Caught in Between: The Story of an Arab Palestinian Christian Israeli

By Riah Abu El-Assal (Bishop of Jerusalem)

SPCK, 1999 | ISBN 0-281-05223-9

Reviewed by Merle Harton, Jr.

This book, by the Anglican Bishop of Jerusalem, is an enthralling, sometimes poignant, and often exasperating tale of several identities in crisis. This is less a book about the Episcopal church and far more a book about the Arab-Palestinian search for identity and the increasing isolation of the Christian community in Israel today. Written by a man who spent his youth and almost all of his adult life in Palestine, this is also the story of the hard consequences of Zionism, how God might be considered a real-estate agent, and how failure to come to terms with life as a Palestinian Arab Christian in Israel usually leads to emigration.

Riah has been priest of the parish in Nazareth for the past 32 years. This is also where he was born and where, as a child, he drank from Mary's Well. Even apart from intervals of travel, including Episcopal divinity studies in India, Palestine is his home. His ethnic identity is Arab, his mother tongue is Arabic, his faith is Christian, but he is also an Israeli citizen who has nevertheless lived the majority of his life as either a refugee or under political occupation.

The 1947 United Nations partition assigned Nazareth and Galilee to Palestine, but these were forcefully incorporated into Israel in 1948, during which time many historic villages were destroyed. Of the villages that remained, many were later subsumed through real-estate transactions that left their Arab-Palestinians dwellers without homes. In 1948 less than 6 percent of the land in Palestine was Jewish owned. Since that time, 93 percent of the Arab-Palestinian land has been literally confiscated, a state of affairs Riah attributes to land management by the Jewish National Fund, which prohibits the sale of land to Arab Israelis.

Riah writes from a personal vantage point, which often colors the perspective, but his viewpoint is a novel one and inevitably heartrending. For both Jews and Palestinians the Bible is not only a spiritual guide, but also a record of their history and proof of their roots in the land. Native Christians and Muslims in Palestine are alike in having been disenfranchised from their homeland. As one reads a complicated piece of modern Near East history through the eyes of this always-interesting witness, one is of course led to sympathy for the Palestinians' situation.

If Riah has any complaint to make, it is not with the three faiths that find their place in this extraordinary land, but rather with the political aims of a Jewish hegemony that has torn apart both Muslim and Christian homes, as well as human lives, in the process of building a modern Israel. He has much to say about the role of communists in this saga, why he is unable to align himself with the Palestine Liberation Organization, and how a Christian is supposed to live in a land ruptured by the tremors of a unique socio-political force.

This is also a wonderful literary performance, well written, with engaging biography, taut vignettes of recent history, and challenging stands on Christian social responsibility. Friends who want to know more about currents of change in the historic region will find this little book to be stimulating and informative, sad but never dispiriting, and always well worth the reading time.

Copyright © 1999 by Merle Harton, Jr.

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