Let’s at least start with something we can agree on: twenty-three is too young to die.
About the life – and death - of Rachel Corrie, can we agree on more? We humans are a divisive bunch. I just watched “I Am Rachel Corrie,” acted (toute seule) by Monique Wilson, and was astonished, as I stumbled out of the Music Museum theater, to be told by her brother, Jamie, that the production had received hate mail. Hate mail? In the Philippines? About the story of the life and death of a pure-souled young American woman? Yes, it seems some of our Christian brethren here can’t abide anything that threatens to put Muslims in a good light, especially if thereby it puts Israelis in a bad one. Such is the power of the almost universal belief in us versus them.
Rachel herself, in stark contrast, comes across – in her own words, masterfully edited by Alan Rickman and Katherine Viner from 800 pages of diaries and emails, and powerfully delivered on stage by Monique - as extraordinarily unbigoted (I see even my computer doesn't recognize this word). While repeatedly placing herself in appalling – and ultimately fatal – danger, she all the while expressed nothing more prejudiced, really, than bewilderment at the deliberate violence being daily visited on the innocent Palestinians she had come to try and help.
Rachel believed in something vitally important, she believed it very strongly, and it was something to which most of us are blind. When you can see something very important that others cannot see, the urge to open their eyes to your vision can be very strong indeed. What she believed she had summed up in a Grade Five graduation speech (shown in a film clip at the end of the play), in which she exhorted her fellow students to reach out with compassion to the less fortunate, especially the poor, because “they are us. We are them.” For the rest of us, so immured at almost every level behind what we feel are unbreachable barriers between our own social group and others, this kind of non-dualism must seem almost a form of lunacy. Certainly it seems so to those 'Christian' hate mailers.
Lunatic idealist that she was, Rachel was consumed by “class guilt” – shame at having been born into apparently undeserved privilege, embarrassment at the willful ignorance that people like us display concerning the suffering of the less fortunate, but determined to use the privilege of her class – the fact that she was someone the privileged could relate to - to bring this suffering to our attention. After the show I got a reminder of our willful class ignorance from Rito Asilo, the director: “Of course, this is not a commercial show,” he told me, matter-of-factly. “The public doesn’t pay to watch this kind of thing.”
Monique, as Rachel, speaking the words from her diary, laments the silence of the mainstream media on the plight of the Palestinians. She speculates that surely the actions of the international volunteers, challenging the Israeli bulldozers (albeit with a degree of immunity not enjoyed by their beneficiaries) must cause some ripple of concern in the outside world. If they won’t respond to Palestinian sufferings, perhaps they’ll wake up to the dangers that their fellow countrymen and -women are facing. Humanity just can’t be so callous and uncaring not to notice, and react. Can it?
Dream on, Rachel! Our cultural immune systems are not so easily swept away. By the end of the play, and of her diaries, our willful ignorance has all but worn her down, and she has begun to doubt inherent human goodness. She has by now witnessed horrors that no girl her age should, but she realizes that, young though she is, these experiences pale beside the fact that the children all around her have never experienced anything else. What view of human nature must they have?
Well, the answer apparently is, a benign and tolerant one. In the midst of appalling suffering and deprivation she is met with nothing but sharing kindliness and (something that the inhabitants of Tel Aviv also apparently possess) a determination that life must go on – and even be enjoyed - no matter what. Her last act in the play, before her death under the tracks of an advancing bulldozer, is to answer the door to her neighbor, who has brought her a gift of some peas from his war-ravaged garden. Ah, but – my cynical, privileged self whispers - they are brother and sister in adversity, are they not? There’s nothing like an external threat to abolish differences and bring people together. They’re united – but against a common enemy. How would her neighbor behave, I find myself wondering, if he too were affluent and privileged?
Which raises in my mind a troubling thought: are the problems of humanity caused by poverty, or might they perhaps be caused by privilege?
The tragedy of Rachel Corrie was that her idealism was exposed to the extremities of human suffering too soon after a carefree childhood. She had an all-consuming desire to give back to others the privileges with which she had been blessed. Her idealism drove her to meet the forces of Palestine’s destruction literally head-on. She faced her last, on-coming bulldozer with exactly the same conviction with which that lonely, briefcase-carrying young man faced the convoy of tanks in Tiananmen Square. They were both declaring their utter repudiation of a primitive form of human behavior which their own higher values found intolerable. They declared it with the most precious thing they could – the temple of their bodies, the physical foundation of their existence - because they believed that no fellow human being would dare violate the sanctity of that upon which all our values rest. They could not live and have that not be true. The Chinese tanks turned aside. The Israeli bulldozer did not.
Watch a filmclip about Rachel Corrie here.