Today is the 10th anniversary of the murder of Rachel Corrie by the Israeli occupation forces in southern Gaza. Last night I attended a screening of the 2009 film “Rachel” at Beit Zatoun, which also served as a commemoration, and as an opportunity to reflect on her life, her dreams and aspirations, her sacrifice, and her legacy.
The story of Rachel Corrie is one that I feel some identification with. She grew up in Olympia, a little over a hundred miles south of where I grew up. She was born in 1979, just four years older than me. In the play, “My Name is Rachel Corrie“, you hear her childhood through her own words – the entire play is built from her journals. Every word is her word. And while her childhood is not exactly average if we’re being honest about North American demographics, for those of us who grew up in the predominantly middle-class suburbs, we hear in her words the same emotions we felt when we questioned how “average” our suburban lifestyle really was. In her words we hear our own struggles with privilege, our struggles with recognizing the nearly omnipotent evil that acts in our names and supposedly in our interests, and the overwhelming and often stunting desire to ‘do something’. And, to speak crassly, while there are millions of privileged white kids who have felt these internal battles and desired to strike out against what we so clearly see to be wrong, and thousands of them who have gone to ‘do something’ in the form of solidarity work Palestine or elsewhere, we tell Rachel’s story because she is a martyr. Because her story expresses the truth of all the others. And while we don’t tend to say this explicitly, our actions speak it much louder than any declaration: she is our martyr.
And this is a problem, because the focus on Rachel Corrie always carries the danger of repeating the racism that she was trying to undo. There are new martyrs in the Palestinian struggle all the time. Just three days ago the Israelis killed a Palestinian in Fuwar, near al-Khalil/Hebron in the occupied West Bank. On the day Rachel Corrie was killed, 9 Palestinians were killed by Israeli forces. And yet we focus on Rachel, we obsess over the details of her death. The focus on detail in the film feels like a kind of obscenity to me – the almost endless interviews with military police, the medics, the doctor who performed the autopsy, the other activists who were with her, all going over the events of the day and the particular circumstances of her death. Because of course it’s all a matter of controversy – Israel denies responsibility, and so we have to endlessly argue about it.
But we all know they killed her. What’s the other explanation, it was an accident? We all know that the bulldozers had no right to be in Gaza, and that she was killed because she stood against the occupation. Whether her death was literally willed by the soldier who ran her over, and whether she died from suffocation from the dirt pushed by the blade of the machine, or from the blade of the machine itself, when we focus on this without end we repeat the self-obsession that Rachel also stood against. She went to Palestine to understand about Palestine, and to stand with the people there against the injustices in that place. She was a social justice activist; she cared about her local community, and wanted to know about other locals. If we follow her lead honestly, we should move past the focus only on her death to the local situation that brought it about.
Probably the worst thing about our obsession with Rachel Corrie is that when we condemn her death, we repeat the same racist distinctions which she went to Palestine to oppose. I want to talk about two of these distinctions. The first is the racist distinctions is to assume that white people are more valuable than other people, or that people from our community are more valuable than people in another community (isn’t this after all why we oppose Zionism?) We do this performatively in our constant commemoration of Rachel while we don’t even know the names of the Palestinian martyrs – even the famous ones that would be known by any Palestinian. We don’t try to understand the Palestinian situation from a Palestinian perspective. Not that there is any single Palestinian perspective, there are of course many, as there are in any community. But you can try to learn about them. You can read Palestinian authors. You can read Palestinian authors that are read and celebrated by Palestinians. You can read other authors who influenced the Palestinian movement, and you can read Palestinians writing about those authors. And you can try to understand something about the history from a perspective that isn’t obsessed with ‘peace-building’, that isn’t always portraying Palestinians as victims, and which recognizes and celebrates the specificity of the Palestinian struggle, rather than letting it fall under a concept as you feel obliged to after the forty sixth time some zionist calls you anti-semitic for caring about Palestine. I’m by no means an expert at these things, I can’t even read Arabic. But I can point to certain beginnings, certain openings that you can look at so that you can try to understand not from a totalizing perspective, but moving forward from a fragment. I’m getting off track so I think I will return to this theme in a future post.
The second racist distinction is the idea that anyone in another community who fights back against injustice is a “terrorist”, whereas when we do it we’re a “freedom fighter”, and when we oppress others we do in the name of the “law”, whereas when others oppress others they do it in the name of “tyranny”. Rachel speaks directly against this racism in her journals and these particular words are repeated in the play “My Name is Rachel Corrie” and also in and in movie “Rachel”. And I can quote them here because you can read them in her emails on the Rachel Corrie memorial website.
If any of us had our lives and welfare completely strangled, lived with children in a shrinking place where we knew, because of previous experience, that soldiers and tanks and bulldozers could come for us at any moment and destroy all the greenhouses that we had been cultivating for however long, and did this while some of us were beaten and held captive with 149 other people for several hours – do you think we might try to use somewhat violent means to protect whatever fragments remained? I think about this especially when I see orchards and greenhouses and fruit trees destroyed – just years of care and cultivation. I think about you and how long it takes to make things grow and what a labour of love it is. I really think, in a similar situation, most people would defend themselves as best they could. I think Uncle Craig would. I think probably Grandma would. I think I would.
I can’t actually read these words without tears coming to my eyes. And I can’t reflect on them without feeling anger at the way even the language of the International Solidarity Movement reflects the western logic of “terrorism”. When we say “we support non-violence not terrorism”, or “terrorism is not legitimate armed struggle” we are repeating in discourse the idea that fighting back is only for white people. If our lands came to be occupied by a foreign power, in our time, do you think we would insist on respecting the international law in those ways that we resisted occupation, especially if the occupier had resources and technology which eclipsed our own by a thousand times? Of course not, we would resist by the ways available to us, without regard to any morality higher than the struggle itself. These rights, which intuitively belong to us, we do not accord to others. In any honest consideration, the resistance has every right to operate in Gaza, which is Palestinian territory even by the International Law, and accordingly the Israeli military has no rights there. And if you want to talk about how some bombing in Tel Aviv is terrible, yes, fine, it’s terrible, it is full of suffering and awfulness – but you can’t de-politicize it, you can’t dismiss political violence as “terrorism” when you are occupying and colonizing somebody else’s land.
I honestly feel that a lot of the progress that has been made by Palestinian solidarity movements since the BDS call in 2005, and especially since the end of the Second Intifada, is in danger of being lost. This is because the progress in popular consciousness has been made based on an image of brutal Israeli repression with very little to no Palestinian resistance – in other words, an image of Palestinians as victims who don’t fight back, or who fight back largely ineffectively. We focus on the disparity of force in Gaza, and we focus on the non-violent demonstrations in the West Bank. We have not decolonized our understanding of political violence, and for this reason as soon as there is resistance again we will be forced to condemn it and say that everything that causes suffering is bad because we have not made the anti-racist distinction between the violence of the colonizer and the violence of the colonized.
We must have the courage to make the distinction between the violence of the colonizer and the violence of the colonized. Rachel Corrie can help us. For fellow western settlers in solidarity with Palestine, she is our martyr, and it is for us to be accountable to her legacy. Not to pigeon-hole into the same racist traps she struggled against, but to let her sacrifice open our minds, to help us understand the meaning of what is a martyr and why people continue to struggle in the name of martyrs. and help us take up decolonizing perspectives on Palestine-Israel. To not only condemn suffering, but also to stand up for what is true, and right, and pure, and strong.
RIP Rachel Corrie, April 10, 1979 to March 16, 2003