(video is here)
It’s not often that a 1-woman show ignites worldwide controversy. But a play called ‘My Name is Rachel Corrie’ about a young American protestor killed by an Israeli bulldozer in the Gaza Strip, has done just that. In London it played to packed houses raising plenty of hackles. In New York, it was closed down, with claims of censorship flying thick and fast. Now, it’s showing here in Australia and Dateline’s Amos Roberts went along to see what all the fuss was about.
REPORTER: Amos Roberts
Actress Belinda Bromilow is preparing to transform herself into a young American peace activist. She’s the star of ‘My Name is Rachel Corrie’, a controversial play about a woman who was killed in Gaza five years ago. Tonight Dateline has invited two special guests to watch the play and debate it afterwards. Bren Carlill works for the Australia-Israel Jewish Affairs Council, a Zionist lobby group.
BREN CARLILL, AUSTRALIA/ISRAEL & JEWISH AFFAIRS COUNCIL: The play is very controversial, I’ve read that it’s very one-sided and it lacks a lot of context regarding the Israeli-Palestinian dispute. So I want to see if it’s as controversial as it’s made out to be.
Also here is Antony Loewenstein, a Jewish writer who often criticises Israel.
ANTONY LOEWENSTEIN, AUTHOR ‘MY ISRAEL QUESTION’: Obviously I didn’t know her before she died tragically, but I’ve read that she was a passionate young woman, probably bit naive, who went to Gaza essentially to try to protect the Palestinians from occupation.
SHANNON MURPHY, DIRECTOR: It is obviously – just like any story it’s biased, and particularly with this, it’s one person’s perspective. But it is a young person’s perspective who is keen and passionate and who really threw herself into life.
BELINDA BROMILOW, ACTRESS: My name is Rachel Corrie. I am 12 years old. I was born on April 10, 1979, in Olympia, Washington. When I was five I discovered boys, which made life a little more difficult – just a little – and a lot more interesting.
Rachel was determined to be a writer and the play is made up of extracts from her letters and journals.
BELINDA BROMILOW: When I graduated Year 5 we had a list of questions for our school yearbook. One of them was, “What do you want to be when you grow up?” Everyone wrote something like ‘doctor’ or ‘astronaut’ or ‘Spiderman’, and then you turned the page and there was my 5-paragraph manifesto on the millions of things I wanted to be, from wandering poet to first woman president.
RACHEL CORRIE: I’m here for other children. I’m here because I care.
This is Rachel Corrie in fifth grade, already displaying the keen social conscience that led her to the Gaza Strip years later.
RACHEL CORRIE: We’ve got to understand that people in Third World countries think and care and smile and cry just like us.
As she got older Rachel threw herself into community and environmental activism here in Olympia, not far from Seattle. But after the September 11 attacks she became interested in American foreign policy and two years later she travelled to Israel.
BELINDA BROMILOW: January 25th, 2003. Very little problem at the airport – my tight jeans and cropped bunny-hair sweater seem to have made all the difference.
Rachel was one of many international volunteers who came to protest against the Israeli army’s actions in the West Bank and Gaza Strip. She worked with the International Solidarity Movement, a Palestinian-led group committed to non-violent resistance.
BELINDA BROMILOW: The scariest thing for non-Jewish Americans in talking about Palestinian self-determination is the fear of being or sounding anti-Semitic. I’m really new to talking about Israel-Palestine, so I don’t always know the political implications of my words.
But Rachel did know her work was dangerous. Like other volunteers, she was on the front-line of the conflict in the Gaza Strip. She placed herself in front of bulldozers and tanks that were demolishing homes in order to create a so-called buffer zone. The Israeli army says the area was riddled with tunnels used to smuggle weapons.
BELINDA BROMILOW: I don’t know if many of the children here have ever existed without tank shell holes in their walls. I think even the smallest of children here understand that life isn’t like this everywhere. They love to get me to practise my limited Arabic. Today I tried to learn how to say “Bush is a tool”, but I don’t think it translated quite right.
BREN CARLILL: I think Rachel Corrie’s motivations were admirable but what would have been more responsible for her to do is actually find out a little bit about the conflict and war zone that she was throwing herself into. It was a very simplistic view. She blamed Israel entirely – she in no way, shape or form laid any blame at the door of the Palestinians. This view was naive. Even the most extremely pro-Palestinian person would suggest that the Palestinians have done some wrong, which Rachel Corrie didn’t do.
ANTONY LOEWENSTEIN: I think where I differ with Bren of course is the fact when she went to Israel and went to Gaza her belief was to support the underdog, which obviously she’d been through all her life, and the victim in this conflict, as she talks about consistently, are the Palestinians. Israel is occupying Palestinian land and that’s an undisputed fact.
BELINDA BROMILOW: If any one of us had our lives and welfare completely strangled and lived with children in a shrinking place where we knew that soldiers and tanks and bulldozers could come for us at any moment with no means of economic survival and our houses demolished, do you not think, in a similar situation, that most of us would defend ourselves as best they could?
Rachel’s parents, Craig and Cindy, say their daughter’s letters opened their eyes to another side of the conflict, and they believe the play now does this for audiences around the world.
CRAIG CORRIE, RACHEL’S FATHER: Here in the US we don’t hear a lot about what happens to Palestinians – we hear a lot about what happens to the Israelis and a lot of that’s horrible. Cindy and I have friends who have lost children who died in bus bombings so we know something about that part of the story, but we learn from Rachel about the Palestinians who’ve lost children to being shot.
BELINDA BROMILOW: What we are paying for here is truly evil. Maybe the general growing class imbalance in the world.
This is an extract from one of the last letters Rachel wrote to her parents.
BELINDA BROMILOW: Anyway, I’m rambling. Just want to tell my mom that I’m really scared, and questioning my fundamental belief in the goodness of human nature. This has to stop. I think it’s a good idea for us all to drop everything and devote our lives to making this stop. I don’t think that’s an extremist thing to do anymore. I still really want to dance around to Pat Benatar and have boyfriends and make comics for my co-workers but I also want this to stop.
A few days after writing those words Rachel Corrie was killed. The International Solidarity Movement says this photo shows her trying to stop an army bulldozer from demolishing a Palestinian home and that this photo was taken after she was crushed.
CINDY CORRIE, RACHEL’S MOTHER: The first word that we got was on television, seeing the words run across the bottom of the screen. It said “Olympia woman killed in the Gaza Strip” and I’m not proud of the fact that I wondered if there could be some other person besides Rachel, but I think that’s a very human reaction when you know someone that you love so deeply is probably hurt very, very badly or lost.
BELINDA BROMILOW: I love you guys. Sorry about the diatribe.
REPORTER: Who do you hold responsible for her death?
BREN CARLILL: I think the International Solidarity Movement. This is an organization which is a Palestinian organization, that takes naive Westerners and puts them as human shields in war zones – it’s actually a war crime according to the Fourth Geneva Convention, which Rachel Corrie quotes so often during this play. It’s actually a war crime to create and deploy human shields, but Rachel Corrie was a human shield.
REPORTER: So Rachel Corrie was being used by the ISM?
BREN CARLILL: Rachel Corrie died when protecting a weapons smuggling tunnel. Yes, I would suggest she was manipulated by the ISM.
ANTONY LOEWENSTEIN: No, well that’s obviously a view I don’t share. There were thousands upon thousands upon thousands of Palestinians who were essentially left homeless over years because Israel claimed – without much evidence I might add – that these houses were supporting terrorists, which is simply untrue. The information about what happened to Rachel on that day is contested, there’s no doubt about that. The ISM claims that the bulldozer driver Rachael and drove over her. There are conflicting versions – I wasn’t there, I can simply base it on what I have read from a variety of sources. I suspect what happened is that she was in the wrong place at the wrong time and the actual bulldozer…
BREN CARLILL: She purposely put herself in front of the bulldozer. That’s not being in the wrong place at the wrong time. That is a choice that she made and I can say that I have read about it and seen it. I have seen the video footage leading up to her death and she was in a ditch, in front of a bulldozer, crouching down. She chose to be there. That’s not wrong place at the wrong time.
ANTONY LOEWENSTEIN: So therefore she deserved to die.
BREN CARLILL: Not at all, and to put such words in my mouth is disgraceful.
The passions aroused by Rachel’s life and death have had serious consequences for the play. In 2006, a New York theatre indefinitely postponed its production out of concern for the sensitivities of Jewish groups. Many denounced the decision as censorship.
SHANNON MURPHY: Yeah, I think that people are very afraid to take on this particular topic because, as Rachel says, often when you try to take on the Israel-Palestine conflict there’s that fear of being labelled anti-Semitic, which is just ridiculous.
ANTONY LOEWENSTEIN: What happened in New York was that there was talk about bringing it to the States, there was serious pressure from the powers that be there, from elements of the Israel lobby…
BREN CARLILL: “The powers that be”?
ANTONY LOEWENSTEIN: Yeah, from the Israel lobby. This is the way the Israel lobby, the Zionist lobby, works. They don’t like something, they put pressure on organizations or individuals. This is the way it works. In New York, sadly, temporarily, they were successful. Eventually they were not. In the UK, as in most places around the world, it was selling out audiences, as it was in Australia as well. The point is, sadly, the organization that Bren is a member of, in Australia, does not believe in the concept of open and free debate.
BREN CARLILL: That sounds like absolute rot. The organization that I work for is the Australia Israel-Jewish Affairs Council. We do not try and shut down debate. We want open and free speech…
ANTONY LOEWENSTEIN: From your perspective only.
BREN CARLILL: What rot. Opinion pieces in newspapers around Australia have opinion pieces for both narratives. This is democracy, this is pluralism, this is freedom of speech. AIJAC is trying to do that.
ANTONY LOEWENSTEIN: Well, I’m still waiting to see an Israel lobbyist ever complain about a performance that was very, very pro-Israel. If that happens, I’d like to be told about it.
BREN CARLILL: Well, as someone from the quote unquote Israel lobby I’d like to say that I’m no theatre critic. And all I can talk about is the context of plays as opposed to the plays themselves.
BELINDA BROMILOW: We are all born, and someday we’ll all die.
Perhaps the play’s ideological critics are missing the point. What touches audiences is a young woman’s disarming attempts to make a difference.
BELINDA BROMILOW: I can’t cool boiling waters in Russia. I can’t be Picasso. I can’t be Jesus. I can’t save the planet single-handedly. I can wash dishes.
CINDY CORRIE: I don’t believe that every young person needs to go to Gaza or to do this kind of work. But I think the question of ‘how can I make a difference in the world?’ is something that – it’s good that people think about when they see this play, when they hear this story.