Letter: Problems with Dr. Ruether’s talk

I am writing to express my deep frustration and disappointment with this past Monday’s presentation by Rosemary Radford Ruether. While Dr. Ruether is a highly-regarded feminist theologian, she is not an expert on Middle East history and politics. Regardless of whether one agrees or disagrees with Dr. Ruether’s opinions on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, her presentation was disorganized and rambling, lacking the academic thoroughness and rigor that we should expect from lecturers contributing to the intellectual environment at Grinnell. There were numerous factual inaccuracies and polemical statements in her presentation that belie her stated intention of promoting dialogue and peace around this most important issue.

As examples of the falsehoods in Dr. Ruether’s presentation, consider the following. In the informational sheet she provided, Dr. Ruether claims that Jews did not accept the territorial limits of the 1947 United Nations partition plan. This is patently false—there are numerous archival films showing Jews dancing in the streets with joy at the prospect of having a nation, regardless of the compromises entailed by the partition plan. Dr. Ruether also characterized the establishment of the State of Israel as “compensation” for the destruction of the Holocaust, a cynical and overly simplistic view of the long history of the Jewish Diaspora. She also relies on Stephen Walt and John Mearsheimer, whose work has been widely discredited (Harvard University, where Walt is on the faculty of the Kennedy School of Government, removed its imprimatur from their publications on the subject).

Furthermore, in her talk Dr. Ruether claimed that the first intifada (the uprising lasting from 1987 until the Oslo accords were signed in 1993) was completely non-violent—this claim is patently false. Thousands of both Israelis and Palestinians were either injured or killed during this period. These casualties were anything but one-sided. Between 1990 and 1992, two or three times as many Palestinians were killed annually by other Palestinians than by Israeli forces. Furthermore, in characterizing Israel’s actions in Gaza since the evacuation of the Jewish settlements in 2005 as a violation of the cease-fire, Dr. Ruether ignores the fact that thousands of rockets and mortar shells have been fired each year from the Gaza Strip into populated areas in southern Israel, especially the city of Sderot.

Perhaps more troubling than these factual problems is some of the language Dr. Ruether used to describe the situation. In one case, she used the term “ethnic cleansing” to describe Israel’s treatment of the Palestinians. While I agree that in many cases Israel’s actions may be called unjust or even possibly abhorrent, the use of a provocative term like “ethnic cleansing” is an irresponsible and outrageous claim. The fact is that the stated objective of every Israeli government since the establishment of the State in 1948 has been to live peacefully with Israel’s neighbors, while factions within the PLO and especially Hamas have yet to disavow their explicitly-stated goal of destroying Israel. Israeli troops take extraordinary measures to protect civilians, while Palestinian terrorists routinely target Israeli civilians. In no way should Israel be compared to Holocaust-era Germany, the killing fields in Cambodia or Bosnia in the 1990s by the use of a term like “ethnic cleansing.” Dr. Ruether also characterized Ariel Sharon’s ascent to the Temple Mount on September 29, 2000, as an “invasion,” a clear exaggeration of the facts on the ground. While Sharon’s visit may have been poorly-timed and questionable, it can in no way be seen as an attempt to seize control of the Muslim holy sites on the Mount.

I could cite many other examples of flaws in Dr. Ruether’s facts and reasoning, but the illustrations I have provided should be sufficient to emphasize the need for critical thinking in evaluating the sources of information we use to understand a very complex situation. Dr. Ruether’s one-sided oversimplifications of the facts only did a disservice to the cause of establishing a thoughtful dialogue on one of the most important political problems of our time. I invite all members of the campus community who are interested in pursuing a respectful and well-reasoned dialogue about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict to contact me directly.