by Charlotte Silver
On November 19, 2009, My Name is Rachel Corrie made its Bay Area premier at Stanford University. Amanda Gelender, senior at Stanford University, produced a staged reading of the play as a part of her senior thesis at Stanford University. Amanda is my friend. She was also my college classmate and 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 Intifada. She was killed by a Caterpillar bulldozer driven by Israeli Defense Forces as she attempted to prevent the IDF from demolishing the home of a Palestinian family. My Name is Rachel Corrie consists entirely of words written by Corrie herself, recorded in diary entries and emails from Rachel’s early childhood until a few days before her death. Gelender breathes vivid life into Rachel’s words, which themselves reveal the keen sensitivity and eloquence of a poetic nature.
Amanda Gelender, 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 premier 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. Gelender’s successful production reflects the changing tide that is occurring within the American public’s relationship to Israel and anti-Semitism.
The Stanford student production ran for four sold-out performances and after each one Gelender 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 Khalil Barhoum, Joel Beinin, and Hilton Obenzinger, all Stanford professors. Each of the speakers offered a few words of reflection and then allowed the audience to pose questions.
Beinin’s remarks contextualized this premier by noting the resistance to it being shown in other theatres. In watching the play, he said, we feel sorry for this young woman who is killed at the age of 23. He invited us to ponder the vitriol that this feeling of sympathy for Corrie has engendered. Beinin’s point underscored the fact that for 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.
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 U.S. premier at the New York Theatre Workshop in March 2006. However this production was cancelled due to political pressure and an unfavorable reaction among polled Jews. 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 “rabidly Zionist”—but otherwise progressive—household, and firmly 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 told us 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 Rachel’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 to reach the light of day.
Waiting for the doors to open on opening night, we milled about in the lobby, as people collected their tickets, read the programs and chatted with friends. 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 Stanford Israel Alliance, 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 reported statistics on coverage of Israeli and Palestinian deaths. It found that the Associated Press reported only 66% of Palestinian deaths as compared to 113% of Israeli (that is, more deaths than actually occurred were reported).
It is important to note that 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 along side her commitment to social justice. It is this commitment that leads her to Gaza to join an international group which 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.
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 IDF soldier. But the achievement which Gelender and others have with each production is a testament to the waning universal deference to Israel, and the conflation of criticism of Israel with criticism of Jews. I have attended nearly every event at Stanford concerned with Palestinian rights for years. Each one has been attended by the same, highly vocal, pro-Israel pack of detractors asking the same largely irrelevant and disingenuous questions of the speakers. The night I saw Amanda’s play, I noted the stalwart group appears to have dwindled to one lone member.
Charlotte Silver is a 23-year-old recent college graduate. She works as an intern at the American Civil Liberties Union, Immigrant Rights Project and was active in the BDS movement at Stanford University. She can be reached at charlottesilver (at)gmail (dot)com
— Notes —
“Deadly Distortions,” If American Knew, April 26, 2006. http://www.ifamericansknew.org/media/ap-report.html