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Contemplating Rachel Corrie

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Message Jerome Richard

Rachel Corrie is the young woman who in 2003 stood in front of an Israeli bulldozer in the Gaza strip and was killed by it. She was trying to protect a Palestinian house from demolition. There is a dispute over whether or not the driver saw her, or whether he could not see her over the bulldozer's blade. It is a crucial question, but not the one that concerns me here. I believe Rachel Corrie was sincere in her belief that she could help protect Palestinians from a house demolition, and admirable in her sympathies.

She is in the news again because her parents recently brought a civil suit against the Israeli government. They have also sued the American manufacturer of the bulldozer. (The case was dismissed.) In the years since her death a play titled My Name is Rachel Corrie, based on her diaries and e-mails home, was widely produced. There have been several songs composed about her, and she has been the subject of many articles and documentaries. The Corrie family has also established The Rachel Corrie Foundation for Peace and Justice.

Surely, no one would deny the Corries their grief at losing a daughter, or their pride in a courageous young woman who died trying to protect others. My concern is that in order to foster admiration for Ms. Corrie her memory is being used to promote hatred against Israel. I don't believe that is her parents' intent, but it is what some people see as the necessary counterpart to sympathy for the Palestinians. She is also a useful symbol for people who are anti-Israel. "Corrie's story has become a rallying cry for international anti-Israel activists." (Seattle Times, 3/10/10)

For those who believe that only a fair two-state solution to the conflict will bring lasting peace, there is plenty to criticize on both sides. So, anyone who thinks the issues are one-sided, has removed themselves from the community of people seeking peace.

There was a time when Israel had the sympathy of caring people in the west. The country was seen as the underdog against an array of Arab countries bent on its destruction. Admiration reached a peak in the daring 1976 raid at Entebbe that rescued over a hundred Israeli hostages. But look around now at any college campus, or at street demonstrations on almost any issue, and you will see that sympathy has largely shifted to the Palestinians. This is partly because having won the wars inflicted upon it, Israel is no longer perceived as the underdog, but the principal reason is that the Palestinians are perceived as victims. Never mind that they are to a great degree the cause of their own victimization, or that they have suffered as much from their own corrupt and inept governments as from Israeli occupation, the perception is accurate enough. The Palestinians have real, legitimate grievances

Israel's often heavy-handed actions have enhanced the perception of Palestinians as victims. House demolitions of the families of suicide bombers were an example of such oppressive actions. They were meant to be a deterrent. It was a deplorable policy, and one that has since been rescinded. (Demolitions in Gaza were generally of houses that were concealing tunnels used to smuggle weapons whose end use was to kill Israelis.) Roadblocks that have made movement difficult and even humiliating, the use of excessive force, resulting in the killing of innocents, and the seizures of Palestinian land and destruction of Palestinian olive groves, and above all the denial of an independent homeland have certainly portrayed the Palestinians, accurately enough, as victims.

Of course, there is also much to blame on the Palestinian side, including the refusal to recognize Israel's right to exist (the PLO has done so belatedly; Hamas still refuses), participating in wars against Israel, rejecting a reasonable peace offer at Taba, sending suicide bombers to murder innocent people, and rocket attacks. Thomas Friedman, foreign correspondent for the New York Times, and a person quite familiar with the Middle East, once wrote that had the Palestinians practiced non-violence they would have had a state thirty years ago. I think he was right.

A presentation that does not recognize the grievances of both sides, or one that merely promotes hostility towards one side or the other, is not helpful. In fact, it only aggravates the dispute. What is needed is mutual understanding of the other side's grievances. Organizations such as Just Vision (www.justvision.org) and Combatants for Peace (www.combatantsforpeace.org) ) are good examples of just such organizations.

Exploiting Rachel Corrie's memory will not promote peace. Peace will take understanding and sympathy for the grievances on both sides. If I were her parent, I would certainly grieve and be proud of her. She sympathized with people she considered oppressed, and acted on her principles. She was a protester. That was noble. She was not a peacemaker. That would have been more noble.

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Jerome Richard is the author of the novel The Kiss of the Prison Dancer, and editor of the anthology The Good Life. He presently works and lives in Seattle.
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