Israel’s Jewish homeland “is an empire by proxy,” stated Rev. Dr. Mitri Raheb during a September 19 presentation before about 30 in a Georgetown University Center for Contemporary Arab Studies (CCAS) conference room. Hosted by CCAS and the Saudi-funded Prince Alwaleed bin Talal Center for Muslim-Christian Understanding (ACMCU), the presentation showcased his ongoing distortion of the Bible revealed first to Jews for modern anti-Israel agendas.
ACMCU Professor John Voll introduced Raheb, a Palestinian Lutheran pastor from Bethlehem now presenting his new book Faith in the Face of Empire: The Bible through Palestinian Eyes. Voll noted that his ancestral Sweden had awarded Raheb the Olof Palme Prize, “signifying your international stature as a major peacemaker.” “We have a peace worker here,” Voll stated.
Analysts of Raheb’s Israel-bashing would demur. A supporter of Palestinian Liberation Theology, he peddles theories discredited by DNA analysis and scholarly research that modern Jews have no ancestry in the Jews described in the Old and New Testaments. He posits that Palestinian Arabs like him have greater ancestry from Jews like King David than Israeli Jews like Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, supposed descendants from European Jewish converts.
Raheb thus joins with other like-minded Palestinian advocates who fantasize of a Palestinian people who “have lived on the land of historic Palestine since time immemorial.” He concocts an ancient lineage for a population formed by numerous immigration flows (precisely increased by Zionism) into a territory named by the Romans “Palestine” after the Jews’ historic Philistine enemies as an insult to rebellious Jews. Although today some Israeli Christians are reviving their Aramaic national identity, the Palestinian Authority’s (PA) Basic Law reflects the legacy of the Holy Land’s seventh-century Muslim Arab conquest. The Basic Law proclaims that “Islam is the official religion in Palestine,” the “principles of Islamic Shari’a shall be a principal source of legislation,” and the “Palestinian people are part of the Arab nation.”
Not surprisingly, Raheb was among the radical Palestinian drafters of the 2009 Kairos Document that called for Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions (BDS) against an Israel compared to apartheid South Africa. A simpatico South African audience questioner stated that many South Africans are “asking for a theology of BDS” after similar measures “brought the apartheid regime to its knees.” Yet as the Central Committee of American Rabbis noted in 2010, Kairos is a “factually, theologically and morally flawed document” containing “explicit supercessionism and inherent anti-Semitism.”
Raheb’s remarks made explicit his warped understanding of the “people of Palestine” who, among other things, replace the Jews as the population that calls upon God for a king in the Book of 1 Samuel. He stated that “Palestine was always on the periphery, never, never, ever in the center” in a “place where the magnetic fields of the empires were colliding” throughout Middle Eastern history. While this assessment applies to peoples like the Muslim-majority Arabs, who historically considered Palestine southern Syria and often neglected Jerusalem and its Al Aqsa mosque, for Jews, the only people to ever make Jerusalem their capital, Israel is central.
These imperial “patterns that keep repeating themselves” in the Bible and history left Raheb unmoved by the miraculously revived Jewish national homeland, whose Arab minority enjoys benefits unrivaled in the wider Arab world. “The eyes of the people of Palestine have been crying for centuries, for millennia,” he stated, such that in his book “occupation and Palestine become almost a synonym.” Quoting slain El Salvadoran bishop Oscar Romero, Raheb argued that the Bible could have only originated in Palestine, for “there are things that cannot be seen but through eyes that have cried.”
Raheb’s warped Palestinian hermeneutic gave strained interpretations to well-known Biblical passages. He described how the “unimaginable for Isaiah was to see the lion lying side by side with the lamb,” a “lion that is a vegetarian,” whereby the “lion stands here for the empire and the lamb stands for Palestine.” In Jesus’ Beatitudes, “blessed are the meek, they will inherit the land,” not earth, as Raheb contradicted most translations, for the “land is not the earth, it is Palestine.”
Palestinian Islamic realities placed in doubt Raheb’s vision of Arabs and Jews inhabiting a single Palestinian state of Swiss-like cantons (consider Lebanon’s multicultural experiment). The “project called Israel has failed” as “Israel as it exists is not what the persecuted Jews had in mind” he stated and claimed that Israel cannot survive without foreign aid without any particular evidence. More realistic was his assessment that “also the project called Palestine has failed” amidst strife between Hamas and the PA’s main party, Fatah, leading him “to think beyond the nation-state.”
Raheb elaborated that “giving a state a religious status is very destructive.” “I cannot stand when Netanyahu talks about Israel as a Jewish state or when an Islamic political group talks about Islamic states,” he stated, as if the Jewish national home were equivalent to Islamic theocracy. He opposed the recent In Defense of Christians proposal for an autonomous province in Iraq’s Nineveh plain, even though Iraqi Christians recognize this as their only hope for long term survival.
Raheb’s belief that Palestinians and Jews have equivalent democratic credentials rests on his conflation of Jewish self-reflection and humanism revealed in the Bible (and modern Israel) with Palestinians. In contrast to Middle East traditions of revering political rulers such as pharaohs, “we never ever developed in Palestine this notion of worshipping our king,” he stated, as if Palestinian politics were freer than elsewhere in the region. “As Palestinians we are always making jokes of our leaders” because Palestinians are not “so afraid of our leaders we have to worship them,” a claim many observers of Hamas and the PA would find hard to believe.
A fraudulent interpreter of the Biblical past, Raheb is also a poor prophet for improving any Israeli-Palestinian future. His clumsy attempts to steal Israel’s spiritual and historical legacy for Palestinians disqualify him as a Christian peacemaker. Associations with Raheb only tarnish the reputations of Georgetown University and other institutions.