategic buffer, as many of the previous empires did. Rather, they consider Palestine to be their religious homeland. For centuries, even prior to the establishment of the state of Israel in 1948, Jews at their Passover seders said “Next year in Jerusalem.” Therefore, Raheb strikes me as overly optimistic when he forecasts that the Israeli empire will fall, as did previous empires. The Israeli “empire” has a more intense and emotional connection to the land.
B. Raheb effectively describes the oppression of Palestinians at the hands of the Israeli “empire.” In Raheb’s telling, Israelis took the Palestinians’ land, in some cases by violence. Israelis have settled in the West Bank, taking the best land. They put Palestinians through long check-points every day. They physically divide the Palestinians. And Israel is backed by the military might of the West, making Israel militarily superior to the Palestinians, and it uses that might against even non-violent Palestinian protests.
C. Raheb counters when he considers to be myths that have gained acceptance among Christians and in the West. One myth is that the Israelis were like David battling the Goliath of the Arab world in the 1960s. As Raheb notes, the Israelis had plenty of backing from the West! Raheb also challenges the view that the Palestinians are the violent ones or the people who need to be taught non-violence, for he argues that the Israelis have been violent.
D. Raheb is also critical of assumptions held by people who are sympathetic towards the Palestinians. He refers to a woman who claimed that Israel should be kind to the Palestinians because the Torah commands kindness for the stranger. While Raheb appreciates her compassion, he questions her assumption that the Palestinians are strangers, for they inhabited the land, until the Israelis took it. Raheb refers to a cleric who wanted to bring together the sons of Isaac and the sons of Ishmael. Not only did Raheb believe that this cleric had a Messiah complex, but he also questioned the cleric’s assumption that Palestinians see themselves as the sons of Ishmael. Raheb also took issue with using the term “Middle East,” seeing that as a Western designation for the region: east in comparison to whom? The West! I could sympathize with Raheb’s point on the stranger and the sons of Ishmael, but not so much on the term “Middle East.” I do not see that as an ideologically-loaded term that prioritizes the West. Couldn’t one ask about the West, “West in comparison to whom?”
E. Related to (D.), I was unclear about whom Raheb believed that the Palestinians and the Jews are, in relation to the Bible. Does he believe that modern-day Jews are descended from the ancient Israelites in the Bible? He does seem to believe that Palestinians are connected to the ancient Israelites, in some way.
F. Raheb supports a non-violent resistance against the Israeli empire, and the New Testament plays a significant role in the strategies that Raheb promotes. Jesus brought different kinds of people together (i.e., Zealots, tax-collectors), and Raheb supports bringing Palestinians together, when Israelis and the Western empire seek to divide them. Jesus reached out, not so much to the centers of power, but rather to areas on the margins, and Raheb favors mobilizing people on the margins; he is critical of Palestinians who become educated in the West and then neglect the marginalized areas of Palestine. Raheb also supports disinvestment campaigns and what he calls creative resistance, which includes artwork that expresses the Palestinian people’s suffering at the hands of the Israeli empire. Raheb believes that a non-violent approach on the part of the Palestinian resistance can perhaps encourage the Israelis to desist from violence, or at least challenge their violence.
G. Raheb notes that God has failed to intervene against empires throughout history. At the same time, he also observes that empires have risen and waned, and that gives him hope that Jesus is correct in saying that the meek shall inherit the earth (Matthew 5:5). Raheb believes that people today can still do their part to contribute to this vision, by having an alternative, non-violent society that brings people together, as Jesus had in the first century. Does Raheb believe that this will organically lead to peace in the Middle East? Does the Second Coming of Christ, in which Christ returns and overthrows evil, play a role in his vision? The Second Coming was not a salient theme in this book.
H. Raheb’s comparison of Palestinians and Muslims with the political landscape of first century Palestine was interesting. Raheb compares violent insurgents to the Jewish insurgents against Rome in the first century. The Pharisees sought to bring the Messianic Age by encouraging and practicing piety, and Raheb states that this is essentially what Hamas and the Muslim Brotherhood are trying to do: to encourage God to favor them by being especially pious. According to Raheb, while improvements in the political or economic situation are difficult to see, it is noticeable when more people are becoming religious. There are Muslims and Palestinians who hold on to that as a sign that things will get better for them.