Elias Chacour was, at the time this book was written, a Palestinian priest who had become a prominent international campaigner for peace and justice in the Middle East. Twice nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize, he has since then been nominated again and has been the recipient of other awards.

Chacour was born in the Christian Arab village of Biram in northern Galilee. He was a boy in 1947 when Jewish soldiers, to whom the villagers had shown hospitality, forced the people to leave Biram with nothing. After two weeks – days spent scrabbling for food, cold nights spent under trees and in grottoes – they tried to return to the village as they had been promised they would be allowed to do. Instead, they were driven off and had to find sanctuary in the neighbouring village of Jish. Chacour's father, elder brothers, and the other men of the village were later deported to the West Bank. Working their way around Jordan, Syria and Lebanon, the Chacour men eventually managed to cross back over the Israeli border secretly. After this, the family were allowed to continue living in Jish as Israeli citizens but internally displaced people. Meanwhile the lands of Biram, including the Chacours' olive groves, were given to Jewish settlers. (The story of Biram – or Bir'im – also appears in William Dalrymple's From the Holy Mountain.)

This is mainly background to a book that concentrates on Chacour's experience and struggles from the time of his ordination in 1965 when he became parish priest in the village of Ibillin, also in Galilee. In part, his struggles are with the Israeli authorities: the continuing efforts of the people of Biram to return to their village; the construction of a school in Ibillin in defiance of the Israeli authorities' refusal to grant a building permit; the peaceful defeat of the Jewish farmers who, with the assistance of Israeli police, attempt to take over an abattoir and drive out its Christian and Muslim workers.

However, he must first overcome the hostility and suspicion of his own Melkite community, the feuds among them, and the divisions between the Melkites and the Orthodox Christians, Muslims, and communists of Ibillin. This is a task he accomplishes with energetic good humour, most memorably by locking his own congregation into their church until, shocked by their crazy priest, they reconcile with one another.

Chacour emerges as a rather stubborn man – but one also determined to use active but completely peaceful means. Based on his knowledge of Aramaic, he tells us that the conventional rendition of the Beatitudes is misleading: the passive “Blessed” in “Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for justice” would be more faithfully translated as “Go on, do something, move”. The results of his efforts are mixed: Mr Shmueli of the Israeli Ministry of Education proves to be a sympathetic figure, while Golda Meir, unsurprisingly, is described as being cold and stonelike. Though he doesn't win all his battles, he does win many people over with his tireless enthusiasm. In this, he is the antithesis of a fellow priest who he assesses as being unable “to light a fire” among the Christians.

The latter quote comes from a passage describing one of several clerical intrigues which he deplores and recounts with an entertaining lack of diplomacy. He clearly relishes challenging people – especially those above him in the church hierarchy – and telling us about the results. There are ambitious, corrupt priests; bishops who cultivate sycophancy; political machinations to oust the good Lebanese bishop Joseph Raya. On a visit to Rome, Chacour addresses a meeting of hundreds of Catholic superiors general, criticizing, among other things, the preponderance of foreign bishops in the Holy Land; when he is challenged by a cardinal, he replies with such eloquence (reproduced in the book) that everyone applauds, silencing the stentorian cardinal.

Occasionally a dubious note is struck. At the beginning of the book, Chacour encounters a hostile Israeli policewoman at Ben Gurion airport. After the charismatic priest talks to her about the humiliation she and her colleagues are inflicting on Palestinians, she turns away with tears in her eyes. It may be that this is true, yet it is hard not to be a little sceptical [1]: are those tears a dramatic touch, perhaps one introduced by Jensen? There are other places where the voice of the ghost writer can be distinguished from that of Chacour. On the whole, however, she has done a good job and the simple prose reads well.

Chacour has a strong message and tells a good story, making this an enjoyable, optimistic book as well as an interesting account of the continuing discrimination endured by those Palestinians who after 1948 managed to remain in what became Israel. If it sometimes seems to veer towards boastfulness then we may remember the observations of psychologists and preachers of a century ago that “instincts are ennobled by their uses” and that no man should be a minister unless he has a “quality that kindles at the sight of men”. Chacour is clearly such a person: one cannot but be impressed by him.

Book review © 2007, 2009 Michael Breen

[1] Not that the tears are wholly incredible: Avraham Burg, for example, describes his son crying on military service in the West Bank when he suddenly saw his position as occupier and oppressor in perspective. Even if true, however, they are unlikely to impress those who have been at the receiving end of inhumanly degrading treatment at Ben Gurion airport. Victims are not only Palestinians, but also anyone thought to sympathize with them – including, as reported by Jonathan Cook, a Holocaust survivor in her late seventies who was strip searched. Similar reports abound.