Too Hot for New York
The slim book that was suddenly the most controversial work in the West in early March was not easy to find in the United States. Amazon said it wasn't available till April. The Strand bookstore didn't have it either. You could order it on Amazon-UK, but it would be a week getting here. I finally found an author in Michigan who kindly photocopied the British book and overnighted it to me; but to be on the safe side, I visited an activist's apartment on Eighth Avenue on the promise that I could take her much-in-demand copy to the lobby for half an hour. In the elevator, I flipped it open to a random passage:
"I can't cool boiling waters in Russia. I can't be Picasso. I can't be Jesus. I can't save the planet single-handedly. I can wash dishes."
The book is the play My Name Is Rachel Corrie. Composed from the journal entries and e-mails of the 23-year-old from Washington State who was crushed to death in Gaza three years ago under a bulldozer operated by the Israeli army, the play had two successful runs in London last year and then became a cause celebre after a progressive New York theater company decided to postpone its American premiere indefinitely out of concern for the sensitivities of (unnamed) Jewish groups unsettled by Hamas's victory in the Palestinian elections. When the English producers denounced the decision by the New York Theatre Workshop as "censorship" and withdrew the show, even the mainstream media could not ignore the implications. Why is it 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 impact of this decision is enormous--it is bigger than Rachel and bigger than this play," Cindy Corrie, Rachel's mother, said. "There was something about this play that made them feel so vulnerable. I saw in the Workshop's schedule a lesbian play. Will they use the same approach? Will they go to the segment of the community that would ardently oppose that?"
In this way, Corrie's words appear to have had more impact than her death. The House bill calling for a US investigation of her killing died in committee, with only seventy-eight votes and little media attention. But the naked admission by a left-leaning cultural outlet that it would subordinate its own artistic judgment to pro-Israel views has served as a smoking gun for those who have tried to press the discussion in this country of Palestinian human rights. Indeed, the admission was so shocking and embarrassing that the Workshop quickly tried to hedge and retreat from its statements. But the damage was done; people were asking questions that had been consigned to the fringe: How can the West condemn the Islamic world for not accepting Muhammad cartoons when a Western writer who speaks out on behalf of Palestinians is silenced? And why is it that Europe and Israel itself have a healthier debate over Palestinian human rights than we can have here?
When she died on March 16, 2003, Rachel Corrie had been in the Middle East for fifty days as a member of the International Solidarity Movement (ISM), a group recruiting Westerners to serve as "human shields" against Israeli aggression--including the policy of bulldozing Palestinian houses to create a wider no man's land between Egypt and then-occupied Gaza. Corrie was crushed to death when she stood in front of a bulldozer that was proceeding toward a Palestinian pharmacist's house. By witnesses' accounts, Corrie, wearing a bright orange vest, was clearly visible to the bulldozer's driver. An Israeli army investigation held no one accountable.
Corrie's horrifying death was a landmark event: It linked Palestinian suffering to the American progressive movement. And it was immediately politicized. Pro-Israel voices sought to smear Corrie as a servant of terrorists. They said that the Israeli army was merely trying to block tunnels through which weapons were brought from Egypt into the occupied territories--thereby denying that Corrie had died as the result of indiscriminate destruction. Hateful e-mails were everywhere. "Rachel Corrie won't get 72 virgins but she got what she wanted," said one.