by Cynthia Ozick
Post date: 11.29.06
Issue date: 12.11.06
My Name Is Rachel Corrie:
Taken from the Writings of Rachel Corrie
Edited by Alan Rickman and Katharine Viner
(Theatre Communications Group, 57 pp., $12.95)
On Justice Brandeis's celebrated principle that "the remedy [for free speech] is more speech," it is good and salubrious that My Name Is Rachel Corrie can finally be seen on a New York stage. Last year, when the play was turned away by the New York Theater Workshop apparently because of objections from donors offended by its agitprop banalities, there sprang up, amid the foolish cries of "censorship" (as if the Constitution were being subverted), a newborn legend. The longer the play was absent from local scrutiny, the more romantically its faraway halo might glow: a visionary young woman on the barricades, part heroic Joan of Arc, part victimized Anne Frank, mercilessly cut down in the very act of defying brute injustice.
To have the play actually in hand--the naked script itself--is a down-to-earth corrective. It goes without saying that any play, and this one especially, is both more and less than its script: more, because of the theater's sensuous surround--the emotive ingenuities of set, lighting, and sound; an attractive actor's winning impersonation; the magnetic rapidity of gesture, movement, and voice; and an audience
whose sympathies are already in place, pacified by the play's radiant repute. But it is precisely on account of all these appeals to communal sensation that My Name Is Rachel Corrieis considerably less than its script. Stripped only to print, the play discloses what the theater's dazzlements are likely to obfuscate or diminish. Fortunately, we are assured by the director and co-editor that every word is Rachel
Corrie's own, culled directly from her journals and e-mail messages. Are there incendiary omissions? If so, it hardly matters; what is on the page is revealing enough. This means that we can reasonably trust the script--perhaps understandably manipulated as to selection and sequence--to represent Rachel Corrie as she was, unadulterated by theatrical seductions.
Rachel Corrie, then, as she was. She can be seen in two brief films on Wikipedia. She is in Gaza, a member of the International Solidarity Movement. In one film, she is burning a replica of the American flag. Her mouth is wide, yelling. In the other, she stands fixedly, repeating phrases that appear identically in the playscript; it is as if she has scripted herself, and is speaking by rote. Wound around her neck is the familiar Palestinian scarf, declaring solidarity.
She is twenty-three years old. Though she hopes to become a writer, even a poet, much of what she writes is a facsimile. Her "poetic" passages are an amalgam of Bob Dylan and diluted-to-the-third-generation Allen Ginsberg. Her thinking runs to slogans and robotic abstractions. At ten (her fifth-grade "Conference on World Hunger" speech is reproduced), this formulaic voice is already in training, the boilerplate language already ingrained: "I'm here for other children. I'm here because I care. I'm here because children everywhere are suffering and because forty thousand people die each day from hunger. I'm here because those people are mostly children." In middle school she gets a free trip to Russia (she doesn't say why),
where "everything was dirty." In her teens the spotted owl, suffering from possible extinction, is the fashionable victim of choice. At Evergreen College it is the homeless--including even the suffering salmon struggling through a pipe, "trying to get back home." And after the salmon, the Palestinians. "The salmon talked me into a lifestyle change," she explains.
The International Solidarity Movement (ISM) is neither international in its origins nor spontaneous as a "movement." It is, simply, a front: a creature of the PLO, and under its vigilant supervision. In the United States, recruits are encouraged, partly funded, and trained by the Arab-American Anti-Discrimination Committee. Though the ISM is touted as non-violent, in reality it acts not merely as a shield for violence but as its proponent. One of the leaders of the California ISM, interviewed on Al-Jazeera, is forthright: "We recognize that violence is necessary and it is permissible for oppressed and occupied people to use armed resistance and we recognize their right to do so." Every Friday in Gaza, a day dedicated to sermonic incitements in mosques, the ISM organizes riots at Israel's security fence, erected to deter infiltration by suicide bombers.
Rachel Corrie is portrayed as selfless by her advocates, and as a naïve dupe by others. Yet after some fleeting hesitation--"I'm really new to talking about Israel-Palestine, so I don't always know the political implications of my words"--by the time she is placed in Gaza she is a complicit enthusiast. Arriving in Tel Aviv, coached beforehand on how to elude security, she records "very little problem at the
airport"; she has come forearmed by her recruiters with a referral to an "Israeli friend," who instantly vanishes out of her ken. "I took a shared taxi into Jeru-salem," she continues, "and noticed that the Holy Land is full of rocks." Though she thinks of herself as a poet, on the road to Jerusalem, and bearing the name Rachel (her sister is Sarah, and her brother is called Chris), she is curiously untouched by any biblical resonance: the old, old memory of the land she has come to defy.
"Sometimes," she writes of her mother, "she wondered if we would be healthier, better children if she had taken us to church.... She was determined I would define [spirituality] for myself." On the road to Jerusalem, spirituality is nowhere, and there are only the self-defining rocks--deprived and inert stoniness. No cities, no
society, no greenery, no population, no children, no birds, cats, or dogs, no sign of civilization ancient or renewed. In Jerusalem, in Israel itself, she sees nothing that she is not primed to see: a stony-hearted colonialist state. Israel is a nullity, despite some passing recognition that "Jewish people have a long history of
oppression"--a standardized note immediately canceled by the expected covering cant: "I think it's important to draw a firm distinction between the policies of Israel as a state, and Jewish people."
Her training--she accepts the term willingly--takes place in Jerusalem. Escorted by Palestinians while waiting "to get to Rafah to join the other internationals trying to prevent the demolition of civilian homes," she observes "blue stars of David spray-painted on doors in the Arab section of the old city." She concludes, "I am used to seeing the cross used in a colonialist way." Once in Rafah, she is under military orders. "The neighborhoods that have asked us for some form of presence are Yibna, Tel El Sultan, Hi Salaam, Brazil, Block J, Zorob, and Block O." The new recruits are called on to stand as human shields before arms caches or shooter hideouts. If through some mishap a young foreigner should be hit, all the better: fuel for international outrage. She imagines "the difficulties the Israeli army would face if they shot an unarmed US citizen."
But in fact the "civilian homes" are weapons depots; or else they are outlets, some-times with complicit families still in them, concealing tunnels dug from Egypt to Gaza. The tunnels smuggle guns, rocket launchers, explosives; and the Israeli Defense Force (IDF) is there to stop the flow of arms intended for assaults on Israeli citizens, and to uncover the launchers secreted in olive groves and farms, where the gunmen also hide, or in the houses, where the gunmen hide among women
and children. Rachel Corrie is in a war zone. She cannot not know that she lives and acts among guns and gunmen, or that the children who are everywhere live and play among guns and gunmen.
"Someone had been killed at the Rafah/Egypt border," she reports. She and the other "internationals" are sent directly into the battle area to pick up the body.
We were given a stretcher ... and then we went out--each of us with a handle. We started into the field: five internationals plus Jehan [their Palestinian handler]. Jenny spoke over the bullhorn saying, "Do not shoot. We are unarmed civilians," naming the countries we come from and letting the IDF know our intention to retrieve this man's body. The first response from the IDF was shouting, "Go back."
They continue to walk toward the body, moving deliberately into the line of fire, which, as she notes, shifts away from them. And then: "A white truck with a blue light rolled up and the person in the truck spoke over the loudspeaker. Told us to leave. Stated, 'You'll get the body later.'"
All this is chilling reading. It exposes the brutal cynicism of Rachel Corrie's handlers, eager, for propaganda value, to bait bulldozers and tanks with the lives of their young recruits. But it also exposes Rachel Corrie: she is not a dupe, she is fully aware of where she is, and what she is doing there, and why. She is a dedicated believer and a shrewdly practiced marketing adviser. Among her notes: "Set up system for media work." Phoning home, she leaves a message for her mother:
I'm going to give The Olympian [her hometown newspaper] your number. Please think about your language when you talk to them. I think it was smart that you're wary of using the word "terrorism," and if you talk about the cycle of violence, or "an eye for an eye," you could be perpetuating the idea that the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is a balanced conflict, instead of a largely unarmed people against the
fourth most powerful military in the world. These are the kind [sic] of things it's important to think about before talking to reporters.
To her father, in a lighter voice, she writes: "I feel like I spend all my time propagandizing Mom." Yet the statement to her mother, even apart from its cookie-cutter language, is a thing to marvel at. A young woman has journeyed from one continent to another to enter a history of which she is uncommonly ignorant. This is not the ignorance of naïveté.
It is willful, and willful ignorance is distinguishable
from false witness.
She has come as a determined tabula rasa. Absent are the Arab annihilationist wars of 1948, 1967, 1973. Absent are the repeated Palestinian refusals of statehood, beginning in 1948, when the United Nations proposed a partition of the land, and emerging again in 2000, when yet another Israeli (and American) appeal for Palestinians to accept statehood was answered by Yasir Arafat's murderous second
intifada. "A largely unarmed people"?
The English-speaking pharmacist in whose house Rachel Corrie is billeted admits to the culpable Palestinian origins of the current fighting: "Before intifada--no tanks, no bulldozers, no noise. After intifada, daily." But even this close-at-hand testimony of cause-and-effect cannot sway her. The believer is cognizant only of her
For Rachel Corrie, in 2003, living and writing in the very heart of the second inti-fada, there is no mention of intifada, only of Israeli aggression; no acknowledgment of ongoing suicide bombings, rockets, bus explosions, attacks aimed at discos, eateries, malls, holiday gatherings; no recognition, for all her concern for children, of kindergartens inculcating six-year-olds with the beauty of "martyrdom."
Or, rather, if any of these matters are argued, even in a mild and sympathetic tone (her mother's), against her belief system, she justifies in mechanical phrases what she permits herself, at least once, to call "Palestinian violence." And follows immediately with dogged, and preposterous, false witness: "The vast majority of
Palestinians right now, as far as I can tell, are engaging in Gandhian non-violent resistance."
The mechanical lingo, with its neo-Marxist paraphernalia and hate-America jargon, is consistently on display. "I've had this underlying need to go to a place and meet people who are on the other end of the tax money that goes to fund the US military." "What we are paying for here is truly evil. Maybe the general growing class imbalance in the world and consequent devastation of working people's lives is a bigger evil." "I went to a rally a few days ago in Khan Younis in solidarity with the people of [Saddam Hussein's] Iraq." "[Children] love to get me to practice my limited Arabic. Today I tried to learn to say, 'Bush is a tool.'"
On one occasion she confesses to seeing a Palestinian family put in
jeopardy through the meddling zeal of the "internationals." "Yesterday," she recounts, "I watched a father lead two tiny children holding his hand out into the sight of tanks and a sniper tower and bulldozers because he thought his house was going to be exploded. It was our mistake in translation that made him think this.... To think that this man felt it was less of a risk to walk out in view of the tanks with his kids than to stay in his house.... I felt like it was our translation problems that made him leave." But she is not really remorseful over the ineptitude of interlopers such as herself. "I'm sure it was only a matter of time," she comments, confident in predicting that the man's house will be brought down sooner or
later--so what difference if the ISM plays with his children's lives in the middle of a war?
And finally she begins to contemplate departing from Gaza.
I am trying to figure out what I'm going to do when I leave here.... People here can't leave, so that complicates things.... I really don't want to live with a lot of guilt about this place--being able to come and go so easily. I know I should try and link up with the family in France, but I think that I'm not going to do that.... It seems like a transition into too much opulence right now--I would feel a lot of
class guilt the whole time.
Class guilt notwithstanding, she is ready to go--but where? To her well-off con-nections in France? That way lies neo-Marxist sin. She indulges in a dreamy list: home to finish college, Egypt or Dubai for a year, Sweden for a month, South America, Mexico. Lacking all historical understanding--South America is for her a single undifferentiated mass--and abandoning all responsibility for the possible consequences of an ephemeral sojourn, she can dip in and out of these places at a
whim, and be off again to her middle-class American comforts. Succinctly, she advises herself: "Travel elsewhere."
here is an old-fashioned word for this mentality, the kind of earnest temporary do-goodism that is likely to do harm: the word is slumming. For a sheltered young woman from Olympia, Washington, the intifada, as furiously enacted by Palestinians in Gaza, and the deterring Israeli response, are a shocking and often frightening experience. In Olympia there are no guns and gunmen occupying households, and no rocket launchers concealed in the forsythia bushes. "This is another place," she describes it, "where progressive white people escaped a few decades ago--a place where hippie kids come after touring with jam bands." the salient term "progressive." Long out of use because of its Stalinist taint, it has reverted to the common idiom, frequently in its newest anti-Zionist clothing.
As it turned out, Rachel Corrie did not travel elsewhere. A tragic casualty of the war she chose to join, she was cut down--horribly--by an Israeli army bulldozer. Contrary to the reports of journalists, the house she was attempting to shield was not a target. The bulldozer was clearing brush to thwart cover for launchers, explosives, and ambush. A photo taken minutes before the event tells what happened: the big growling machine is perched on a great mound of earth; well below it, shut off from the driver's vision and hearing, stands a tiny figure with a bullhorn. A piteous, pointless, heartbreaking death.
The playscript includes an addendum by Tom Dale, one of the "internationals": the driver, he surmises, "knew absolutely that she was there." This version--a charge of plain murder--has, along with the notorious Mohammed al-Dura fabrication, entered the world's book of infamous fake facts. And for the opportunistic leaders of the ISM, which knows usable goods when it sees them, Rachel Corrie's death is neither piteous nor pointless: it is pure bonanza. A predatory organization that callously endangers its human shields by placing them before the hideouts of war, it purports to preach non-violence--except on its website, where it openly defends "armed struggle." Arafat, the warlord and terror chieftain who launched the intifada that was the ultimate ground of Rachel Corrie's death, lauded her as a "martyr"; for
Arafat too, in the enduring propaganda blitz against the life of the Jewish state, she was usable goods. Media-savvy herself, she understood, as we have seen, the notion of a usable death: "the difficulties the Israeli army would face if they shot an unarmed US citizen." Her grieving mother and father, seeking solidarity with their
daughter and her cause, journeyed to Gaza, where they were an immediate temptation to the armed kidnappers who prefer to seize Westerners; identified as the martyr's parents, they were left to themselves by the equally media-savvy gunmen.
In view of the play's manifestly political intent, and particularly in the lurid light of the editors' having concluded with an accusation of deliberate murder, the London audiences who jubilantly welcomed My Name Is Rachel Corrie, and the New York audiences who weepily do the same,should know at least this much: they have been spectators at a show trial. And there are Jews in the dock.
Cynthia Ozick is the author, most recently, of The Din in the Head