The Battle Over My Name Is Rachel Corrie

Revolution #040, March 26, 2006, posted at

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Rachel Corrie
Photo:La Guerra di Rachel

A couple weeks ago the New York Times reported the disturbing news that the New York Theater Workshop (NYTW) was postponing, for political reasons, a production of the play My Name Is Rachel Corrie. The text of the play is based on some extraordinary letters from a young American woman written to her parents in the days and weeks before she was bulldozed to death by the Israeli Defense Force while trying to prevent the destruction of a Palestinian family’s home. The letters convey in an undiluted and specific and deeply moving way the unspeakable things being done to the Palestinian people by the Israeli government, backed by the U.S.

The battle over the play is causing an uproar in the theater world in both the U.S. and in London where My Name Is RACHEL CORRIE was originally produced to great acclaim by the Royal Court Theater. In the U.S., the controversy takes place in an atmosphere in which any mention of the legitimate demands of the Palestinian people has been ruled out of order in the public discourse. This has been the case for years, but these days it’s commonplace to hear about Arab academics being spied on and harassed, even prevented from entering the country, and Palestinian speakers banned from high school assemblies and college art galleries.

New York Theater Workshop, the theater slated to bring the play to the U.S., is a prominent New York City institution known for daring to present artistically powerful work from playwrights who tell the stories of the banned and oppressed. The decision to produce this play followed in that tradition. But shortly before it was to open (March 22), NYTW artistic director Jim Nicola backed away, saying that after talking to “members of the Jewish community” and finding “there was a strong possibility that a number of factions, on all sides of a political conflict, would use the play as a platform to promote their own agendas,” the theater needed more time to better “contextualize” the play.

To be blunt, here’s the “context”: whatever their intentions, NYTW’S postponement of the play for these political reasons objectively accedes to the very unfavorable terms being relentlessly enforced by the U.S. government today: namely that the only two political choices available to the people of the planet are “McCrusade” or “Jihad.” In that losing and false paradigm, the just demands of the Palestinian people get conflated with the agenda of Islamic fundamentalists. Even worse, the resistance by Palestinians to six decades of ethnic cleansing is assigned the moral equivalence of the towering crimes of an Israeli government acting as outpost and attack dog for the U.S. imperialists’ agenda of world conquest.

The rapid unraveling of the staging of the play occurred in January against a backdrop of the recent election in Palestine of Hamas, a party whose reactionary theocratic program offers a horrible future for the Palestinian people, even as they present themselves as more “militant” opponents of Israel and the U.S. Rachel deals with none of this, but in an implicit way her letters blow a hole in the idea that people must settle for either accommodating U.S. imperialists or blindly taking up Islamic fundamentalism. First, she reveals the truth of what it is like to live in a country that is being turned into an open-air prison for every man, woman and child:

“Nothing could have prepared me for the reality of the situation here. You just can't imagine it unless you see it—and even then you are always well aware that your experience of it is not at all the reality: what with the difficulties the Israeli army would face if they shot an unarmed U.S. citizen, the fact that I have money to buy water when the army destroys wells, and the fact, of course, that I have the option of leaving. I am allowed to see the ocean. If I feel outrage at entering briefly into the world in which these children exist, I wonder how it would be for them to arrive in my world. Once you have seen the ocean and lived in a silent place where water is taken for granted and not stolen in the night by bulldozers, spent an evening when you didn't wonder if the walls of your home might suddenly fall inward, aren't surrounded by towers, tanks, and now a giant metal wall, I wonder if you can forgive the world for all the years spent existing—just existing—in resistance to the constant attempt to erase you from your home. That is something I wonder about these children. I wonder what would happen if they really knew."

- My Name Is Rachel Corrie

Then, her emails introduce us to ordinary people who erase all caricatures:

“Nidal's English gets better every day. He's the one who calls me, ‘My sister.’ He started teaching Grandmother how to say, ‘Hello. How are you?’ In English. You can always hear the tanks and bulldozers passing by, but all of these people are genuinely cheerful with each other, and with me. When I am with Palestinian friends I tend to be somewhat less horrified than when I am trying to act in a role of human rights observer, documenter, or direct-action resister. They are a good example of how to be in it for the long haul. I know that the situation gets to them—and may ultimately get them—on all kinds of levels, but I am nevertheless amazed at their strength in being able to defend such a large degree of their humanity—laughter, generosity, family-time—against the incredible horror occurring in their lives and against the constant presence of death… I am discovering a degree of strength and of basic ability for humans to remain human in the direst of circumstances—which I also haven't seen before. I think the word is dignity. I wish you could meet these people...”

* * *

The effect of the NYTW’s decision has been bad all-around:

  • The play is currently not scheduled for production in New York City and it is a play people in the U.S. need to see
  • A progressive theater is (justifiably) under attack from many in the theater community exactly at a time when the unorthodox resistance art they have produced in the past is needed more than ever.

This is a terrible dynamic that must be reversed. There are undoubtedly significant pressures on NYTW as there are on anyone in the arts who seeks to speak the truth and go against the tide in these dire times. But there are gigantic stakes for the people embodied in this episode, which is why no one can or should accept apologies about procedural misunderstandings. What is needed is a clear repudiation by the theater of their political stance to “contextualize” the play—which means, let’s be honest, surrounding Rachel’s heroic voice in support of the just struggle of the Palestinians with excuses and a rationale for what Israel is doing.

It would also help if others put the interests of the people of world ahead of more petty concerns. Wouldn’t it be the best thing for everyone if those involved struggled with NYTW to do the right thing, for the right reasons, and the play got mounted very quickly in New York City on their stage—or, failing that, at a theater that does not allow it to be marginalized?

Here’s another lesson we should take to heart: Once you start accommodating the forces of reaction, you will find yourself feeding a monster that cannot be satisfied. In these times, as every sphere of American life and politics is being remade in a fascist direction, it is simply a fact that “that which you will not resist, you will learn—or be forced—to accept.” (from the World Can’t Wait call)

People can also learn to resist, and courageous individuals can affect history. Everyone will be put to the test, under circumstances rarely of one’s own choosing, and sometimes people will be called upon to act heroically when they are not fully prepared. That’s maybe the most important thing to learn from Rachel’s life. She traveled halfway around the world to bear witness to what her government was doing, and ultimately gave her life to stop these crimes against humanity. But she didn’t start out brave and knowing what to do.

After her death, Rachel’s mother recounted, "I remember distinctly her voice when she first called from Gaza. I believe she was in the house that she died in front of. Her voice was trembling, and she was saying, ‘Can you hear that? Can you hear that?’ It was the shelling that was coming from the border. And then I remember talking to her for the last time, about five days before she was killed. Her confidence had grown along with her conviction that she was doing absolutely the right thing. I think about the courage that she drew from just being among the Palestinian people who are living with that situation."

On the third anniversary of Rachel’s death, March 16, there were readings commemorating Rachel Corrie in cities all over the world, including Basra, London, Brussels, Jenin, Jerusalem, New York, San Francisco, Abuja, Paris, Kabul, and Cairo. March 16 was inspired by readings of the play Lysistrata in over a thousand cities in March 2003, an effort described as “an act of theatrical dissent against the impending war.”

A public reading, “RACHEL’S WORDS,” will take place at Riverside Church in New York City on March 22.

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