“My Name is Rachel Corrie” and Israel’s waning impunity

On 19 November 2009 the play My Name is Rachel Corrie, was staged at Stanford University. Amanda Gelender produced the play as a part of her Stanford senior thesis. Amanda is my friend and was also my college classmate. We worked together in several campus political organizations, including the student-led Israel divestment campaign.

I attended opening night and along with a sold-out audience was struck by the poignancy of the play and Amanda’s subtle and deeply moving performance. Rachel Corrie was a 23-year-old American woman who traveled to Gaza in 2003 during the second Palestinian intifada. She was killed by a Caterpillar D-9 bulldozer operated by an Israeli soldier as she attempted to prevent the Israeli army from demolishing the home of a Palestinian family. My Name is Rachel Corrie consists entirely of words written by Corrie and recorded in diary entries as well as emails from her early childhood until a few days before her death. Amanda breathes vivid life into Rachel’s words, which themselves reveal the keen sensitivity and eloquence of a poetic nature.

My Name is Rachel Corrie focuses on the coming of age of a young woman. It touches only occasionally — although powerfully — on the political nature of Corrie’s work. Created from Corrie’s diaries and emails, it maintains an utterly personal and intimate voice as it tells the story of her brief life. We see her longings for love and romance and her preoccupation with decorating her bedroom alongside her commitment to social justice. It is this commitment that leads her to Gaza to join an international group that hopes to prevent the demolition of homes there. The play is then focused on her personal foray as she struggles to describe and understand what she sees there. As her diary entries indicate, once in Gaza she is shocked and deeply frightened by the brutality and conditions she witnesses. Her death occurs very soon after these revelations. Rachel describes life for the Palestinians around her — the people who are housing and feeding her and trying to raise their children — and finally speaks with urgent alarm of the need for the world to come to the aid of these people. Her youthful, passionate cry is profound. Her death is wrenching.

Amanda, the lead and visionary behind this production, had been waiting to obtain the rights for the play for nearly two years. But obtaining rights is not always the only hurdle to securing a production of Rachel. Since its London premiere in 2005, several professional American and Canadian theaters have seen their efforts to mount a production of this one-woman show quashed by vigorous opposition from powerful forces. The charge is always the same: the play is anti-Semitic. Amanda’s successful production reflects the changing tide that is occurring within the American public’s relationship to Israel.

The Stanford student production ran for four sold-out performances and after each one Amanda joined a panel of experts and organizers, moderated by play director Ciara Murphy, to discuss the play as well as the Palestinian/Israeli conflict. On opening night the panel included Stanford professors Khalil Barhoum, Joel Beinin and Hilton Obenzinger. The speakers contextualized the play and the vitriolic response to it by pro-Israel supporters.

Indeed, as long as Amanda has been trying to show this play and create a space for Corrie’s words, pro-Israel activists have been trying to silence it. Actor Alan Rickman, who edited the play with Katherine Viner, originally staged the play in London’s Royal Court Theatre in April 2005. It had been scheduled to make its US premiere at the New York Theatre Workshop in March 2006. However, this production was cancelled due to political pressure. Similarly in Canada, the play was pulled from the 2007-08 season of the country’s largest non-profit theater, CanStage, as some of the board members feared a negative reaction from the Jewish community.

For Amanda, producing Rachel is a culmination of her own path to understanding the situation in Palestine. She grew up in what she describes as a progressive Zionist household where it was believed that criticism of Israel was derived from anti-Semitism. It was not until she arrived at college that these beliefs were challenged. One of the outcomes of her intellectual and personal shifts is this production. In the post-show discussion, Amanda explained to the audience that her new identification was met with plenty of opposition. When she first started writing critically of Israel as a college sophomore, she received hate mail from all over the world.

Such insidious pressures and overt threats have created a hostile environment to telling Corrie’s story and of course, the countless tragic stories of Palestinians. They are emblematic of a determination to maintain ignorance about the realities of life in Palestine, and a desire to perpetuate the notions of Israeli innocence, virtuousness and victimhood. In maintaining any hold to this myth, we are preventing the stories of Palestinian lives from reaching the light of day.

Waiting for the doors to open on opening night, I noticed a few students standing outside the door handing out long-stemmed flowers and an attractive pamphlet with the word “Rachel” in large print on its cover. I noticed people filing in holding the flowers a bit carelessly, glancing vaguely at the pamphlet. At first I assumed — along with most people — that the flowers and pamphlets were being handed out by Amanda’s well-wishers.

However, it turned out that the students distributing these items were from the Stanford Israel Alliance (SIA), and the misleadingly designed “Rachel” leaflet that accompanied the pretty flowers stated that SIA protested the production of this play on the grounds that it draws undue attention to the death of Rachel Corrie and ignores the “Jewish Rachels” that have been killed in Israel at the hands of Palestinian suicide bombers. SIA’s preoccupation with proportion has no basis in fact and is actually misplaced. A quick glance at figures tells us that the US media has historically disproportionately failed to report the deaths of Palestinians.

In 2004 media watchdog group If Americans Knew found that the Associated Press reported only 66 percent of Palestinian deaths as compared to 113 percent of Israeli — that is, more deaths than actually occurred were reported.

The efforts to suppress this play’s production are derived from fear that sympathy for Israel will be lost to this 23 year-old girl who was killed by an Israeli soldier. But the achievement which Amanda Gelender and others have with each production is a testament to the waning universal deference to Israel.

Charlotte Silver is a recent graduate of Stanford University where she was active in the boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS) movement. She can be reached at charlottesilver A T gmail D O T com.