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October 7, 2007

`My Name Is Rachel Corrie’ Plays In Denver

1. Raches I Have Known.

For some time now I simply refer to her as `Rach’, undoubtedly because my younger daughter has a friend Rachel we all called `Rach’. She’s Abbie’s `Rach’. My `Rach’ is Rachel Corrie and since her death – run over by an Israeli bulldozer in Gaza just about the time the US invasion and occupation of Iraq began in March, 2003 – I think about her a lot, and continue to mourn for her as if she were my own. I see her face before me, wonder mostly about how she mustered up all that courage, how she processed what she saw with such honestly, such devastating accuracy and such speed. After all she was only in Gaza a couple of months before she died. Probably having two daughters – the older a few years older than Rach, the younger a few years younger, has something to do with it I am sure. And I think of Cindy and Craig Corrie too and wonder simply …how can they stand the pain, the pain of losing their daughter, of hearing about it not through the Israeli embassy or the US State Dept – that simply would have been human decency – but on the radio one morning. And then having to struggle to retrieve the body. I don’t think I’d have the resources to stand up to all that. All this is not anything that most parents the world over have difficulty understanding.

Shortly after Rachel Corrie `died’ – a very polite way of saying that she was murdered-by-bulldozer – a small group of us held a vigil in her honor in front of the courthouse in Boulder. About 30 people in all. It got the usual amount of media coverage for these events: not a word. It was all dignified and emotional, quiet, a tribute. Mostly we just stood in silence but Ida Audeh read the names of some Israelis who died and Leslie Lomas of Colorado Jews for a Just Peace read the names of Palestinians. I think that was Leslie’s idea. Irving Greenbaum, then in his early 80s, now in his late 80s, was on the mall nearby giving out leaflets. The somber mood was pierced by two schmucks, one in military fatigues, the other an animal rights activist who seems to value the lives of cooking chickens more than Palestinians. The two of them honed in on Irving, wolves zeroing in on prey, becoming more and more aggressive until finally a mall policeman intervened, neutralizing them.

In the weeks and months that followed Rach’s death she was subject to abuse in the media bordering on – no – exceeding the obscene. Savaged on talk radio, in newspapers an eruption of bile became her epitaph. She had broken a taboo the myth of Israel’s fair treatment of the Palestinians; Palestinians were again the victims, Israelis the occupiers, the oppressors and the occupation itself revealed for what it is: a human rights travesty of the first order. Rach witnessed that, wrote about it and died protesting it. That was unforgiveable. The media would have preferred their usual approach to Palestinian suffering. Silence. But an American citizen had suffered a fate not unlike what Palestinian Gazans face every day. And the incident was simply too awful to deny.

Alan Gilbert wrote a short stunning poem about it that captures the moment of Rach’s death (see below this article). She had been crushed – run over by a bulldozer – not your ordinary run-of-the-mill type that Edward Abby fantasized about sabotaging here in the West, but a militarized one, more like a big tank, made especially to destroy homes and gardens – a true weapon of mass destruction if ever there was one, that the Israelis have used to destroy more than 11,000 Palestinians homes in the West Bank and Gaza since 1967. Made in the United States by Caterpillar for special use by the Israeli military, it crushed Rachel Corrie’s lithe body and poetic mind, not once but twice – slowly forward, slowly back – in an obscure corner of Gaza where Rach, a member of the International Solidary Movement, tried to stop the demolition of a Palestinian home. It is actually illegal according to US law to sell weapons to be used for offensive purposes to foreign nations. Caterpillar has made out like bandits on this, raking in the dough. Death and profits. But to add a touch of irony, Caterpillar offers an annual `human rights award’ at commencement ceremonies at Knox College in Galesburg, Illinois just down the road from Caterpillar headquarters.

2. What’s Up With the Denver Post?

No need to write a review of the play, `My Name is Rachel Corrie’, because Juliet Wittman’s in Westword is as good as it gets, dissecting the play both artistically and thematically. These are just some reflections. The play has opened here in Denver and has shown in a few cities including Atlanta and New York. Here in Denver it is produced by a small theater group, Countdown To Zero. They rented what seems to be an empty warehouse right next to the Mercury Café, a local landmark. Just before the play opened, it was featured in a two page spread in the Sunday, September 28, morning edition of The Denver Post written by John Moore that is highlighted on p. 1! There is a huge photo too of Julie Rada, the actress who plays Corrie as well as anyone could. My friend and companero, Evan Weissman, himself an actor and member of a theater group, is quoted.

I went to see the play last night with my other daughter, Molly and two of her friends, Heather and Nicole, pleased to attend in the company of `young people’. As expected, some of the faces in the audience were familiar. Jim and Gabriella Walsh who have their own theater troop were there, as was Eric Bard from the peace movement and Vicki Armstrong – a kind of soul sister since we were both in the Peace Corps at the same time and on the same continent – she in W. Africa (Guinea I believe) myself in Tunisia. But most of the audience of 35-40 people I didn’t know and that always pleases me, giving me the illusion that interest in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict might be broadening. I was as interested in the reactions of Molly and her friends – and those of the audience in general – as I was in seeing the play. What impressed them? What questions did it raise? Heather seemed to absorb the difference between supporting Israel and being Jewish, not an insignificant pychological breakthrough. In a discussion held after the performance in the theater someone commented – somewhat amazed – that he did not view anything he had seen that night as especially `radical’, a telling remark as outside of the USA the ideas presented in the play are essentially mainstream.

I can only speculate as to why the Denver Post gave the story such prominence and as to why, at least to date, the Anti-Defamation League’s regional office has chosen not to launch a campaign to shut it down or disrupt it. Concerning the Post, is it an attempt to break through the silence, `the bubble’ my friends and I call it, the untold story, a hint of what life means for Palestinians living under occupation? One of the lines in the play that struck me as particularly relevant were the words of Rach’s mother, Cindy. Cindy writes her daughter that the Palestinians `have been invisible’ to her. In life, Rach forces her mom to explore that reality. In death, through her writings and now the play, Rach presses many more Americans to do likewise. `I didn’t know’…was the comment several people made afterwards. The bubble was punctured, at least a little. The Post article helped do that.

Or was it a bit more cynical than that?

Just another chapter in an on-going newspaper war? The Post is well aware that across the hall (they are lodged in the same building) the people who run The Rocky Mountain News, one of the more blatantly (and blindly) pro-Israeli papers in the country, would be provoked into responding and that the conflict would sell papers? Interestingly, the Rocky waited a week before responding, doing so in its Saturday issue in a scathing piece by Dave Kopel. Kopel, a fixture on Denver talk shows and in local papers, is the research director of the Independence Institute, a rightwing think tank based in Golden. The Independence Institute is always predictable, supporting unrestrained capitalism at home, support for US wars in the Middle East, knee-jerk support of Israel. I described him in an email to some friends yesterday as `bright, articulate and usually full of ….`, which is pretty much my take on him. Denver’s very own little home grown neo-con since Clifford May was shuffled off to Washington DC. A political hatchet man essentially, no more, no less.

My problem with Kopel is that I can’t help confusing him with his father, Jerry Kopel, a long time consistent liberal Democrat in the Colorado legislature who used to introduce (unsuccessfully usually) pro-teacher, pro- teacher bills there. He was the only legislaturer I remember who would show his face at union (Colorado Federation of Teachers) socials, a decent man. But then the Kopel-the-elder was influenced by World War II, the civil rights movement, Kopel-the-younger by the Reagan Revolution. Besides the conservatives can pay more, we (the left, the peace movement) have nothing to offer – no think tanks, no money, no political influence and just a lot of flak from people like John Andrews, Vince Carroll, Bob Ewegen and Kopel. I suppose I expected Kopel to follow in his father’s footsteps and become (at least) a labor lawyer. Alas.

As for the content of Kopel’s piece slamming the play, it’s not worth commenting on.

3. What the ADL Didn’t Do

As for the ADL, predictably enough, there was Bruce Deboskey, its regional director, doing what I suppose he considers to be his duty, quoted in the Post article, claiming the play `distorts the facts’ (which it doesn’t, not in the least). Still, he expressed some sympathy with the Corrie family and the very way he spoke about Corrie’s death `a horrific accident’ is far more restrained and sympathetic (even if misguided) than I would have expected.

But perhaps more importantly I was more impressed more with what the ADL didn’t do than with De Boskey’s quote in the article.

They didn’t try to derail or stop the production. I know because I asked Brenda Cook, part of the `Countdown To Zero’ team who insisted there had been no pressure of any kind. No calls to the production company, to the building owner, no orchestrated telephone campaign – all that behind the scenes stuff the ADL so excels at. Nor were there pickets outside the theater or plants in the audience making predictably snotty comments. At least not yet. Given the ADL’s recent track record concerning any events where the Palestinians are treated sympathetically and as victims of Israeli Occupation, I would have expected they’d pull something. And I was worried that a small theater production company would not be able to stand the heat and that the whole project would fold.

So what’s this new ADL restraint about?

I dunno. Speculation abounds.

A. Because it would have been worse for the ADL to kill the project (bad publicity) they decided it better to let the play proceed hoping it would pass unnoticed or nearly? (If so, the Post story blew that line of thinking).
B. They’ve had a genuine change of heart and are now more open to hearing `the Palestinian narrative’ to the conflict? (Possible but frankly hard to believe).
C. They’ve been hammered hard lately (Mearsheimer-Walt paper, Jimmy Carter’s book, claims they pushed, or help push, the US into war with Iraq and are now pushing for war with Iran) and needed to make something of a tactical retreat?
D. That under the surface there are intense struggles over how to approach this question with the ADL’s membership pushing the leadership and staff to the left, to be more sympathetic to the Palestinian plight the way they pushed Foxman (who reminds me of Gus Hall) to be more sympathetic to the plight of the Armenians? (wishful thinking on my part?).

Some combination of all that…or something else?

My own admittedly unprovable speculation goes something like this: the ADL (and like-minded folk) are watching the Denver production and public reaction to it very carefully, using it as a kind of test case to see what kind of public reaction the play provokes. How it all plays out here – most especially the public dialogue as well as attendance and general interest – might influence how the ADL and likeminded organizations, will deal with the production elsewhere. And the play will be produced elsewhere, the theme is simply too powerful, and relevant to today’s world, the Palestinian narrative too compelling (the suffer the longest military occupation in modern history), the US-Israeli connection too blatantly cynical and reactionary.

Although those of us who live here would like to believe Denver the center of the West, the nation and the world, even with its over-priced airport and awfully designed (to my tastes) gaudy art museum, and now (finally!) outstanding baseball team, alas and alack, Denver is just a regional center, the American Irkutsk, a staging platform for those vultures in the oil and gas industry, a pleasant enough town to be sure but, run mostly by developers, their shyster lawyers and the usual thugs from the oil and gas industry (and their shyster lawers), isolated from the rest of the country by mountains to the west and 800 miles of high plains to the Mississippi. Doubt that a play produced in Denver will pierce the national insomnia on this issue very much. Still…

In any case and for whatever the reason, it is a relief to see the ADL backing off a bit. Too early to know if they’re just retooling to come out swinging once again, or if some deeper more substantial change is taking place. While hoping for the latter, I expect it’s the former. Time will tell.

See the play `My Name Is Rachel Corrie’ – for info call – 720-221-3821

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