The hills above Jericho in the West Bank.

Photograph by David McLenachan via Unsplash

Decolonizing Palestine: a review

May 15, 2024

One could easily make the mistake, given the (admittedly still widely suppressed) rise in media coverage of the State of Israel’s genocidal response to the Hamas attacks of October 2023, of assuming Mitri Raheb’s attention to decolonizing Palestine in his new book arises out of the most recent violence.

In reality, this is just the newest installment in what has been an incredibly fruitful authorship over three decades, beginning with his I Am A Palestinian Christian (Fortress Press, 1995). During the same period of his authorship, Raheb has also been an institution-builder and global advocate, founding Dar Al-Kalima University in Bethlehem and launching multiple projects and institutions serving the social needs of Palestinians living in the Bethlehem area, focusing specifically on women, children, youth, and the elderly.

When I started reading Decolonizing Palestine, Raheb’s most recent work, I thought I knew what I was getting into. But I was wrong. Although it is a straightforward analytical work arguing—convincingly—that Palestine must be understood as one of the last anti-colonial struggles in an era regarded as post-colonial, it is also a work that is powerfully convicting of readers like myself who are still beholden, often in ways we don’t recognize, to the propaganda of Christian Zionism.

Miguel De La Torre says it best in his blurb for the book, “As a ‘Christian in the West,’ my biblical understanding of the birthplace of Jesus justifies, reinforces, and contributes to the settler colonialism which oppresses Mitri Raheb, who was born and lives there… Decolonizing Palestine decolonizes my mind by raising my consciousness to show how my understanding of the so-called Holy Land weaponizes the Bible against the people of the land.”

Raheb catalogues, in stunning detail, how endemic liberal Christian Zionism is in the West. Even some of our most lauded liberal theologians and biblical scholars (like Walter Brueggemann[i]) have, while publishing on the Bible and the land, furthered theological worldviews that essentially erase Palestinians and weaponize Scripture against them.

What I find so compelling about Mitri Raheb’s work: the whole really is greater than the sum of its parts. Yes, he’s a Palestinian Christian. Yes, he’s a biblical scholar. Yes, he’s an institutional organizer. Yes, he’s a global advocate for an oppressed people. But what this book does is something else altogether: it’s forced me to re-appraise my own Christian assumptions from the ground up, not just about Palestine and the most recent escalation of a longstanding practice of settler colonialism, but about my own complicity in settler colonialism here at home, and the ways all of that complicity and blindness is intrinsically related to how I’ve read the Bible and believed as a Christian.

Midway through the book, Raheb reports taking a walk in Jerusalem with a theologian friend with whom he wanted to write a book. He reports that when they met to discuss the table of contents of the book, it became clear they had very different perspectives on Jerusalem. “For me, Jerusalem was a real city that I used to visit as a boy on a weekly basis [before Israel put in checkpoints and walls between Bethlehem and Jerusalem]… [my friend] was not particularly interested in the city as it is today. Rather, he was obsessed with ancient Jerusalem, with what once existed, and that alone colonized his imagination” (p. 54).

One could easily make the mistake of assuming Mitri Raheb’s attention to decolonizing Palestine in his new book arises out of the most recent violence. In reality, this is just the newest installment in what has been an incredibly fruitful authorship over three decades.

I too have visited Jerusalem as this theologian did, and I am guilty as charged. I visited because I was in a college study abroad course on the Bible. I was literally there to look at modern Israel (and Jerusalem) through the perspective of ancient Scripture. To the credit of our professor, we also visited many indigenous communities in the areas in addition to historic biblical sites (I still remember our visit among the Druze community with particular fondness), but if I’m honest, most of my mental energy, my “reason for being there,” was centered around history rather than modern reality.

And one thing in particular stands out to me now that I think about it: it never occurred to me while I was there that the modern State of Israel we traveled in was only established in 1948 or that the arrival of so many settlers over the last 100 years would have had any impact on the peoples already living there. To be honest, in my imagination the land of Israel was a kind of blank slate onto which the “people of Israel” had been given the chance to re-establish themselves after World War II.

Raheb highlights throughout his book that settler colonialism, though most clearly being carried out today in Palestine, is a longstanding practice in the West and ideologically influenced by Christian theology. Whether it is in North America, South Africa, or Australia, missionary conquest and native genocide have frequently gone hand in hand (See George Tinker, Missionary Conquest: The Gospel and Native American Cultural Genocide).

Over the past few months, more than one person in my life has asked for an “explanation” for what is happening in Israel-Palestine right now. It’s hard to articulate briefly precisely because it’s been going on for so long, but Raheb better than anyone breaks this down in his opening chapter of the book.[ii] Essentially, he sees the seeds for the re-establishment of the State of Israel in the theological restoration project of the 19th century with many evangelical Christians concentrated on restoring Jewish people to their native homeland (Palestine). In the second stage, the land was taken, Britain withdrew forces, European Jews declared the State of Israel, Arab forces attacked, and in the ensuing conflict, approximately 500 Palestinian villages were destroyed and over 750,000 Palestinians were driven out of their homes (the Nakba).

In other words, from the very beginning the Palestinians needed to be eliminated in order to make the land a terra nullius.

The third stage of settler colonialism was expanding the boundaries. Israel over the course of decades slowly, and then with opportunistic moments, occupied the places remaining to Palestinians, like the West Bank, the Gaza Strip, Sinai, and the Golan Heights.

The fourth stage has been the negotiation of a compromise. Palestinians living under oppressive conditions for decades rose up in 1987. The U.S. became involved in peace deals between Palestinians and Israelis (it is in this era that our own denomination the ELCA published its first faith-based and still primary social statements on the “Israeli/Palestinian Conflict, 1989.”

Mitri Raheb’s latest book forces me to re-appraise my own Christian assumptions from the ground up, not just about Palestine and the most recent escalation of a longstanding practice of settler colonialism, but about my own complicity in settler colonialism here at home, and the ways all of that complicity and blindness is intrinsically related to how I’ve read the Bible and believed as a Christian.

Finally, Raheb argues we are now in the “sealing the deal” stage. Examples include the move of the U.S. Embassy to Jerusalem, and proposals from the Kushner-led Trump contingent to annex lands (primarily in the West Bank). Israel chose not to “legally” annex the land but rather continue its de facto annexation practices.

Raheb in two subsequent chapters moves from this description of how settler colonialism has played out into an ideological critique of Christian Zionism (chapter 2) and a decolonial theology of the land (chapter 3). It is here that I am most convicted. I have simply not, most of the time when reading the Bible, preaching, and thinking in Christian terms, considered how my imaginative overlay of the lands where historically the events of the Bible take place has impacted the actual peoples who live there today.

Raheb argues, “If we really want to understand the Bible’s message, it is of the utmost importance to listen to Palestine’s native people. Their suffering under occupation, their aspiration for liberation, their struggles and hopes are all relevant to exegesis. For the Palestinian people, land is life. It is ancestral heritage. They belong to this land and have nowhere else to go. They experience being made into aliens at home by Israeli policies. They see how Jewish immigrants occupy their land, build settlements, and obtain citizenship, while they, the native people, are marginalized and pushed out. Palestine is their homeland, but Palestinians in the diaspora are not allowed to enter the land of their fathers, whereas Jews are given the right to settle anywhere in Palestine irrespective of where they have come from. The land of Palestine is colonized by the use of military hardware that is justified by theological software. The natural right of Palestinians to the land of their ancestors is violated. This is not an exclusive Palestinian experience and is mired by many native peoples in North and South America, in Southern Africa, and in Australia. It is important to listen to the voice of these indigenous people. The Bible is the book that contains these voices, the voices of the colonized, not the colonizers” (p. 84).

Raheb includes in the biblical chapter a profound meditation on Matthew 5:5: “Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth.” He says he sat with that text for many years and simply thought it was wrong, it couldn’t be true. But then he looked at it from the “longue durée” lens and realized “when empires collapse and depart, it is the poor and the meek who remain. Those people of the land who prosper emigrate and seek to grow richer with the centers of empire. Those who are well educated are claimed by the empire. Who remains on the land? The meek, that is, the powerless! Empires come and go, while the meek inherit the land. The wisdom of Jesus is staggering. It seems to me that we have been blinded by a theology that has failed to help us understand what Jesus was really saying” (p. 89).

Raheb does not signal immediate hope for change any time soon. Far too many geopolitical forces are aligned to continue present realities, and some of the largest media forces on the planet are engaged in perpetuating false narratives. But Raheb has been in this fight a long time, steadily and faithfully remaining in place in Bethlehem in spite of the horrific difficulties. That he can write clear, compelling books while living under such pressure is itself miraculous.

Rev. Clint Schnekloth is pastor of Good Shepherd Lutheran Church in Fayetteville, Arkansas, a progressive church in the South. He is the founder of Canopy NWA (a refugee resettlement agency) and Queer Camp, and is the author of Mediating Faith: Faith Formation in a Trans-Media Era. He blogs at Substack.

The views expressed are those of the author and not necessarily those of American Baptist Home Mission Societies.

[i] Brueggemann, in his 2015 Chosen? Reading the Bible Amid the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict unapologetically connects the biblical promise of the land with the notion of “God’s chosen people,” a theological phrase that is rooted in Christian-Zionist ideology rather than the Bible. Brueggemann then moves swiftly, perplexingly, and uncritically to connect these biblical topoi with modern Judaism and speaks about the State of Israel as “an embodiment of God’s chosen people.”

[ii] A practical footnote. I learned reading this work that many Palestinians and others recognize that a two-state solution is no longer a viable option. I include a brief quote from Raheb on this just to give readers a sense of what he imagines are the next potential positive steps: “While it is, indeed, too late for a two-state solution, it is also too early for a one-state solution while the international community continues to espouse the two-state paradigm rather than confronting the settler colonial approach of Israel. Several political models for a just a peaceful solution exist: a federation, a confederation, or a Swiss model of cantons in which each canton preserves its own cultural identity while cherishing the unity of the people and country. It is not the model that is lacking but the will to end the settler colonial project. Without an end to the Israeli settler colonial project, the entire country is stuck in a situation best described as apartheid” (p. 136).

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