Idealism Gone Astray

The play that has the whole New York arts scene talking is not a new Broadway spectacle, but rather a small one-woman drama playing at the less-than-noteworthy Minetta Lane Theatre. But what the play, “My Name is Rachel Corrie,” lacks in excitement, it more than makes up for in naïve, political agitprop.

“My Name is Rachel Corrie” is based on the letters and journal entries of American student Rachel Corrie, who was crushed to death by an Israeli army bulldozer in the Gaza Strip in 2003. Ruled to be an accident by an Israeli Army inquiry, Corrie’s death nonetheless became a cause célèbre among the far left. The play, which opened in London and received mixed reviews in New York, has been heralded as a moving portrait of idealism, activism, and the horrors of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

But the problem with “My Name is Rachel Corrie,” and many other works of art that deal with political conflict, is that they dramatize and idealize individuals while ignoring the greater political forces at play. “My Name is Rachel Corrie” may provide a moving look at the personal diaries of a blindly idealistic young girl, but it ignores the fact that Corrie’s death was simply a tragic accident that was inherently meaningless in the greater scheme of the conflict. In fact, Corrie, at the time of her death, was probably doing more harm than good towards bringing about a peaceful settlement to the Israeli-Palestinian clash.

Corrie went to Gaza under the auspices of the International Solidarity Movement (ISM), a group that, according to its Web site, is “a Palestinian-led movement committed to resisting the Israeli occupation of Palestinian land using nonviolent, direct-action methods and principles.” These “methods” usually take the form of sending American students to disrupt Israeli military activity including the demolition of Palestinian homes—some of which have been built to hide smuggling tunnels used to bring explosives for suicide bombers.

Although purportedly committed to “nonviolent” resistance, the ISM has routinely allied itself with the most extreme factions of Palestinian society. ISM members have even been accused of associating with suicide bombers, including the ones that attacked the Mike’s Place bar in Israel in 2003, killing three Israeli civilians.

Many idealistic students brought to Israel by ISM, including Rachel Corrie, could be described as naïve pawns of Palestinian extremists looking to garner sympathy from the Western media. This sentiment was probably best expressed by a Hamas activist, who said of Corrie: “Her death serves me more than it served her. Going in front of the tanks was heroic. Her death will bring more attention than the other 2,000 martyrs.”

Palestinian militants often treat Western activists in the West Bank and Gaza with respect and gratitude until they find another use for them. Take, for example, the case of Kate Burton, a Scottish aid worker who was kidnapped, along with her parents, by Palestinian militants in 2005. The militants were only compelled to release the Burtons after the Palestinian Authority intervened.

The ISM and other organizations that wittingly or unwittingly aid extremist groups in Palestinian society are performing a grave disservice to the region as a whole. The Israeli-Palestinian conflict can only be solved diplomatically; there are simply too many moral, political, and historical factors at play. ISM activists, like Rachel Corrie, idealistically believe they are helping the Palestinians, but in reality only add fuel to the fire, deepening the animosity on both sides.

This is not to say that there is no place for individual activism in the West Bank and Gaza Strip. International Red Cross volunteers routinely put their lives on the line to bring medical and humanitarian assistance to Palestinians affected by the conflict. By recognizing that the politics of the region are best left in the hands of politicians and diplomats, these volunteers are able to perform vital services for Palestinian society.

Rachel Corrie deserves to be remembered as another tragic casualty in a war that has consumed so many lives, not as the idealized heroic freedom fighter that “My Name is Rachel Corrie” presents her to be. It is only when those on both sides of the conflict can shed this kind of misplaced idealization that a true peace settlement will be possible.

Jacob M. Victor ’09 is a social studies concentrator in Leverett House. He is the co-deputy director for political affairs for Harvard Students for Israel.