Death by Bulldozer in Gaza Who's Afraid of Rachel Corrie?

In 2003, American peace activist Rachel Corrie was crushed to death by an Israeli bulldozer in Gaza. Now, a play about the incident has been squelched in New York. But what's all the fuss about?

By Michael Scott Moore

Rachel Corrie facing a bulldozer before her death in March 2003.

Rachel Corrie facing a bulldozer before her death in March 2003.

In early 2003, Rachel Corrie committed the mortal sin of being an idealistic young woman in a war zone. With Israeli bulldozers bearing down on a Palestinian home, Corrie placed herself in front of the machine, and died under it.

The 23-year-old from Olympia, Washington, became the most famous casualty of the International Solidarity Movement -- a group that, since its founding in 2001, has tried to draw attention to what it sees as Israeli excesses in the Palestinian Territories. Corrie's activist colleagues mourned her as a martyr to the Palestinian cause, and her detractors called her a defender of terrorists.

She made an awkward celebrity for the peace movement. There were photos of an angry Rachel burning a hand-crayoned paper US flag. It didn't help that members of the fledgling non-violent resistance group ISM hinted that her death had made good press. "When Palestinians get shot by Israeli soldiers, no one is interested anymore," ISM's founder, George Rishmawi, told the San Francisco Chronicle. "But if some of these foreign volunteers get shot or even killed, then the international media will sit up and take notice."

Blogs and Billy Bragg

Rishmawi was cynical but right. News of her death was reported around the world, and last year London's Royal Court Theatre produced a play based on the story to generally good reviews and not much controversy. But the play, called "My Name is Rachel Corrie" and consisting of entries from Corrie's journal and e-mail, has been squelched in New York. It was scheduled to open at the New York Theatre Workshop in March before the director postponed it "indefinitely." Corrie regained her fading cause celebre status: theater watchers cried censorship; blogs lit up from New York to Jerusalem; Billy Bragg even wrote a song.

James Nicola, the theater's artistic director, said he shelved the play after chatting with a few advisors and friends. He wanted more time to think through the piece's implications. Some of his advisors, he admits, were Jewish, and the result has been the worst controversy over free speech in American theater since the Manhattan Theatre Club tried to cancel Terence McNally's "Corpus Christi" in 1998 because of protests from Christian groups. Now anti-Corrie voices stalk the Internet denouncing her as a "terrorist," and Nicola finds his e-mail box full of messages denouncing him and his company as cowards and "Zionist pigs."

But what's the big deal? A recent viewing in London's West End reveals it to be the kind of bland, one-dimensional political play that off-Broadway theaters put on all the time, with a predictable emotional line and predictable politics. It's not a brillant piece of theater, any more than it's scandalous or anti-Semitic. Anyone looking for a damning line praising terrorists or calling for the destruction of Israel will have to look elsewhere.

"Missing a connection"

It starts with Corrie lying on her bed at home in Olympia. An earnest, scrappy young American, she's packing for a trip to the Gaza Strip to protect Palestinian homes from destruction by Israeli bulldozers. She's not Jewish, but she feels that the anti-war work she's doing in Olympia "is missing a connection to the people who are impacted by US foreign policy." And she worries about Palestinian families getting crushed under the might of the fourth-largest military in the world.

"The scariest thing about non-Jewish Americans talking about Palestinian self-determination is the fear of sounding anti-Semitic," she says. "The people of Israel are suffering and Jewish people have a long history of oppression. We still have some responsibility for that, but I think it's important to draw a firm distinction between the policies of Israel as a state, and Jewish people. That's kind of a no-brainer, but there is a very strong pressure to conflate the two. I try to ask myself, whose interest does it serve to identify Israeli policy with all Jewish people?"

Megan Dodds, who plays Corrie, humanizes her with gawky body language and ringing speeches, but there's a noticeable lack of struggle and drama. Corrie never questions herself. She never tries to understand the Israeli justifications for offensives in Gaza -- often aimed (though not in this case) at shutting off tunnels along the Israeli border used for arms smuggling and suicide bombers. She never tries to see the construction of the defense wall -- for which the house she died defending was probably demolished -- through an Israeli lens.

The piece recalls David Hare's one-man play about Israel, "Via Dolorosa," which amounts to a lively act of theatrical journalism, packed with the voices of Israelis and Palestinians. But in "Rachel Corrie" we never meet anyone else -- not even the pharmacist whose house she dies defending. The audience hears nothing but the earnest torrent of Corrie's youthful writing, and in the end journal entries and e-mail make an uncompelling script.

Abetting terrorism?

But did it deserve to be squelched in New York? Of course not. Worse and more one-sided political plays have been staged in America, and Corrie's death was tragic. But the controversy around the play has nothing to do with its quality. The International Solidarity Movement is seen as a disorganized network of anarchists who fly to Israel to do good. They aren't home-grown, and some Palestinians mistrust them. Even if Palestinians could benefit from a well-established, non-violent resistance movement, ISM members are outsiders who lack the clout to effectively combat Palestinian terrorist activity. Instead, they insist that Palestinians have a right to "armed resistance" to Israeli occupation -- leaving them open to charges of abetting terrorism.

Maybe Rachel Corrie's real tragedy was that her impulse to do good was lent to such a feckless cause. Nothing short of dying could have made her a hero, the way nothing short of non-performance could have made her play so famous. "It's an important play with a powerful message," artistic director James Nicola ruefully told the Washington Post in the wake of the controversy. "We wanted to foster a community dialogue about it, and I think, in almost a perverse way, we succeeded."


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