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Rachel Corrie and the Image of Israel

Commentary: What can we learn from Israel's response to the death of Rachel Corrie, who was crushed by a bulldozer while protesting the demolition of Palestinian homes in the Gaza strip?

Rachel Corrie, painting by Robert Shetterly

“The international media and our government are not going to tell us that we are effective, important, justified in our work, courageous, intelligent, valuable. We have to do that for each other, and one way we can do that is by continuing our work, visibly. People without privilege will be doing this work no matter what, because they are working for their lives. We can work with them, and they know that we work with them, or we can leave them to do this work themselves and curse us for our complicity in killing them.”
-Racher Corrie, activist and writer (1979–2003)

Robert Shetterly painted activist Rachel Corrie for his series of portraits, Americans Who Tell the Truth.

Seven years ago on March 16, Rachel Corrie was crushed to death by a Caterpillar D9R Israeli bulldozer while nonviolently protesting the demolition of Palestinian homes in Rafah, Gaza Strip, along with other members of the International Solidarity Movement (ISM). Now her parents, sister and brother are suing the State of Israel and the defense minister, claiming wrongful death.

The suit's objective, according to Rachel's mother, Cindy, "is to illustrate the need for accountability for thousands of lives lost, or indelibly injured, by [Israel's] occupation ... We hope the trial will bring attention to the assault on nonviolent human rights activists (Palestinian, Israeli and international) and we hope it will underscore the fact that so many Palestinian families, harmed as deeply as ours or more, cannot access Israeli courts."

The state's attorneys have decided to use any and all ammunition to undermine Corrie's suit. They claim that there is no evidence that Rachel's parents and siblings are indeed her rightful inheritors; they argue that she "helped attack Israeli soldiers," "took part in belligerent activities" and accompanied armed men who attacked Israeli soldiers. In defense of the soldiers, the lawyers even write that the State "denies the deceased's pain and suffering, the loss of pleasures and the loss of longevity.

The Israeli state attorneys demonstrate yet again that when winning is everything, shame becomes superfluous.

As Corrie's civil suit is being heard in a Haifa court, Simone Bitton's movie Rachel is being shown at the Tel Aviv Cinematheque. Rendering, as it were, the trial public, Bitton's subtle and nuanced movie also presents two narratives, one offered by the state of Israel and the other by the ISM activists and the Palestinian eyewitnesses who were with Rachel on that tragic day.

Dismantling the Fortresses of Fear
In her actions, Rachel Corrie affirmed her responsibility for upholding the inherent dignity and equal rights of all people.

Active Nonviolence: Heroes for an Unheroic Time :: Thousands of ordinary people are finding new ways to work with enemies and listen with compassion to the people they fear, to create peace in conflict zones.

In a self-reflective moment, the film reveals that about an hour after Rachel was crushed to death, Salim Najar, a Palestinian street cleaner, was killed by an Israeli sniper in Rafah. The incident is important because it emphasizes that Palestinian blood is cheap—no media outlet bothered to cover the killing, and, as Bitton herself notes, no one will likely be making a movie about Najar. This incident also helps underscore that Rachel has become an iconic "Palestinian" of sorts, as well as a symbol of the struggle for social justice. She dedicated the last part of her short life to the Palestinian cause, and, after she was killed, the memory of her human rights work in Rafah has helped internationalize the struggle. Rachel's memory has thus itself become a site where several struggles continue to be played out.

The Israeli government has always recognized the importance of the fight over narrative; it is particularly sensitive to stories—like Rachel Corrie's death—that take on global proportions and therefore influence Israel's international image.

These struggles are considered so important that in 2004 the Israeli Foreign Ministry introduced the "Brand Israel" campaign, whose objective was to alter the country's image by rebranding Israel as a land of medical, scientific and technological innovations. Over the years millions of dollars have been channeled into international PR firms; these firms advised the ministry to draw attention to Israeli scientists doing stem-cell research or to the young computer experts who have given the world instant messaging, while trying to de-emphasize the Israeli-Palestinian conflict by loosening the link between Israel and concrete walls, torture, terrorism, house demolitions, and extrajudicial executions.

Yet following last year's assault on Gaza and the subsequent publication of the Goldstone Report, Brand Israel proponents realized that drawing attention away from conflict-related issues just wasn't working. Turning the wheels back, they argued that "winning the battle of narratives" had to remain a prime objective.

Cutting-edge technology—such as Twitter, YouTube and a newly devised "Internet megaphone"—was immediately utilized by the Israeli military and Foreign Ministry to counter the images of mass destruction coming out of Gaza. Simultaneously, the strategy of branding anyone critical of Israeli policies as an anti-Semite became even more pervasive, and a variety of methods developed by Bar Ilan University's Gerald Steinberg were deployed to delegitimize human rights organizations documenting Israel's occupation while condemning the organizations' donors.

But this, apparently, was not enough. The attack now is directed not only against the messengers—namely, human rights groups and people like Rachel Corrie who refer to international law in order to protest the abusive nature of Israeli policies—but also against the very legitimacy of international human rights law. International law is now considered a major problem, because it is used to criticize Israel's violation of human rights in the occupied territories and obstructs certain strategies employed in the war on terrorism, like torture. The well-known trope that Israel is merely defending itself is at the heart of this complaint too.

When social justice activists like Rachel Corrie are branded terrorists and international human rights law becomes the enemy of the state—all in the name of winning the narrative battle—then it becomes absolutely clear that something is terribly wrong. As Jews around the world come together to celebrate Passover, the liberation of the Hebrews from slavery and the beginning of a life of freedom, they should keep in mind Rachel's last words to her mother: "I think freedom for Palestine could be an incredible source of hope to people struggling all over the world. I think it could also be an incredible inspiration to Arab people in the Middle East, who are struggling under undemocratic regimes which the U.S. supports...." As Jews sit at the Passover table this year, they should take Rachel Corrie's words to heart.


Neve Gordon

Neve Gordon is an Israeli activist and the author of Israel's Occupation.

Copyright © 2010 The Nation — distributed by Agence Global

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