Tuesday, March 16, 2010

The Importance of Rachel Corrie

I. Some of the best parts of Katherine Viner's 2003 play, My Name is Rachel Corrie, have to do with how this vibrant 11-year-old spent the first half of the second half of her short life. In the play, the actress acts out a kid growing into adolescence and young adulthood. The scenes are based on diaries and correspondence Rachel's parents shared with the playwright. Watching the monodrama, one can sense, through the diaries being declaimed, a powerful, rich, resonant feminist voice beginning to emerge.

The optimistic kid we see in the video above never lost that hope.

There's always an abundance of hopeful kids. Not all of them are attractive young white Americans, though.

All around the world, whether it is in Darfur, East Timor, Juarez, Anchorage, Tehran or Hebron, some young optimistic kid in the 5th grade has an abundance of hope. There are scores of millions of hopeful kids like Rachel Corrie. Many will get eaten by the machine before they reach adulthood. 99 point something of these kids aren't white, so we'll probably never know whether or not the way the machine ate them was significant.

When Corrie was killed, seven years ago today, it was the eve of our Iraqi invasion and occupation. We'll never know whether or not the war's outbreak attenuated coverage of her death. It wasn't covered, though.

The only extensive article on her death appeared in the September-October 2003 edition of Mother Jones magazine. The article's author, Joshua Hammer, concluded:

Five days after her death, Rachel Corrie’s body was shipped home to Olympia. The [IDF] has since pulled out of the northern part of Gaza, but demolitions along the Pink Line continue. The inquiry promised by Ariel Sharon cleared the soldiers of any wrongdoing, and momentum has faded for a U.S. congressional investigation. A skeleton staff at the ISM Rafah office spends most of its time attempting to revitalize Corrie’s sister-city project. And Corrie herself has faded into obscurity, a subject of debate in Internet chat rooms and practically nowhere else. [emphasis added]

He was wrong. Why?

Around the same time, other remarkable young American women had their lives swept up or away in the growing conflagration of multiple wars in the Middle East and Afghanistan.

Exactly one week after Rachel Corrie was killed in Gaza, U.S. Army SPC Lori Piestewa was severely injured, when vehicles in her unit made a wrong turn and ended up being ambushed in the Iraqi city of Nasiriyah, a town the unit was supposed to bypass. According to another woman in Piestewa's unit, Jessica Lynch, "Piestewa was wounded in the head, and it was impossible to perform delicate neurosurgery in an Iraqi civilian hospital in wartime conditions (such as intermittent electric power). In a U.S. military hospital with reliable power and neurosurgeons available around the clock, she might have survived.)."

Lynch was also seriously wounded, and Iraqi medical personnel managed to stabilize and save her, even as American Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld's fantasy machine began creating a labyrinth of myths about the incident. Shoshana Johnson, another member of the unit in which Piestewa and Lynch served, was also captured, and shown alive on Iraqi television.

Just over two years later, on April 16, 2005, American peace activist Marla Ruzicka, who was working in Iraq on a project that sought to reliably account for the number of civilian deaths caused by the deteriorating occupation war there, was killed by a roadside bomb on the Baghdad Airport road. Ruzicka, like Corrie, was assisting a non-governmental organization when she perished. Unlike Corrie, Ruzicka had been able to see some of her notable efforts come to fruition, both in Afghanistan and Iraq.

Rolling Stone noted
, "Ruzicka is perhaps the most famous American aid worker to die in any conflict of the past ten or twenty years. Though a novice in life — she had less than four years of professional humanitarian experience — her death resonated far beyond the tightly knit group of war junkies and policymakers who knew her. She stands as a youthful representative of a certain kind of not-yet-lost American idealism, and darkly symbolic of what has gone so tragically wrong in Iraq."

A movie about Ruzicka
, titled Sweet Relief, and starring Kirsten Dunst, has been in "development" by Paramount since before her death, but as yet, there is no movie. The current projected release year is 2011.

Though the powerful play about Rachel Corrie had difficulties getting a premiere performance in the United States, once the ice jam broke, there have been a number of productions, and perhaps hundreds of readings. In the past few months, My Name is Rachel Corrie has been produced in Spanish in Buenos Aires, in Greek in Athens, and in Arabic in Haifa.

The documentary, Rachel, by Simone Bitton, has caused controversy, most notably when it was shown as part of the 2009 San Francisco Jewish Film Festival (Bitton is Israeli).

New productions of Viner's play and showings of Bitton's documentary often spark dialogue in the communities or at the larger events in which they are shown. From the beginning of Viner's play's runs, there have been requests or demands from segments of the local Jewish communities that the play or documentary be given "context." That has often meant discussion groups, lectures, distribution of written materials and debates. It has also often meant angry op-eds in the local papers and demonstrations outside of the productions. Media coverage of the play and the documentary has often centered as much on the demonstrations as it has on the play or movie.

And, like media coverage of the Tea Party, for instance, the image presented from the news isn't always accurate. A good example of that might be BBC coverage of the London premiere of my own art about Rachel Corrie, the cantata The Skies are Weeping, in November, 2005. On the evening of the performance, outside of the Hackney Empire Theatre, where the work was presented, there were three demonstrations about the performance. There were rows of signs, with images of The Forgotten Rachels, and scores of demonstrators with graphic signs. All three of the protesting groups were Jewish, the BBC TV report announced. What they failed to disclose though, was that two of the demonstrating groups were protesting in favor of the performance. Eventually, BBC apologized to the concert organizers (another Jewish group, Jews for Justice for Palestinians) for their inaccurate coverage.

II. In the seven years since Rachel Corrie's death, some of the causes in which she believed have been transformed. Some of the transformations have been positive. Others have been awful.

She died defending the house of a family she had come to know. It was one of many hundreds of houses the Israelis were demolishing in Rafah. Eventually, the IDF destroyed Samir Nasralla's house. But the house has since been rebuilt, and Israeli military operations in Rafah are now limited to totally outrageous invasions, rather than day-to-day casual destruction of a city of 71,000.

Since Rachel Corrie perished, the Israel Defense Forces have killed almost 2,000 Lebanese civilians, almost 1,500 Palestinians in Gaza, and many Palestinian civilians in the occupied territories of the West Bank. They have gratuitously caused the largest oil spill in the history of the Mediterranean, and immense destruction of antiquities and archeological sites in Lebanon.

Gaza's infrastructure is in ruins and the 1.5 million civilians there have been compared to the Soviet citizens of Leningrad during that city's besiegement in World War II, to people in a vast, open-air prison, and to the Na'vi, in the movie Avatar.

Israeli encroachments on Palestinian land in the West Bank relentlessly continue. Destruction of archeological sites in the West Bank and East Jerusalem happen on a weekly basis.

So why is this "transformed"? This level of destruction of Lebanon by the IDF isn't as horrific as was that during the earlier war against that country, but it is more of the same. And the Israelis have been slowly stealing and appropriating Palestinian lands on the West Bank for almost 43 years.

The transformation has been apparent mostly since the 2009 Gaza War. As the title of Norman Finkelstein's new book, This Time We Went Too Far - Truth & Consequences of the Gaza Invasion, implies, many people in Europe and North America who had previously supported IDF incursions, invasions, occupations and so on, reached their limit in early 2009, as they witnessed what is very difficult not to characterize as an atrocious war crime.

An earlier watershed was the August 2007 publication of The Israel Lobby and U.S. Foreign Policy, written by John Mearsheimer and Steven Walt. The book's almost encyclopedic coverage of how this lobby often inhibits two of the three branches of American government from crafting policies that suit our own long-term interests rather than those of Israel, has had a profound impact. Particularly, the book's conclusion "that when the Lobby succeeds in shaping U.S. policy in the Middle East, then "Israel's enemies get weakened or overthrown, Israel gets a free hand with the Palestinians, and the United States does most of the fighting, dying, rebuilding, and paying," is again and again resonating in sometimes startling ways.

The most recent example has been the leaked powerpoint presentation given on January 16 by CENTCOM's commander, Gen. Petraeus, and the context that presentation's announcement has had this past few days. Petraeus, echoing Mearsheimer and Walt, proposed moving jurisdiction over Israel and Palestine to CENTCOM (the Central Command, which oversees our ongoing wars) from EUCOM (European Command). The argument's central point has been distilled in an article for Foreign Policy, by Mark Perry:

David Petraeus sent a briefing team to the Pentagon with a stark warning: America's relationship with Israel is important, but not as important as the lives of America's soldiers. Maybe Israel gets the message now.

III. This past week, we've had the purposefully stunning public humiliation of the Vice President of the United States by the Israeli Prime Minister, a detailed and harsh response to that humiliation from our Secretary of State, increasingly successful boycotts of Israeli products created on lands in the West Bank stolen from Palestinians, the opening of the Rachel Corrie civil suit in Haifa, and the possibility of the reopening of investigations into the severe injury of American Tristan Anderson by IDF forces in the West Bank.

These mostly unconnected events are not being greeted in a vacuum. Typically, as Mearsheimer and Walt documented so thoroughly in their book, and was amply shown by the pushback against its publication and dissemination - Vice President Biden, Secretary of State Clinton, President Obama, Gen. Petraeus, the supporters of Corrie's trial, the supporters of Tristan Andeson's vindication, and the hundreds of people writing about these items of interest, have all been branded as anti-Semites, in articles, press releases, statements and blog posts. Polemicist John Podhoretz is calling for American Jews to abandon the anti-Semitic Democratic Party.

Writer-blogger Philip Weiss may have best summed up the sea change we're currently undergoing in an article yesterday at Mondoweiss:

When both Joe Biden and General David Petraeus are reported to say that the special relationship is endangering American soldiers, they are only saying what Walt and Mearsheimer said in their historic paper four years ago, and what Col. Lawrence Wilkerson, Colin Powell’s former chief of staff, described as the blinding flash of the obvious. But remember, Walt and Mearsheimer could not publish their paper in the United States, and when their book came out, the joke was that a lot of people in D.C. were reading it in brown paper covers, lest they be called anti-Semites.

You could not say that Israel was hurting our interests because Abrams, Libby, Wurmser, Feith, Frum, and Wolfowitz were helping guide the ship of state through the seas of Islamophobia. And intellectuals were just as afraid of the policers of official understanding, of Alan Dershowitz, Jeffrey Goldberg, Larry Summers, Richard Haass, and David Remnick and Bob Silvers too–Silvers who has never run a review of The Israel Lobby.

Now that atmosphere is changing, even in power circles. Of course, the best reflection of the change is Andrew Sullivan’s remarkable shift. Sullivan was not deterred by Leon Wieseltier’s calling him an anti-Semite, because he knows, the issue is just too important to world peace not to keep talking.

I don’t think you can say enough about Gaza, Goldstone, and the grassroots. Gaza vindicated those of us on the left who said that Israel was treating Palestinians like animals; and instead of understanding the moment and engaging the critics honestly, Israel hunkered down and smeared the critics, thereby discrediting itself in Europe and among young American peace types. I can point to many important moments over the last year: we have the crazy video from Judaized East Jerusalem to thank, the young bloggers of the Gaza war, the suppressed Max Blumenthal video from Jerusalem, and the silent demonstration outside the Waldorf last week with its swarming pro-Israel loonies.

IV. Back in 2003, 2004 and 2005, when tributes to Rachel Corrie were being suppressed, canceled or "postponed," courageous supporters of her idealism kept pushing, even in the face of threats, personal attacks and shunning from within their professional communities. Even as one Joshua Hammer after another wrote that she" ha[d] faded into obscurity," the relentless progress of projects seeking to portray her idealism for what it truly was and is, went on. And still goes on.

The comparisons between what Corrie sought to achieve, people drawn toward her story have hoped to show, and what policy makers on high levels are now attempting to bring to public attention all fall back onto what General Petraeus' January briefing illustrated: That lack of peace and justice toward the Palestinian people by the Israeli government and armed forces hurts America and our fighting forces in serious ways, and the simplest remedy might be to seriously consider advancing peace and justice for those very people.

Even though the civil trial over the circumstances of Rachel Corrie's death is getting scant coverage in the American media, the ideas she stood for, and for which her parents have been such powerful advocates are now unavoidably coming through in many arenas simultaneously.

Next week, the 2010 AIPAC Conference will occur. Most likely, the keynote address speaker, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, will once again repeat the mantras about "our closest ally, the only democracy in the Middle East, whose interests and ours are irrevocably linked," etc. But there will probably be an edge to her remarks that, though invisible to some, will show to people aware of this sea change, where the Obama administration might take this evolving relationship next.


Anonymous said...

Dear Mr. Munger,

I agree that Israel commits atrocious human rights abuses against Palestinians in the occupied territory. I agree that their settlement program is nothing short of colonialist. However, I'm afraid I see little constructive criticism on your part in this matter. As a left-wing Zionist, I feel it is fine to criticise Israel as long as its interests are taken into consideration, as well as those of the Palestinians. Perhaps you would find less antagonism from the Jewish community and others if you focused more on what you think should be done to resolve the issues in the Near East. For example, advocating the two-state solution, demanding a halt in settlement construction, and condemning Palestinian terrorist organizations intent on destroying Israel. My warmest regards, and I enjoyed playing your music last year in the Anchorage Youth Symphony.

Josh Cravez

Philip Munger said...


I decided to devote a post to replying to your very good questions. It is the post "PA Arts Sunday," for this week.