When Mitt Romney visited Jerusalem in August, he made headlines by stating, “Culture makes all the difference” between Israel’s prosperity and Palestine’s poverty. “Culture” and, he added, “the hand of providence.”
Of course, some people are poor because of cultural conditions that limit their potential. But many also struggle under systemic oppression. Conversely, many wealthy people have indeed inherited a culture of honest, hard work. But the Bible is full of warnings to those who prosper by exploiting others (Jer. 22:13-17, Isaiah 10:1-2, James 2:5-7).
I would like to introduce Romney to my friend Daher Nassar. Daher is a Christian, a Palestinian and a farmer. Daher’s hands tell you he’s endured a life of hard work, making things grow in the rocky soil of his ancestral lands in the West Bank hills near Bethlehem. By many standards, Daher and his family are prosperous. His siblings hold prestigious positions in local educational institutions, and his son has studied in the U.S.
But Daher faces significant obstacles. To reach his family farm, you must climb over large stones and earth mounds placed by the Israeli military to block the road for “security reasons.” This makes transporting his produce much more difficult and expensive.
Israelis from the settlements surrounding Daher’s land have tried to harass his family into leaving, with tactics like uprooting 200 of his family’s olive trees. These settlers claim the land for their own, even though the Nassar family has ownership papers going back to the Ottoman Empire. “I have papers from God,” one settler told Daher.
Many of the structures on Daher’s farm, including houses, tents and animal pens — even an old VW van used as a pigeon coop — have demolition orders against them. His land is under Israeli military law, which rarely grants Palestinians permission to build. And if they build anyway out of necessity, they risk their houses being destroyed.
Daher’s electricity comes from solar panels, because even though the Israeli settlements surrounding him are connected to the power grid, he is denied access. His farm even has special composting toilets to conserve water, because he is barred from the water system that settlements enjoy, which in turn consume on average four times more water per capita than Palestinian communities.
But even if culture makes all the difference, cultures, like people, contain both good and evil. As I’ve experienced both Israeli and Palestinian societies over the last 10 years, I’m struck less by differences in culture than by the differences in power. One stark example of that power dynamic: Since 2000, Palestinians have killed 1,092 Israelis; Israelis have killed 6,614 Palestinians. Power explains the difference in numbers, yet both cultures seem to tolerate the reality on both sides that the majority of the other side’s fatalities are civilians.
Jesus did not ignore power dynamics. To the powerless he said, “Blessed are the poor” (Luke 6:20), subverting the stigma that social structures had placed on them. And he saved his harshest criticism for the powerful who appear pious while ignoring justice: “Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you … have neglected the weightier matters of the law: justice and mercy and faith” (Matt. 23:23).
As we relate to our neighbors, local and global, we do well to discern the role that power plays in whether people are poor or prosperous, and whether our attitude toward them comes from our culture or from our Christ.
This article first appeared in the Mennonite World Review.