“My Name is Rachel Thaler” is not the title of a play that is
likely to be produced anytime soon in London. Thaler, aged 16,
was blown up at a pizzeria in an Israeli shopping mall. She died
after an 11-day struggle for life following the February 16,
2002 attack, when a suicide bomber approached a crowd of
teenagers and blew them up.
She was a British citizen, born in London, where her
grandparents still live. Yet I doubt that anyone at London’s
Royal Court Theatre or most people in the British media, have
heard of her. “Not a single British journalist has ever
interviewed me or mentioned her death,” her mother Ginette told
me last week.
Thaler’s parents donated her organs for transplant (helping to
save the life of a young Russian man), and grieved quietly.
After the accidental killing of Rachel Corrie, by contrast, her
parents embarked on a major publicity campaign. They traveled to
Ramallah to accept a plaque from Yasser Arafat on behalf of
their daughter. They circulated her emails and diary entries to
a world media eager to publicize them.
Among those who published extracts from them in 2003 was the
influential British leftist daily The Guardian. This in turn
inspired a new play, “My Name is Rachel Corrie,” which opened
this month at the Royal Court Theatre, one of London most
prestigious venues. (The New York Times recently described it as
“the most important theatre in Europe.”)
The play is co-edited and directed by Katharine Viner, the
editor of The Guardian’s weekend magazine, and by film star Alan
Rickman (of Die Hard and Harry Potter fame). Their script weaves
together extracts from Corrie’s journals and e-mails.
For those who don’t recall the story, Rachel Corrie was a young
American radical who burnt mock-American flags at pro-Hamas
rallies in Gaza in February 2003. A short while later she died
after jumping in front of an Israeli army bulldozer that was
attempting to demolish a structure suspected of concealing
tunnels used for smuggling weapons.
Partly because of the efforts of Corrie and her fellow activists
in the International Solidarity Movement (ISM), the Israeli army
was unable to stop the flow of weapons through these tunnels.
Those weapons were later used to kill Israeli children in the
town of Sderot in southern Israel, and elsewhere.
However, in many hundreds of articles on Corrie published
worldwide in the last two years, most papers have been careful
to omit such details. So have Rickman and Viner, leaving almost
all the critics who have reviewed the play completely clueless
about the background of the events with which it deals.
“Corrie was always a progressive with a conscience … she went to
work with the International Solidarity Movement in Gaza,” wrote
Michael Billington in The Guardian last week, without a shred of
explanation as to what the ISM actually is.
The ISM is routinely described as a “peace group” in the western
media. Few make any mention of the ISM’s meeting with the
British suicide bombers Omar Khan Sharif and Assif Muhammad
Hanif, who a few days later blew up Mike’s Place, a Tel Aviv
pub, killing three and injuring dozens - including British
citizens. Or of the ISM’s sheltering in its office of Shadi
Sukia, a leading member of Islamic Jihad.
Or of the fact that in its mission statement, the ISM said
“armed struggle” is a Palestinian “right.” “‘Israel’ is an
illegal entity that should not exist,” wrote Flo Rosovski, the
ISM “media co-ordinator,” clarifying the ISM’s idea of peace.
Unfortunately for those who have sought to portray Corrie as a
peaceful protester, photos of her burning a mock American flag
and stirring up crowds in Gaza were published by the Associated
Press and on Yahoo News on February 15, 2003, before she died.
But the play doesn’t mention this.
So British reviewers are left to tell the British public that
the play is a “true-life tragedy” in which Corrie’s “unselfish
goodness shines through” (Evening Standard).
“Corrie was murdered after joining a non-violent Palestinian
resistance organization,” writes Emma Gosnell in the Sunday
Telegraph. (“Murdered” is a term that even Corrie’s staunchest
defenders have hesitated to use up to now.)
Charles Spencer in the Daily Telegraph, talks of “Corrie’s
concern for suffering humanity… ones leaves the theatre mourning
not only Rachel Corrie but also one’s own loss of the idealism
and reckless courage of youth.” Not surprisingly, the play has
also been praised on Al Jazeera’s website and in the Beirut
Daily Star. In one of the most astonishing comments, Michael
Billington, the Guardian’s critic, writes of the play: “The
danger of right-on propaganda is avoided.”
It is ironic to reflect that there have been several real
victims of the Intifada called Rachel – and it is hard to
believe that these critics have ever heard of them. All these
other Rachels died within a few months of Corrie, but – unlike
her – in circumstances that weren’t disputed. They were
Rachel Levy (17, blown up in a grocery store), Rachel Levi (19,
shot while waiting for the bus), Rachel Gavish (killed with her
husband, son and father while at home celebrating a Passover
meal), Rachel Charhi (blown up while sitting in a Tel Aviv cafe,
leaving three young children), Rachel Shabo (murdered with her
three sons aged 5, 13 and 16 while at home).
Katharine Viner, the co- director of the Corrie play, is
certainly familiar with Palestinian terrorists. For example, in
2001, she described a Palestinian hijacker she interviewed in
The Guardian as such:
“The iconic photograph of Leila Khaled, the picture which made
her the symbol of Palestinian resistance and female power, is
extraordinary in many ways: the gun held in fragile hands, the
shiny hair wrapped in a keffiah, the delicate Audrey Hepburn
face refusing to meet your eye. But it’s the ring, resting
delicately on her third finger. To fuse an object of feminine
adornment, of frivolity, with a bullet: that is Khaled’s story,
the reason behind her image’s enduring power. Beauty mixed with
(Since that interview Viner has twice been named British
Newspaper Magazine Editor of the Year.)
Only one critic (Clive Davis in the Times of London) dismisses
parts of the play as “unvarnished propaganda.” At one point
Corrie declares “the vast majority of Palestinians right now, as
far as I can tell, are engaging in Gandhian non-violent
resistance”. As Davis notes, “Even the late Yasser Arafat might
have blushed at that one.”
Rachel Corrie’s death was undoubtedly tragic. But ultimately
this play isn’t really about Corrie, but about fomenting hatred
of Israel. The production is now sold out and there is talk of
it being staged in America. The Royal Court is also rushing out
a printed edition of the play to give to schools.
(The writer is the former Jerusalem correspondent of The Sunday