Rachel's words

10 April 2006

by Maryann Bird 

Rachel Corrie’s eloquent voice has been silenced twice since 16 March 2003.

On that date, the 23-year-old American, a volunteer in Gaza with the Palestinian-led International Solidarity Movement (ISM), was run over and killed by the blade of an Israeli army bulldozer as she stood between the machine and a pharmacist’s home that the Israelis were intent on demolishing.

As the young peace advocate wrote in a long e-mail from Rafah to her parents shortly before her death: “If any of us had our lives and welfare completely strangled and lived with children in a shrinking place where we knew that soldiers and tanks and bulldozers could come for us at any moment, with no means of economic survival and our houses demolished; if they came and destroyed all the greenhouses that we’d been cultivating for the last however long, do you not think, in a similar situation, most people would defend themselves as best they could? … The majority of Palestinians right now, as far as I can tell, are engaging in Gandhian non-violent resistance … A lot of the time, the kindness of the people here, coupled with the willful destruction of their lives, makes it seem unreal to me. I can’t believe that something like this can happen in the world without a bigger outcry. It hurts me, again, like it has hurt me in the past, to witness how awful we can allow the world to be … Coming here is one of the better things I have ever done.”

Corrie’s voice was stifled again last month—nearly 6,000 miles from Gaza--when the New York Theater Workshop (NYTW), a progressive off-Broadway arts company, indefinitely postponed its American premiere of “My Name Is Rachel Corrie”. Fashioned from Corrie’s diaries and e-mails (edited by British actor-director Alan Rickman and Guardian features editor Katharine Viner), the 85-minute play is the 100-percent authentic voice of a passionate, idealistic, funny and, yes, sometimes naïve, young woman who spent what were to be the last 50 days of her life supporting the nonviolent Palestinian resistance in hot, dusty, rubble-strewn Gaza.

The production—a powerful one-woman tour de force starring American actress Megan Dodds—is now in its third highly acclaimed run in London since April 2005 (closing on 21 May). It had been due to transfer to New York in March. So, what happened? Evidently, according to the press on both sides of the Atlantic, the NYTW got spooked. An article in the 3 April issue of The Nation (entitled “Too Hot for New York”) says the postponement came “out of concern for the sensitivities of (unnamed) Jewish groups unsettled by Hamas’s victory in the Palestinian elections” in January. The British producers saw the decision as nothing less than censorship.

“Why is it,” asks Philip Weiss in his article in The Nation, “that the eloquent words of an American radical could not be heard in this country—not, that is, without what the Workshop had called ‘contextualizing’, framing the play with political discussions, maybe even mounting a companion piece that would somehow ‘mollify’ the Jewish community?”

The NYTW’s explanation does seem less than convincing. Artistic director James C. Nicola, in a statement on the company’s website, says the Workshop holds to its “collective commitment…to sharing Rachel’s voice.” But, he adds, under the NYTW’s “standard operating procedure”, it has carried out “routine pre-production research that includes exploring the social, political and cultural issues raised by the play”. In doing so, Nicola says, “we found many distorted accounts of the actual circumstances of Rachel’s death that had resulted in a highly charged, vituperative and passionate controversy.”

Acknowledging speaking to “friends and colleagues in the artistic community and to religious leaders, as well as to representatives of the Jewish community, because the play involved Israeli action”, Nicola continues: “As we listened to various opinions and read thousands of entries on websites and blogs, we realized we needed to find ways to let Rachel’s words rise above the polemics. We regret that requesting more time to achieve that goal was interpreted as failing to fulfill a commitment and, worse, as censorship. If we have erred, it was on the side of trying to be sensitive to all communities, in order to keep a public dialogue open and civil.”

But Corrie’s words, and the play, speak volumes standing alone. What the episode in New York has demonstrated, as Weiss writes, "is a climate of fear…[n]ot of physical harm, but of loss of opportunities”. Corrie’s mother, Cindy, sees a silence resulting from fear and intimidation. “And it harms not only Palestinians. I believe, from the bottom of my heart, it harms Israelis and it harms us."

The controversy over “My Name Is Rachel Corrie” comes at a time when the deaths of other young “outsiders” in Gaza are under scrutiny—cases in which the Israeli authorities are sure to face further damaging headlines. This week, a coroner’s court in London opened an inquest into the death of a British student, Tom Hurndall, who was shot in the head by an Israeli soldier in Rafah on 11 April 2003 – four weeks after Corrie’s death - as he led a group of Palestinian children to safety. Last week, the court heard testimony into the death of James Miller, a British filmmaker who — while waving a white flag - was shot and killed three weeks after Hurndall, also in Gaza.

Injustice in the Palestinian lands, says the International Solidarity Movement, “is not going to be defeated by words alone.” Suppressing words on the subject, however, only further delays progress — particularly when the words are as eloquent as Corrie’s. She was, in the words of Weiss, a woman with “literary gifts who was not given time to unpack them”.



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