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Wednesday, April 2, 2014

Faith in the Face of Empire – The Longview of History

I’ve just begun reading the book Faith in the Face of Empire: The Bible through Palestinian Eyes by Mitri Raheb. [i]  I plan to blog my way through it. 

Raheb is a Christian, an academic, and a Palestinian, writing to present a Christian “theology from and for the Palestinian context (2).”    Maybe this breaks the stereotype we’ve been presented – that all Palestinians are Muslim. (They are not. Some are Muslim, some Christian; some are even Jewish and some are agnostic/atheist) or that all Palestinians are terrorists (this is in no way true.)

The Palestinian story according to Raheb is a long story, one of nearly continual occupation. “Such occupation is the defining feature of our history, beginning with the Assyrians (722  BC), the Babylonians (587 BC),  and the Persians (538 BC), followed by the Greeks (333 BC), the Romans  (63 BC), the Byzantines (326), the Arabs (637), the Crusaders (1099), the Ayyubids (1187), the Tartars (1244), the Mamluks (1291), the Mongols (1401), the Ottomans (1516), the British (1917), and the Israelis (1948/67), to name just the major occupiers (4).”

What strikes me immediately in this brief account of such a long history is that for the first half of it, Palestinian story overlaps the Jewish history.  Through the ebb and flow of history – the surging and receding of changing empires, the Am Haaretz – the “people of the land” have lived in that much contested area of the Middle East, surviving and outlasting empires. They have repeatedly changed their indenty and language in order to survive – now citizens of the Ottoman Empire, now British, now Israeli –  they have repeatedly changed their language – now speaking Aramaic, now Greek, now Arabic, - but they have remained.  “The Palestinian people … are a critical and dynamic continuum form Canaan to the present day.  They are the native peoples, who survived those empire and occupations, and they are also the remnant of those invading armies and settlers who decided to remain in the land to integrate rather than return to their original homelands.  The Palestinians are the accumulated outcome of this incredible dynamic history and these massive geo-political developments (13).”

But this will be contested, fiercely contested by some. Golda Meir (fourth Prime Minister of Israel) famously said, “There were no such thing as Palestinians. When was there an independent Palestinian people with a Palestinian state? It was either southern Syria before the First World War, and then it was a Palestine including Jordan. It was not as though there was a Palestinian people in Palestine considering itself as a Palestinian people and we came and threw them out and took their country away from them. They did not exist.” [ii]  

How can they have a long history to recount (and a history that overlaps the Jewish story) if they never existed?

As Raheb says, “Indeed, they [the Palestinian people] have been totally replaced by the Israelis, as though they never existed, and as if the land had been kept unpopulated or terra nullius (land belonging to no one) (19).”

[i] Raheb, Mitri Faith in the Face of Empire: The Bible through Palestinian Eyes, Orbis Books, Maryknoll, NY, 2014.
[ii] Sunday Times (15 June 1969), also in The Washington Post (16 June 1969)

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