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The Wrath of Jonah: The Crisis of Religious Nationalism in the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict

By Rosmary Radford Reuther and Herman J. Reuther
Fortress. 2002. (2nd ed.) 320 pp. Pb. $18.00. ISBN 0-8006-3479-9

—reviewed by Daniel Durway, Raleigh, N.C.

Most Americans know what is going on in the Middle East, but few Americans know why it is going on. Indeed, according to Rosemary Radford Ruether and Herman J. Ruether, theologian and political scientist, respectively, "Much of the world does not know the actual history" (p. iv).

Thirteen years ago the Ruethers produced the first edition of The Wrath of Jonah during the first intifada. They were associated with the Palestine Human Rights Campaign and “kept abreast of daily events on the ground through the DataBase Project on Palestine Human Rights” (p. xiv). In 1987, the year before the first edition was published, they taught at the Tantur Ecumenical Institute located between Jerusalem and Bethlehem, the border between Palestinians and Jews, where they became well acquainted, apparently, with representatives of both groups.

In this second edition, and in the midst of the current intifada, they revisit the land, the people, the history and the ideology that lock the peoples in conflict. They boldly analyze and update the elements involved and, finally, offer “Postcript 2002,” suggesting ways the situation can be ameliorated.

The book’s title, The Wrath of Jonah, is derived from the story of Jonah in Hebrew Scriptures. Two themes in the Jonah story are central to the book: repentance and mutual acceptance between nations, as peoples equally created and loved by God. The Ruethers maintain that one important step toward repentance lies in “telling the truth about the history of both people.” Thus the starting point is the history of the region and the peoples to provide a first step toward a theological and ethical critique. From the outset the Ruethers do not mince words about the layers of falsification that they contend have been deliberately laid atop the Palestinian people so that Israel may dominate them and eventually expel them.

Pt. 1, Ch. 1, examines “The People, Covenant and Land in Judaism, Christianity and Islam.” These topics are quite familiar to those of us who have studied and taught the Bible and perhaps visited the Holy Land. Nevertheless, the weaving together of the stories of these religious peoples in this land reveals a fresh texture, including elements that may have been omitted in studies of the Hebrew Scriptures.

Although Christians may be knowledgeable about the covenant, the people and the land, most of us are not knowledgeable about the historical development of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Pt. 2 introduces the historical development of Zionism as a movement and an ideology, rooting it in Kabbalistic mysticism, a belief that the human being can contribute to the healing of Creation. “Kabbalistic messianism provided a religious vision upon which secular Zionists would draw” (p. 42). Later, religious Zionism would seek to synthesize secular Zionism with these earlier Kabbalistic roots. In addition, various kinds of Zionism are introduced plus some unfamiliar names of players in the Zionist movement. Important elements in the complex history of Christian relationship to Zionism are also explored.

Perhaps the most important part of the book contains the chapters on “The Emergence and Survival of Palestinian Nationalism” and “Contradictions of the Jewish State.” “The magnitude of the repressive violence suffered by Palestinians illustrates the fundamental attitude of Israel toward them, as a people who are seen as having no right to exist” (p. 127). The negative stereotyping of Arabs pervades Israel’s publications, including children’s literature. “The Arab is typically viewed as a congenital liar and thief, lazy, aggressive and incompetent” (p. 144). The propaganda created from false ideology by the Jews to prejudice the world against the Palestinians is mind-boggling. The clever use of anti-Semitism by Zionists to soften Europeans and Americans to favor the Zionist project is revealed. The way the law is shaped to deprive Palestinians of their lands and homes, and even the water under their land, will shock the uninformed reader. Palestinians cannot travel from one place to another without going through grids and being checked. They cannot always get medical attention when they need it. The documentation alone in this part is worth the price of the book.

Pt. 3 presents “Christian Relations to Judaism and to Zionism” using quotations from sources in the Vatican, the World Council of Churches, American fundamentalists and Arab Christians. Finally, the Ruethers explore the “Jewish and Christian Response to the Holocaust: The Link to Zionism” and conclude with “Zionism and International Justice: A Theological and Ethical Evaluation.”

If you have not availed yourself of the first edition of this book, then this second edition will help to unscramble the false claims and concepts that have been disseminated by the media and our own government. Churches can use this book to study the development of the conflict that inflames the Middle East today. Coupled with the daily news reports, the information can help Christians take action for peace and justice, if only to write a letter to a government representative.