Friday, June 13, 2008

Rachel Corrie and (self-)deceit

More than five years ago, in March 2003, Rachel Corrie, a young American, was killed in Gaza while trying to obstruct an Israeli army bulldozer. An Israeli investigation concluded her death was an accident, but the Palestinians believe it was intentional. Now, on publication of Corrie’s diaries, an American Jewish academic, Roberta P Seid, has lambasted the exploiting of Corrie as a ‘poster child, an alleged symbol of youthful idealism, Palestinian victimization, and Israeli brutality’.

Rachel Corrie had only been in Gaza two months, working for the International Solidarity Movement (ISM), a Palestinian movement which advocates non-violent resistance to Israel’s land occupation, when she was killed while trying to stop the destruction of Palestinian homes. The circumstances of her death remain controversial. Wikipedia gives a good summary. In essence, an official Israeli investigation concluded that, having been hidden from view, she was killed accidentally by debris falling as a result of a bulldozer’s actions. The ISM claim the bulldozer driver ran over Corrie deliberately.

In any case, during the last five years, Corrie’s death has been used widely by Palestinians and their supporters for campaigning against Israeli occupation of their lands. Many musicians have written songs about her, and she has been the subject of countless articles. In 2005, a play My Name is Rachel Corrie, composed from Corrie’s diaries and emails, opened in London. It was written by British actor Alan Rickman and journalist Katharine Viner; Rickman also directed the play. Viner wrote about the process of editing Corrie’s journals for The Guardian. She starts by quoting one entry from when Corrie was around 19 or 20, which is worth re-quoting.

‘Had a dream about falling, falling to my death off something dusty and smooth and crumbling like the cliffs in Utah,’ she writes, ‘but I kept holding on, and when each foothold or handle of rock broke I reached out as I fell and grabbed a new one. I didn't have time to think about anything - just react as if I was playing an adrenaline-filled video game. And I heard, “I can't die, I can't die,” again and again in my head.’ The same article contains other good extracts from Corrie’s diary.

Now the diaries themselves have been published, with the title Let Me Stand Alone: The Journals of Rachel Corrie, by Granta Books in the UK and WW Norton in the US. Amazon UK or Amazon US lets you have a peek inside. Although publication was a little earlier this year, Commentary magazine has just published a response to the book, by Roberta P Seid. Commentary calls itself America’s premier monthly magazine of opinion and a pivotal voice in American intellectual life, and has been a flagship of neoconservatism since the 1970s. Seid is a Jewish intellectual who is also connected to StandWithUs, a pro-Israel advocacy organisation based in Los Angeles.

Seid’s article in Commentary is entitled The (Self-)Deceit of Rachel Corrie. She finds no facts to back up the Palestinian version of Corrie’s death and therefore criticises the way ‘the ISM and other anti-Israel activists seized upon Rachel’s death for public relations purposes’. The young American, she says, ‘instantly became their poster child, an alleged symbol of youthful idealism, Palestinian victimization, and Israeli brutality.’ She talks of the ‘Rachel Corrie industry’, and makes particular play of the fact that Corrie’s parents, who had never shown interest in the Middle East conflict, are now regulars on the international anti-Israel lecture circuit.

Corrie’s diaries, she writes in Commentary, are of interest ‘primarily because they provide insight into how a young American girl ended up in Gaza with the ISM, trying to protect terrorist operations and demonising Israel, about how anti-Israel propaganda and the ISM work, and about who or what actually killed Rachel Corrie’. She finds evidence in the diaries that Corrie was ‘ripe fodder for the ISM’, and that the organisation ‘callously recruited idealistic, naive “internationals” to break Israeli law, violate [Israeli] security zones, indoctrinate them with its peculiar version of the conflict, and to groom them as future speakers for its anti-Israel cause.’

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