Last spring I attended a conference at the newly established St. Olaf Institute for Freedom and Community, which is dedicated to “free inquiry and meaningful debate of important political and social issues.” The institute invited four professors to talk about religious conflict: a well-known Yale theologian about conflict among world religions; an Evangelical from Wheaton about tensions within Evangelicalism; a Palestinian Lutheran leader about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict; and me about discord and schism in the Lutheran churches. I had high expectations that the Palestinian Lutheran pastor, administrator, and theologian Mitri Raheb would “question easy answers and foster constructive dialogue” about that long-standing Middle East clash in which common ground between contending parties is very rare. As it turned out, his lecture was one of the most alarming that I have experienced in a long academic career.
A hint of what was to come preceded the conference itself. When the speakers arrived on a cold April afternoon, I noticed that Raheb was something of a celebrity on campus. Students and faculty gathered to greet him adoringly, partly because his daughter had recently graduated from St. Olaf, but mainly because many students and faculty had visited Israel and the West Bank under his tutelage. They showed up en masse for his lecture.
In the waiting room, the four of us chatted amiably. But then the Yale professor mentioned to Raheb that he had just read a marvelous put-down of Christian Zionism. The two expected the rest of us to nod in affirmation. Being old enough not to care, I mentioned a recent book edited by Gerald McDermott on The New Christian Zionism, in which I had a chapter on Reinhold Niebuhr. I suggested that it represented another view; the room became very silent.
During the walk to the lecture hall, I thought I might find some common ground with Raheb by telling him of Niebuhr’s more pragmatic defense of Israel, though also mentioning that Niebuhr thought it a “peculiar historical miracle” that Judaism had survived in diaspora and in Israel for all these centuries. “Nonsense,” he responded, “there are many peoples who have persisted longer than Israel without becoming an oppressor.” That was the end of our conversation for the rest of the conference.
The first two lectures—the first on tensions among world religions and the second on divisions within Evangelicalism—went smoothly to small crowds without much disagreement in the discussion period.
Then came Raheb. The hall filled up. His lecture, entitled “Religious Diversity, Political Conflict, and the Spirituality of Liberation,” had three main parts: the United Nations resolutions regarding Israeli settlements, the use of religion in the turbulence of the Middle East (which he claimed was a term made up by the colonialists), and the religious and political agendas of Christian Zionism, plus a conclusion on the spirituality of liberation. As the lecture unfolded I became increasingly upset at what he said, and at what the audience actively cheered.
You can see Raheb’s lecture on the institute’s website. I encourage everyone to view it.
Raheb flatly denies that Israel has any historic claim to the land and that there is any connection between biblical Israel and today’s Israel. At his lecture, he showed a video of an Israeli ambassador to the U.N. making that historic claim and likening the current struggles of Israel to those of biblical times. Raheb sharply criticized him, and went on to show another video, this time featuring Robert O. Smith, a pastor of the Evangelical Lutheran Church, head of Notre Dame’s Jerusalem Global Gateway program, and a stalwart in the World Council of Churches and the Lutheran World Federation. Smith was seated before a Boycott Divestment Sanctions (BDS) banner and made these declarations: “The ancient Israelites are not linked in any substantive or material way to the contemporary, modern state of Israel. . . . The biblical narrative of Israel has almost nothing to do with contemporary Israel other than the intentional manipulation of sacred texts to justify a political project.”
Raheb was not using Smith to say tough things he was not willing to say himself. Raheb had made similar remarks at a 2010 Christ at the Checkpoint conference: Modern Jews come from “an East European tribe who converted to Judaism in the Middle Ages.” They are an invented people who have no claim to the land. Indeed, he stated at the same conference, if a blood test were performed on Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and him, he would be shown to have more of the blood of King David than Netanyahu. In his book Faith in the Face of Empire, Raheb even suggests that Jesus was a Palestinian: “Jesus was a Middle Eastern Palestinian Jew,” not a Jewish Jew born in the Jewish town of Bethlehem. This claim mirrors that of “Nazi Christians” who believed that Jesus was the son of a Roman soldier, not really a Jew.
Early in the speech, Raheb quipped—to generous laughter from the crowd—that “it wasn’t the Lord God who promised Israel the land; it was the Lord Balfour.” That is, the land was not part of the Abrahamic covenant God made with Israel; or, if it were promised in biblical times, it was no longer valid. Instead, the colonial British, inspired by Christian Zionism, gave the land to them, and then “used Jews as an instrument of empire.”
Raheb proceeded to reduce Christian faith to a crude liberation theology, one essentially without mention of God’s redemptive work in Christ. Those oppressed by empire (Israel as a tool of the USA) are the Palestinians, whom all good people will support in their effort to end occupation. The faith demands justice for the Palestinians! To top it off, he asserted, the cross of Christ is “the ultimate critique of political and religious terror.” I presume that “political terror” refers to Rome in the ancient world and Israel today; “religious terror” is Jewish in both eras. Jesus is all about “liberation,” not “salvation.” (An alert Lutheran pastor in the audience asked if there were not more meaning to the cross, to which Raheb shook his head, claiming that his “contextual theology” is the way Palestinians interpret it.)
Entirely absent was the reality on the ground: Muslim oppression of Christians in the West Bank, as well as the danger militant Muslims would present to Raheb and his family—and the many West Bank institutions he leads—were he to criticize them or the Palestinian Authority. He spoke not a word about the flight of Christians from his own hometown, Bethlehem, and the protective strategy of Christians in the West Bank to gather into small enclaves distant from their Muslim neighbors.
Focusing on the “occupation” and its injustices—and there are some, to be sure—deflects attention from the sordid reality that Christians in the Middle East have to face from their Muslim oppressors. Few Christians in Israel proper or even in the West Bank would trade their lot in Israel for that of Christians elsewhere in that region. Indeed, the only Middle Eastern country where the number of Christians is increasing is Israel.
Raheb claimed that Israelis and Christian Zionists degrade religion by crassly using it for political purposes. In the video he employed, Smith cast Christian Zionism as pure “political ideology.” True, the second section of Raheb’s talk brilliantly analyzed how Middle Eastern regimes—Egypt, Iraq, Syria, Iran—use religion for political survival when challenged by insurgents, but he was silent about that when it came to the obvious logic of his own position, which also reduces theology to politics. Instead, he worried that pro-Palestinians such as Smith were under great duress on college and university campuses for their views, when in fact those who stand on behalf of Israel and its people are under far greater pressure to remain silent on the “progressive” campuses of America, including St. Olaf.
Much of the rest of the lecture rattled off standard points from the pro-Palestinian side: a one-sided narrative of how Israel came to be; total omission of the progress of Israel as a democratic nation with citizenship for Arabs and other minorities; labeling Israel an apartheid state; no criticism of the treatment of the Jewish communities in the Middle East; and an unbalanced account of responsibility and guilt for the current situation in Israel and the West Bank.
When Raheb finished, I was so disturbed that I considered ditching my own manuscript for an attempt to rebut him. Out of wisdom or cowardice, I know not which, I decided to stick with my topic, the one the institute assigned me. But my expectation that the institute would invite someone to offer a fair-minded reflection on the Arab-Israeli conflict was long gone. Instead of a scholar and theologian, we got a polemicist whose partisan goodies the students ate up. An occasion for discourse became a pep rally.
After the conference, I challenged the director of the institute and the St. Olaf president to invite an articulate Christian Zionist to balance the debate. Both claimed they could not in the near future, but would try to work one in later. Soon after Raheb’s visit, his minions among the students and faculty—“Oles for Justice in Palestine”—held a protest that demanded that a member of the board of the institute be removed because he was connected to a pro-Israel organization (American Israel Public Affairs Committee). They claimed that Christian Zionist presence on the board “poses a serious threat to academic freedom at St. Olaf College.” Thankfully, the administration did not cave on this one. And, I should add, the institute does generally deal with divisive issues in a fair-minded fashion.
I decided to learn more about Raheb and his influence. Raheb has written several influential books that press the Palestinian case against Israel: Faith in the Face of Empire; Bethlehem Besieged; I Am a Palestinian Christian; and, most recently, The Cross in Contexts—Suffering and Redemption in Palestine (2017). He is a one-man wrecking crew, supported by many who are no friends of Israel or of the Jewish people. He is closely associated with the BDS movement and steers churches toward strategies that would destroy Israel if successful.
His distorted witness is not limited to a few lectures here and there. Raheb lectures widely at Lutheran colleges and seminaries in the USA, at least one of which has given him an honorary degree. He is a darling of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, which itself has a dubious program, much influenced by Raheb, entitled Peace Not Walls. (One would think that Lutherans, with their questionable history with the Jews, would not presume to tell Israel how to defend itself.) After he won the Olof Palme Prize, Presiding Bishop Elizabeth Eaton wrote: “On behalf of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA), I congratulate you on being named a co-recipient of the 2015 Olof Palme Prize for your ‘courageous and indefatigable fight against occupation.’” Further, when interviewed by a Palestinian TV station, she offered: “We also engage in selective purchasing. So we not only try to trade with the Palestinian Authority, but we do not purchase products made in the illegal Israeli settlements.”
Raheb has made inroads into the Protestant mainline; he was instrumental in getting the United Church of Christ and the Presbyterian Church in the USA on the bandwagon of the BDS movement. He spoke repeatedly at assemblies leading up to their final decisions to divest. He has convinced many European organizations to participate in that movement. In July he addressed the World Communion of Reformed Churches in Leipzig. He is much honored in America and Europe, having won not only the Olof Palme Prize but also the German Media Award, which is usually given to heads of state.
His response to President Trump’s decision to move America’s embassy to Jerusalem:
The Christmas story starts with an imperial decree signed by Caesar Augustus. As I was watching President Trump’s address Wednesday evening on our television, I could not help but think of the so-called Balfour Declaration signed 100 years ago when the British empire promised Palestine to the European Jews as their national homeland. Trump’s address yesterday was indeed another such imperial decree recognizing Jerusalem as the capital of Israel. Again and again, we, the Palestinian people, are sacrificed at the altar for imperial politics.
As a personal response to Raheb’s outsized influence, I committed myself to teaching and writing about why Israel matters. I am not primarily concerned about the secular state of Israel, though I recognize its importance as the protective canopy under which the covenanted people of Israel exists. That state can be criticized as we criticize other states. Rather, as a Christian, I am concerned about the emergence among Christians of a politically driven supersessionism—a “replacement theology” based on a crude liberation theology. Raheb’s statement about Jews as a medieval Eastern European “invention” is an egregious example, for it denies that they are people of the covenant. This mentality could do great damage to the Jewish cause.
Robert Benne is Jordan-Trexler Professor of Religion Emeritus and research associate at Roanoke College in Salem, Virginia.
Follow the conversation on this article in the Letters section of our May 2018 issue.