Saturday, March 29, 2008
When I was a young confused college student, trying to find myself in an academic urban jungle, like a lot of people my age, I kept a journal -- what I did, where I went, a comment about what I thought about it... I remember that in the front of one of those books I wrote a warning to anyone who might find it in the case of my untimely demise, a disclaimer in case a future reader should discover the volume and have the audacity to imagine that they, upon reading my daily missives, should actually think they knew me. After all, I was far more complex than anything I may have written there, and far more interesting (thought I).
It's a stage of confusion, discomfort, introspection, self-doubt and self-importance that almost everyone goes through in their teens and early twenties. Some of these teen experiences spiral out of control and end in suicide, but most of us emerge from the other side none the worse for wear, either by working it out for ourselves or with some good guidance from wiser and more experience minds. I had the good fortune to attend a relatively apolitical Boston University where I hung out with friends who were fairly well grounded in reality to keep things in perspective.
Sadly for Rachel Corrie, the real-life subject of a one-woman play showing at Watertown's New Rep Theater, she attended Evergreen State College in Olympia, Washington, a training ground for young activists, and her mentors would become the Palestinian Arabs who run the International Solidarity Movement.
Remember that name -- the International Solidarity Movement (ISM). You'll have to, because it's never mentioned in the show. Not once. That's the name of the group that helped Rachel Corrie lie her way into Israel (understandably, the Israelis are not pleased with young people coming from abroad and intentionally putting themselves and others in danger on behalf of those who would like to dismantle the Jewish State), snuck her into Gaza, trained her to put her life at risk, gave her assignments, taught her how to deal with the media, and most of all to never, ever, judge the choices her Palestinian hosts make -- from rock throwing to suicide terror -- another verboten word.
The play is based upon a bowdlerized version of Rachel Corrie's personal journals edited for the stage by Alan Rickman and Katharine Viner. The lead, and only, role is played by local actress Stacy Fischer, whose credits, at least according to the playbill, tend more to Shakespeare than to basement journal readings.
We begin in Rachel's bedroom in Olympia, a typically angsty and introspective girl reading us selections from her journal, lamenting her decorating choices (she has painted the walls red). Everyone present being sober, I immediately fight the urge to flee. Duty holds me in my seat.
Reading an entry from 1991, when Rachel was 12, she talks about safety -- clever foreshadowing here -- and when we reach Middle School she reads that what she's written today will not be true tomorrow and so on. I'm reminded of my old journal and its disclaimer. [Note to self: Find those books and burn them. Do it now while you're still ambulatory.]
Nothing here is particularly noteworthy, or even particularly interesting. I've frankly heard better writing and observing while stuck in an actual girl's apartment as she read me selections of her latest hand-scrawled profundities (hence my pre-conditioned flight response). Rachel tells us about her discomfort in social situations, her sense of difference from others, her quest for meaning..."Salmon," she tells us, pondering the implications of an under-street fish run, "are the history that isn't trivia." Deep.
This is banal stuff as Rachel talks about her choice of Evergreen State as an attempt to differentiate herself from her preppy, corporate sister and brother (one gets the feeling that basket weaving would be considered a heavy academic subject at Evergreen). She's "shellshocked" over the semester, trying to find herself, embarrassed that she's never accomplished anything for herself and has a mother so involved in her life that Rachel describes her as bobbing up in the sky like a Macy's balloon.
Meaning is found through altruism, and Rachel finds it feels good to help others. Social activism can serve as the perfect refuge for the egotist -- I do good deeds which makes me feel good and you are grateful to me which makes me feel even better. It's still all about me, sure, but this can be a pleasurable killing of two birds with one stone. I benefit and so do you.
One understands very quickly, as minute after minute of this goes on, that there's little of particular interest here. So why the play? What's the difference between my journals, or the journals of a young suicide and these? Let's not be coy. Rachel's journals serve a political purpose, that's why, and hence the production.
Some humor comes with the description of Rachel's short-lived time as a driver and helper for -- was it mentally handicapped? -- patients. Sadly, they fail to be sufficiently grateful. Where to find those she can help who will appreciate the gift of self she brings them and who will fulfill their side of the egotist contract? Where to go, where to go...
Banal turns pernicious with the first mention of Gaza and her hearing from an old male friend who was a local organizer. Rachel agonizes over the people "on the receiving end" of US military funding and frowns over those being held in US custody as part of the War on Terror. Her "Macy's balloon" mom is encouraging, and Rachel, now clearly in the hands of the ISM, discusses with her her future plans. She needs names from mom "in case she gets into trouble," she briefs mom on how to talk to the press (a standard part of ISM training), on what terminology to use. It's not a hard sell, as mom, we are told, already doesn't like to use the word "terrorism," but Rachel says she needs to go further. Mom is willing.
Rachel reads from a training manual, clearly the ISM manual, whose tutelage she's now under, though this fact is kept obscured to the audience. Lee Kaplan wrote a revealing piece on his own ISM training session, and I present a few tid-bits from that manual not written into the play's record:
- "Some pacifists are uncomfortable with property damage. For myself...I see it as a great tool."
- "[Some] settle for tactical nonviolence, but given the right historical circumstance, armed struggle would be justified..."
- "When VIOLENCE is mentioned, say RESISTANCE or RESISTANCE TO INJUSTICE."
- "When TERRORISM is mentioned, emphasize STATE TERRORISM."
- "Instead of OCCUPATION say MILITARY OCCUPATION to make people think the occupation is a MILITARY DICTATORSHIP."
What was that song from South Pacific? "You've got to be carefully taught..."
Forty-five minutes in and we're still not in Gaza, though. We're still locked in a bedroom philosophizing about life, death, aloneness ("aloneness allows us to adventure") and working through feelings of white class privilege. A glance at my watch and my flight instinct starts kicking me in the ass again.
Finally we arrive! The Holy Land at last. Rachel bluffs her way into the country, and we're given a quick interlude of Rachel's worry over being called an anti-Semite. It's important, after all, to separate Israeli policy from Jewish opinion. Israelis suffer, too... It's a quick by-your-leave to talk about what we're really here to talk about -- how horrible those Jews are making life for innocent Arabs. In one unintentional laugher later on, she writes, "The vast majority of Palestinians right now, as far as I can tell, are engaging in Gandhian non-violent resistance." Spare us.
Now comes the major admission of the play, "I'm really new to talking about Israel/Palestine." She knows nothing. One of the most complicated war zones on the planet and, having given herself into the hands of the ISM, she comes as an ignorant babe, head filled with lots of Evergreen College anti-war jargon and no hard knowledge or serious analysis. Gaza is not a place to find yourself, yet here she is, being put to use as a foot soldier on one side of that war.
Reading from the ISM manual, she recites what should come as a chilling bit of manipulation: "...don't judge rightness and wrongness..." In other words, no matter what you see, no matter what your Palestinian handlers do, no matter who they put at risk, you must not judge it.
This world is perfect for the young narcissist. Corrie knows nothing not spoon-fed to her, outside a few all-purpose neo-Marxist activist tropes. She is plunked down and given purpose in a land whose culture she doesn't understand and told not to be too curious. One almost expects her to step off the plane saying, "Me llamo Rachel!" But Gaza is not a one size fits all conflict. There are reasons people don't live like Americans in Gaza -- why Israelis fear for their lives from them -- and our protagonist understands none of them.
The ISM sends Corrie and friends to retrieve a dead body in the face of an IDF presence demanding they get out of the area. Tough duty for a sheltered girl from Olympia whose only experience with serious matters has come through slogans. Faced with what she sees and doesn't understand, combined with her own "White Guilt," it's not long before the nightmares come. More talk of checkpoints, water, wonderful host families...nothing deeper than observation without understanding, and since we are along for the ride with Rachel, and Rachel doesn't last through for an Act 2 as it were, our own understanding of the conflict is left in the same ignorant state Rachel's was when she stopped writing.
At 1 hour 20 minutes I write "This is endless". There's plenty more to come. Emails home with mother, who tells Rachel that violence doesn't help the situation, but Rachel, fully in the spirit at this point, and faced with horrors she can't process, shoots back that people have a right to "legitimate self-defense" and starts in with a recitation of the ISM version of International Law, yet she had admitted earlier that, while sitting in Dr. Samir's garden she was told, before the Intifada there were no tanks, no bulldozers. Since the Intifada...daily. It makes one think, or should.
This issue of the sensibility of violence, and its own role in creating the conditions Corrie is so outraged over, is left completely unexplored. There's a good reason for that, because in fact, neither Corrie, nor the ISM, are pacifists, as becomes clear when we examine some of her writings not included in the show:
...In retaliation for this murderous attack, fighters last night offered their life for their friend and killed two of the illegal occupying force, and injuring another...There was protracted gun-fire for more than an hour. So these young guys really fought it out...
At 1 hour 45 the nightmare is almost over. The actress exits and we are treated to a voice-over of ISM activist Tom Dale's testimony concerning the circumstances of Rachel's death that does everything possible to place blame squarely on the bulldozer driver who, he insists, must have seen Corrie before intentionally killing her. The problems with this testimony and why it cannot be so -- in fact, are blatant slander -- are beyond the scope of this review, though I have included resource links at the end. I will just comment on one piece of stage manipulation. Through the entire performance, a plastic toy bulldozer sits meaningfully upon the stage (see photo), yet this, of course is absolutely nothing like the heavily armored Cat D-9 that Corrie intentionally placed herself in front of, with its huge blade and limited visibility.
Finally, finally, we see an actual video of a young Rachel, budding activist, giving a speech on video about...well, helping people and healing the world and all that. It ends. Thank the Lord for small mercies.
The audience applauded, with about 2/3 of the approx. 80 people present (close to a sell out in this small theater) standing, and one woman in the front row moved to tears.
About a third of the people stayed for the post-show discussion with actress Stacy Fischer and artistic director/sound designer Rick Lombardo.
I'll summarize some of what was discussed. It was asked whether Fischer had a political view, but she mostly demurred, saying she was an actress playing a role, but had learned a lot in the process.
Both stated that they had had no major negative reactions or disruptions during this Boston run, only about 15 negative emails, and less than half of those from local people. The night I went was the first time anyone had been leafleting outside the theater. (One activist from Christians and Jews United for Israel was outside politely handing out information on "The Forgotten Rachels" -- the ones who haven't had plays made about them, the ones whose deaths pose no questions as to responsibility -- they were intentionally murdered for political purposes.) Lombardo asked to see the flier and said he welcomed it as part of the dialog.
Lombardo had a couple of mantras. One, that this was "just a play" and he therefore defers any responsibility for inaccuracies or in how the show may have originally been intended as a propaganda effort (You'd have to talk to Rickman and Viner about their intentions, says he). He also repeated that this was just one person's perspective, not a full examination of the facts. Of course, the average theater goer (and the audience appeared to be average theater goers, not activists of any stripe) is attending because they like the idea of the controversy and want to see what it's about, as well as in the hope of learning something about the conflict at the same time. When one skeptical questioner pointed out that what was being presented as Rachel's point of view was a highly edited and tendentious version, another perceptive participant noted that if that were so, then the point of view being presented was a dishonest one, a lie. Smart man.
It came out that the show was intended to be paired (though Lombardo denies any implied pairing) with a new show made from the writings of Yonni Netanyahu, only man killed in the Entebbe raid, but when the Netanyahu family learned that it was to appear with My Name Is Rachel Corrie, they refused to allow it. Good for the Netanyahu's. Instead, the pairing is with another one-woman show called Pieces, written and performed by a female IDF veteran. I have heard it's a decent show, though the playwright/actress betrays her politics (you can guess how they run) during the discussion.
While the activist from CJUI, politely handing out information to theater-goers was kicked to the curb (she had been huddled in the breezeway sheltering from the cold evening) [edit: After a couple of questions on this, let me state that "kicked to the curb" is just an expression. There were no actual kicks involved. Said pamphleteer was simply asked to move to the sidewalk.], I found a stack of glossy cards free for the taking in the lobby, "Israeli soldiers killed Rachel..." it begins on the front, then the back carries the full indictment, with an invitation to visit the anti-Semitic web site, ifamericansknew.org. I guess some "further information" is more equal than others.
The ISM is well on the record for intentionally seeking out and putting in danger young foreigners, with a particular interest in Americans. They know the Israelis don't want to harm them, so they are useful tools in disrupting Israeli anti-terror operations, and if one should be hurt or killed, they and their handlers are geared up to use the death to maximum propaganda effect. Rachel's Palestinian handlers are well versed in manipulating and sending children to their deaths, they scored big by finally managing to get an American to do it. American theaters do nothing to help stop the conflict and everything to encourage more of the same by playing host to this story which contains no substance and a great deal of manipulation. Rachel Corrie is dead. We owe it to others to expose the manipulations and the cynicism that lead to what amounts to her assisted suicide. To write a play pretending that the real story is the cause she was maneuvered into dying over is perverse. Write instead about the terror masters who put here there. That's the real drama.
Feb 6, 2003 - 2nd Lt. Amir Ben-Aryeh, 21, of Maccabim, and St.-Sgt. Idan Suzin, 20, of Kiryat Tivon were killed and two more soldiers were wounded in a shooting attack in the area of Nablus. Both gunmen were killed by return fire from IDF troops. The Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine and Fatah-Tanzim claimed responsibility for the attack.
Feb 11, 2003 - Maj. Shahar Shmul, 24, of Jerusalem was killed by a Palestinian sniper near the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem while checking a suspicious vehicle. The PFLP and the Islamic Jihad claimed responsibility for the attack.
Feb 15, 2003 - Cpl. Noam Bahagon, 20, of Elkana; Sgt. Tal Alexei Belitzky, 21, of Rishon Lezion; St.-Sgt. Doron Cohen, 21, of Rishon Lezion; and Sgt. Itay Mizrahi, 20, of Be'er Sheva were killed when their tank drove over an explosive device weighing 100 kgs while on patrol in the Gaza Strip. Hamas claimed responsibility for the attack.
Feb 23, 2003 - Sgt. Doron Lev, 19, of Holon was shot and killed when a Palestinian sniper opened fire at an army position in the southern Gaza Strip. The PFLP claimed responsibility for the attack.
Mar 5, 2003 - Seventeen people were killed and 53 wounded in a suicide bombing of an Egged bus #37 on Moriah Blvd. in the Carmel section of Haifa, en route to Haifa University. Hamas claimed responsibility for the attack. The victims: Maryam Atar, 27, of Haifa; Smadar Firstater, 16, of Haifa; Kamar Abu Hamed, 12, of Daliat al-Carmel; Daniel Haroush, 16, of Safed; Mordechai Hershko, 41, of Haifa; Tom Hershko, 15, of Haifa; Meital Katav, 20, of Haifa ; Elizabeta Katzman, 16, of Haifa; Tal Kerman, 17, of Haifa; St.-Sgt. Eliyahu Laham, 22, of Haifa; Abigail Litle, 14, of Haifa; Yuval Mendelevitch, 13, of Haifa; St.-Sgt. Be'eri Oved, 21, of Rosh Pina; Mark Takash, 54, of Haifa; Assaf Tzur (Zolinger), 17, of Haifa. Anatoly Biryakov, 20, of Haifa, died of his injuries on March 8. Moran Shushan, 20, of Haifa, died of her injuries on March 11.
Mar 7, 2003 - Rabbi Eli Horowitz, 52, and his wife Dina, 50, of Kiryat Arba, were killed and five wounded Friday night by armed terrorists disguised as Jewish worshippers who infiltrated Kiryat Arba, entered their home and murdered them while they were celebrating the Sabbath. Hamas claimed responsibility for the attack.
Mar 10, 2003 - St.-Sgt. Tomer Ron, 20, of Moshav Moledet, was killed and four soldiers were wounded - one seriously - in Hebron, on the road between the Cave of the Patriarchs and Kiryat Arba, when Palestinian terrorists opened fire on a foot patrol. Two organizations - Hamas and Ahmed Jibril's Popular Front-General Command - claimed responsibility for the attack.
Mar 12, 2003 - St.-Sgt. Assaf Moshe Fuchs, 21, of Kibbutz Gvat was killed and another soldier wounded Wednesday morning in an exchange of fire with wanted terrorists from the Islamic Jihad in the West Bank village of Saida, near Tulkarm.
Lee Kaplan writes about his training with the ISM: Solidarity With Terror
Tom Gross on The Forgotten Rachels
Information on How Rachel Corrie really died (Hint: Not protecting a house)
I linked to two good reviews at The New Republic, here, unfortunately neither is currently online, though I did include a significant quote of one. [Update: The Cynthia Ozick review (excellent) is available here.
Mark Steyn reviews the show: VACATIONING IN SOMEONE ELSE'S DESPAIR - My Name Is Rachel Corrie
This post contains a video example of the ISM's expansive definition of "non-violence"
There is a page of Rachel Corrie related links, here.
This list will be updated, and this text is subject to editing.
Listed below are links to blogs that reference this entry: Earnest Ignorance: My Name is Rachel Corrie at the New Rep.
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