The Palestinian experience in the political state of Israel mirrors, in many ways, the African American experience in the United States — that’s the core message of a discussion tonight between Dr. Mitri Raheb, a Lutheran minister from Bethlehem, and Madison’s Dr. Everett Mitchell to be held at 7 pm tonight at Christ the Solid Rock Baptist Church, where Mitchell is senior pastor.
“I think bottom line is that you still have this, what people call ‘white supremacy,’ and that is very much actually mirrors Jewish supremacy” in Israel, Raheb said in an interview Tuesday.
Raheb, who has become known as an outspoken and sometimes controversial critic of the Israeli state, also hopes to dispel some myths Americans might hold about his home city, which Christian tradition also holds as the birthplace of Jesus.
“People, when they hear ‘Bethlehem,’ they think Israel, but Bethlehem is not in Israel. Bethlehem is in Palestine,” Raheb said. “Secondly, people, when they hear ‘Palestinian Christians’ they think these Christians were converted by some missionaries from the Midwest and they forgot that Christianity started there, that the Bible did not originate in the Bible Belt.”
Raheb also wants Americans to know that in some ways Bethlehem is a city under siege.
“What the Palestinians are looking for is for freedom, which is supposedly an American value, they are looking for equality which is, again, an American value,” Raheb said. “They are looking to have the opportunity not only to survive but to thrive. What many people maybe don’t know is, like the city of Bethlehem that they sing about every Christmas Eve, ‘O Little Town of Bethlehem’, is … surrounded from three sides by twenty-five foot high wall. It’s like a big prison.”
That wall was the topic of Raheb’s talk last night, titled “Hope in the Shadow of the Wall, at the First Unitarian Society — which, Raheb noted, shares a space with a Jewish synagogue.
The Bethlehem wall also parallels, in Raheb’s mind, the wall President Donald Trump wants to build on the southern border of the United States.
“If you look at the change that happened in this country it’s a bit frightening,” Raheb said. “It has nothing to do with Democrats and Republicans I think, but imagine in ’89, President Reagan telling Gorbachev, ‘Mr. President, tear down this wall!’ And now being in the context where … I was listening to (Trump’s) speech somewhere here in the Midwest lately and the crowd was shouting all the time, ‘Build this wall!’ This is not the U.S. I came to know. But when I talk to African-American friends, they were telling me ‘You were just experiencing a portion of the American society before. You were not seeing the whole scope.’”
Raheb said the connection with Mitchell, who recently visited him in Bethlehem, is an important one.
“As an African-American leader in this Society, his voice has certain weight and credibility,” he said.
He also said it’s important for members of different marginalized populations to work together.
“The more I travel globally, the more I can connect the dots, and the more I see actually we’re all fighting for the same world, and fighting against the same systemic oppressive systems,” he said. “Political, social, and economical. Against the same players, most of the time. And so I think we would have no chance to advance our cause unless we work stronger together and we join forces. This is very important. For me, more and more I see the African-American struggle as part of my struggle. Native-American struggle is part of my struggle. But also, the good thing is also that there are so many, say white middle-class American Christians and non-Christians who are also committed for social justice.”
Raheb said he’s visited Madison four or five times in the past ten years and had always found a welcoming community. “Our friends here are progressive, liberal, interested in social justice issues, passionate about justice in the world. Mainly people of faith and people who really are engaged in social justice issues,” he said.
Raheb’s visit is sponsored by Bright Stars of Bethlehem, founded 15 years ago by a group of Americans who, Raheb said, “came to visit Palestine and saw the situation there, saw the need, and they believed that together we can make a difference. They started bringing groups to Bethlehem to know more about the situation going in, but also they … thought that there is an important task to educate the American people about what’s happening in Palestine.”
Raheb is also a founder of Dar al-Kalima University College of Arts and Culture in Bethlehem, where about 500 students study art and media production. “It’s the first and only in Palestine that focus on arts and culture,” Raheb said. “It’s basically training the next generation of future creative leaders that can tell the story of all this in a creative way.”
Tonight’s talk at 7 pm at Christ the Solid Rock, 1502 Parkside Drive in Madison, is free and does not require advance registration.