Interventions

Interventions is a feature in Middle East Report Online offering critical reviews of important Middle East-related books, films and other cultural production. Click here for past Interventions articles.

Rachel Corrie in Palestine…and in San Francisco

by Joel Beinin | published August 2009

The San Francisco Jewish Film Festival, the oldest such festival in the United States, was founded in rebellion against received wisdom. Since 1980, the festival has promoted independent Jewish films that contest the conventional Hollywood depiction of Jewish life, particularly its lachrymose over-concentration on Jewish victimhood, and regularly presented “alternatives to the often uncritical view of life and politics in Israel available in the established American Jewish community.” The festival’s audience, mostly Jewish, has reacted positively to this policy, even in 2005, when the organizers decided to show Palestinian filmmaker Hany Abu-Assad’s Paradise Now, the theme of which is suicide bombing.

Critical Israeli Jewish auteurs have also been welcome. In 2008, the Israeli director Shai Carmeli Pollak came to San Francisco to present his film, Bil‘in Habibti (Bil‘in, My Love), which records the non-violent struggle of Palestinians, supportive Israelis and internationals to stop construction of Israel’s separation barrier in a West Bank village. The festival has previously screened two films by Simone Bitton, a Moroccan-born, dual Israeli-French citizen. The first, Mahmoud Darwich: The Land as Language (1998), is an appreciative biopic about the late Palestinian poet laureate. The second, Wall (2005), is an unflattering examination of the separation barrier.

Bitton’s current work, Rachel (Ciné-Sud Promotion, 2008), is not yet in distribution. It has appeared only at film festivals, in Berlin, Paris, New York, Sarajevo, Toronto and elsewhere. In the fall of 2009 it will play at the Haifa Film Festival in Israel. On July 25 and August 4, it was shown at the San Francisco Jewish Film Festival.

The festival’s board of directors surely knew that showing Rachel—which investigates the violent death of Rachel Corrie, a 23-year old American peace activist, at the hands of the Israeli army—would discomfit some Jewish viewers. But they were likely unprepared for the strident, even hysterical, objections of the official organizations of the Bay Area Jewish community. In light of the San Francisco Jewish Film Festival’s history, it is difficult to imagine that these organizations were exercised primarily by the content of the film. Indeed, they saved their strongest language for the “virulently anti-Israel, anti-Semitic” co-sponsors of the screening, Jewish Voice for Peace and the American Friends Service Committee (AFSC), and the decision of the festival organizers to invite Rachel’s mother, Cindy Corrie, whom they dubbed an “Israel basher,” to take part in a question-and-answer session after the lights went up.

But generic anger at “Israel bashing” is an unsatisfying explanation for the Jewish organizations’ ire, since Jewish Voice for Peace had previously co-sponsored films at the festival and Carmeli Pollak and other Jewish filmmakers had criticized Israel’s occupation policies in much sharper terms than anything anyone in the Corrie family has said on the record. Perhaps the problem was that the festival organizers brought non-Jews—AFSC and Cindy Corrie—under the community tent to witness something of which many members of the community are ashamed.

Forensic Investigation

The death of Rachel Corrie brought a raft of journalistic inquests, all ostensibly concerned to sift through the competing claims of her fellow activists in the International Solidarity Movement (ISM), who say she was murdered, and the Israeli state, which prefers to call her untimely end a “regrettable accident.” Some of the media accounts were skeptical of the army’s internal inquiry, others less so. Many reporters seemed more eager to grill the ISM activists who were present than the soldiers, in lockstep with the Israeli army’s own counterattack: “We are dealing with a group of protesters who are acting very irresponsibly, putting everyone in danger—the Palestinians, themselves and our forces—by intentionally placing themselves in a combat zone.” And the army, despite Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon’s reported promise to President George W. Bush of a “thorough, credible and transparent” investigation, was hardly open to outside scrutiny. Human Rights Watch, which included a section on Corrie in a June 2005 report on faulty Israeli military inquiries, was unable to pronounce a verdict upon how she died, but did conclude that “the impartiality and professionalism of the Israeli investigation into Corrie’s death are highly questionable.” In any event, the following facts are not in serious dispute.

On March 16, 2003, Corrie, a senior at Evergreen State College in Olympia, Washington, was crushed by an Israeli army bulldozer in Gaza. The mammoth Caterpillar D9 bulldozer, custom-fitted with armor by Israel, was leveling the ground and demolishing Palestinian homes in the city of Rafah along the Philadelphi axis—the road that runs along the border between Egypt and the Gaza Strip. Many homes and buildings had already been destroyed to create an open space in preparation for constructing a wall on the border. Corrie was working with the ISM, an organization dedicated to non-violent, direct action in solidarity with the Palestinian people under military occupation. She was killed as she stood, unarmed, in front of the home of a Palestinian pharmacist, Samir Nasrallah, in an attempt to prevent the bulldozer from razing it.

Rachel is a deeply moving portrayal of Rachel Corrie the person and ISM volunteer. And though no firm conclusion is asserted, the film is also the most thorough, credible and transparent investigation yet conducted into exactly how she died and who was responsible. As Bitton has written, on a Facebook page dedicated to Rachel, it “does some of what a court should have done” in putting the Israeli state’s narrative of Corrie’s death under the microscope.

Simone Bitton focuses first on the last eight weeks of Corrie’s life, her reasons for going to Gaza, her relationships with several Palestinians, with whom she became quite close, and the work of the ISM in Rafah. The ISM was conceived in the spring and summer of 2001. During the first three weeks of the second intifada, which erupted following Ariel Sharon’s visit to the Temple Mount/Haram al-Sharif in September 2000, the right-wing Israeli daily Ma‘ariv reported that Israeli forces fired a million bullets at mostly unarmed Palestinian demonstrators. This hail of lead flew before any suicide bombings or other acts of terror inside the pre-1967 borders of Israel took place. (The last suicide bombing had been in 1996.) In the face of this imbalance of force, Ghassan Andoni, George Rishmawi, Huweida Arraf and others developed the idea that a non-violent international presence could protect Palestinians from the ravages of the Israeli military. In addition, they thought, international witnesses who communicated what they saw and experienced could enhance international awareness and media coverage of Israeli violence. The first ISM contingent arrived in Palestine in August 2001. Corrie was an enthusiastic participant, writing home, “Coming here is one of the best things I’ve ever done.” The recitation of these words in the film is a gut-ripping moment, as those in the audience know that Rachel Corrie will soon die.

At Pains to Explain

Rachel devotes very careful attention to the circumstances of the protagonist’s death. Like a forensic detective, Bitton gathered pertinent oral testimonies, documents, photographs and video footage. Only the voices of those directly involved are heard: Corrie’s ISM colleagues and Palestinian friends and hosts in Rafah, ISM co-founder Andoni, the Israeli military police officer who investigated the case, the Tel Aviv coroner who examined the body, and Jonathan Pollak, a member of the Israeli group, Anarchists Against the Wall (and brother of filmmaker Shai Carmeli Pollak), who put up Corrie’s colleagues in his Tel Aviv home after she died. Rachel Corrie herself is heard as well, through a narrator’s readings of her e-mails home.

There are no abstract political proclamations. Conflicting testimonies are juxtaposed. It is notable that, of all the persons interviewed, Andoni is the only one who considers that he may bear some responsibility for Corrie’s death, since he trained her and sent her to Rafah. Simone Bitton proceeds like an attorney questioning witnesses, sans speeches to the jury or inferences from the testimony. This technique makes the film a powerful documentary record whose value goes far beyond Bitton’s obvious sympathy for Corrie and her questioning of the official story.

That story—“It is clear the death of Ms. Corrie was not caused as a result of a direct action by the bulldozer or by its running her over”—does not hold up well under Bitton’s lens. On camera, the Israeli military police officer who led the investigation expresses a twinge of doubt about his own conclusions. He admits that he did not visit the site of the Nasrallah home and relied primarily on the testimony of soldiers. Among the eyewitnesses he did not interview were the ISM volunteers who saw the bulldozer run over Corrie from a distance of as little as ten yards. They maintain that their comrade was quite purposely run over, not once, but twice. The official claim that the bulldozer driver did not see Corrie because she was behind a pile of dirt is definitively disproved by Israeli army video footage that shows her standing on top of the mound, wearing a highly visible reflective orange jacket, as the bulldozer approached.

In April 2003, Israel’s National Center of Forensic Medicine released an autopsy report that attributed Corrie’s death to “pressure on the chest (mechanical asphyxiation) with fractures of the ribs and vertebrae of the dorsal spinal column and scapulas, and tear wounds in the right lung with hemorrhaging of the pleural cavities.” How could this finding—she was crushed—be squared with the military police’s seeming absolution of the bulldozer? As the coroner who performed the autopsy is at pains to explain to Bitton, it is possible that Corrie was killed by the weight of the dirt on her body as the bulldozer was passing over her. Since there was no indication that metal had touched her body, he could not conclude that the bulldozer itself killed her.

It is not only the Israeli officials whose conduct is suspect, the film goes on to show. The coroner acknowledges that the Corrie family had a right to be present at the autopsy; since they could not attend, it would have been proper for the US embassy in Tel Aviv to send a representative. Yet embassy officials, despite the request of the Corrie family that they witness the procedure, told the coroner that they were not interested in doing so. Therefore, he proceeded on his own.

The Corrie family has tried persistently to get the US government to mount its own inquiry. A resolution introduced by their congressman, Rep. Brian Baird (D-WA), directing the Department of Justice to open an investigation received 78 co-sponsors but died in committee. John McKay, the former US Attorney for western Washington and one of eight US attorneys fired by the Bush administration in 2006, told the Corries, “There will never be a US investigation into Rachel’s case.” The US government remains loath to intercede despite its own position, recorded in a letter to the Corries from former State Department official Lawrence Wilkerson and never rescinded, that Israel’s investigation was inadequate.

Did the bulldozer driver, whose name is kept confidential by the Israeli army, intentionally kill Rachel Corrie? The film is agnostic on this point. According to Bitton, “The intentional crime my movie addresses is not Rachel Corrie’s death. It is the willful destruction of entire neighborhoods, carried out with the knowledge that people who stay in their homes or attempt to defend them will be killed in the process. One clearly sees where this leads us: Six years later, in the same spot, the same army kills hundreds of innocent victims in supposedly targeted bombings. Today the end result has been reached: All Palestinian civilians, as well as anyone seeking to give them assistance, are potential collateral victims; their lives are, strictly speaking, not worth anything anymore. Talking about war crimes or bringing up the Geneva Conventions makes you look naïve, archaic.”

These words were written in early 2009, on the heels of Israel’s “all-out war” upon “Hamas and its kind” in Gaza, an operation that left well over 1,000 unarmed Palestinians dead, but they were applicable in 2003 as well. The Israeli army began destroying blocks of homes in Rafah, to cap the same cross-border supply tunnels that achieved such notoriety during the Gaza war, in 2001.

The Value of One Life?

There is undoubtedly something disturbing about making a film focused on the life and death of one young American woman while Israel has killed thousands of non-combatant Palestinians since the outbreak of the first intifada in 1987. One justification is that both the Jewish and Muslim traditions affirm that the value of the life of every human being is equally boundless. Another is the testimony of the soldier who says, “We didn’t know they were foreigners; we thought they were Palestinians.” Does this suggest that, if Rachel Corrie had been a Palestinian, it would have been routine to kill her? Might the world media have failed to notice her death, particularly since any investigation would have been perfunctory at best? Israel’s record in the Occupied Territories and the corporate media’s response to it indicate that this surmise is not unwarranted. Yet the response to Corrie’s death has not been overwhelming either.

Until Corrie’s death, the ISM did not imagine that the Israeli army might kill internationals. In fact, she was the first of several international victims. On April 11, 2003, another young ISM activist, Tom Hurndall, was shot in the head in the Gaza Strip by an Israeli sniper, Taysir al-Hayb. (Al-Hayb is a Bedouin with several family members serving in the Israeli military.) Hurndall went into a coma and died nine months later. In April 2005 an Israeli military court convicted al-Hayb of manslaughter and obstruction of justice; he was sentenced to eight years in prison. A year later, a British inquest jury determined that Hurndall was a victim of “unlawful killing.” According to the Hurndall family lawyer, this legalism means “intentionally killed,” or murdered.

On May 2, 2003, James Miller, a Welsh filmmaker, was shot dead by an Israeli soldier, Capt. Hib al-Hayb. The Israeli military police concluded that they could not determine that al-Hayb’s shot was responsible for Miller’s death. The captain was disciplined for violating the rules of engagement, however, and for changing his account of the incident. In April 2006, an inquest jury of a London coroner’s court returned a verdict of unlawful killing. In August 2007 the Israeli daily Ha’aretz reported that the British attorney general had written to his Israeli counterpart requesting a criminal investigation, on the basis that ballistic tests carried out in Israel “could only show that the bullet that killed James [Miller] did not come from the rifle barrels of the weapons that were examined.” On the basis of their own ballistic analysis, the British believe the Israelis tested the wrong rifles or even switched the barrel of the offending weapon. Israel has not prosecuted Capt. al-Hayb.

There have been non-lethal shootings as well. On April 5, 2003, Israeli forces shot many rounds of machine gun fire at the face of Brian Avery, an American volunteer with the ISM in the West Bank town of Jenin. The shots broke his jaw and eye socket, and Avery sued for damages. The army refused to investigate the case, claiming that no soldiers had reported the incident. In February 2005 the Israeli Supreme Court ordered the army to reopen the case. Avery settled out of court for $150,000 in November 2008. Most recently, on March 13, 2009, 37-year old Tristan Anderson from Oakland, California suffered critical brain damage in the West Bank village of Ni‘lin when Israeli forces shot him in the head with a new high-velocity tear gas canister which has been used since the December 2008 launch of Israel’s assault on Gaza. Anderson was demonstrating, along with villagers, Israelis and other internationals, against the separation barrier Israel is constructing that would effectively annex one quarter of Ni‘lin’s land. A resident of Ni‘lin was shot in the leg with live ammunition in the same demonstration. Anderson remains in critical condition, and his long-term prognosis is uncertain.

Rachel does not address these casualties or attempt to assess the long-term effect of the ISM’s interventions in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Since no form of resistance—non-violent or armed—was able to deter Israel’s slaughter of civilians in the Gaza Strip in the winter of 2008-2009, perhaps it is fair to say that the most substantial impact of the ISM’s work was on the volunteers themselves. The film briefly explores the variety of personal and political motives that brought Rachel Corrie and her colleagues to Palestine. Among them are untutored idealism and youthful naïveté (which they themselves acknowledge in retrospect). None of them were “experts” in the history of the conflict or fully understood the complexities of the Palestinian society into which they inserted themselves. But now they have learned a hard lesson: Anyone who gets in Israel’s way may be killed.

Crossing a Line

While Ghassan Andoni and some of the ISMers demonstrate some capacity for critical reflection about Rachel Corrie’s death, the official institutions of the Bay Area Jewish community were united in rejecting such reflection. The official Jewish institutions certainly were not ready to consider Jonathan Pollak’s climactic explanation for his willingness to host ISM volunteers in his home: “I could not live in this place without resisting, not merely verbally, but by action.” Pollak, an Israeli Jew, has been injured several times by the Israeli army while demonstrating non-violently in Bil‘in. A soldier shot him in the head with a tear gas canister in April 2005, causing two internal brain hemorrhages and a wound requiring 23 stitches. Since the Jewish institutions have not erupted in protest over equally provocative films in the past, perhaps their over-the-top reaction to the screening of Rachel was a form of circling the wagons after the widespread international condemnation of Israel’s assault on the Gaza Strip.

The faceoff in the Bay Area Jewish community was initiated by an editorial in the Jewish weekly, J, which was particularly incensed that, since Simone Bitton was unavailable, Cindy Corrie would take questions after the screening. “Cindy Corrie’s appearance crosses a line,” the J editors wrote. “The Jewish Film Festival is under no obligation to offer a microphone to Israel bashers.” Suggesting that there are and ought to be “lines” marking the boundaries of “acceptable discourse” in the Jewish community, to use a term employed by the festival’s executive director Peter Stein at the screening, sounds suspiciously like the McCarthyite notion of “un-American activities.” Why the elder Corrie was presumed to be an “Israel basher” the editors did not specify.

While J arrogated to itself the right to draw lines, the two leading Jewish charitable foundations in the Bay Area, Koret and Taube, pushed the panic button. The foundations attacked the San Francisco Jewish Film Festival for making “three egregious errors”: First among them was “partnering with Jewish Voice for Peace and the American Friends Service Committee, two virulently anti-Israel, anti-Semitic groups that support boycotts, divestment and sanctions against Israel. Both are closely associated with the International Solidarity Movement and other groups that aid and abet terror against the Jewish state. These groups cross the line for inclusion in the Jewish community.” Second was “to present a film that lays blame for the accidental death of a civilian at the door of the State of Israel.” And third was to “invite Cindy Corrie into our community. This bereaved mother cannot help but have a negative bias toward Israel. Why would a Jewish organization hand her a microphone and a soapbox from which to condemn Israel as Jewish audiences are expected to sit and listen politely? There is no possible counterbalance to an emotional, grieving mother.”

The foundations’ rhetoric is tendentious, at best. Jewish Voice for Peace forthrightly supports selective divestment, targeting US companies that aid Israeli occupation policies, and its members have been active in the effort to induce Caterpillar to stop selling Israel the bulldozers that knock down Palestinian residences in violation of international law. The organization does go further than many Jewish anti-occupation groups in refusing to condemn more expansive boycott and divestment campaigns. Its website is articulate on the point that such endeavors, and criticism of Israel generally, are not perforce anti-Semitic or even “anti-Israel.” Jewish Voice for Peace has, indeed, published a book-length refutation of that canard, Reframing Anti-Semitism: Alternative Jewish Perspectives (2002). At the same time, the organization’s members insist on speaking out against the occupation as Jews, rather than merely as US citizens or defenders of human rights, precisely because (according to the website) “as Jews, we can make the distinction between real anti-Semitism and the cynical manipulation of that issue to shield Israel from legitimate criticism.” The foundations’ attack on the venerable Quaker peace organization, AFSC, is similarly reliant on an untenable definition of “anti-Israel” that brooks no quibble with the Jewish state’s policies. And since two key staffers of AFSC’s Middle East program in San Francisco, including Rabbi Lynn Gottlieb, are Jewish, the allegation of anti-Semitism is predicated upon the insipid idea that these Jews are “self-hating.”

Is Cindy Corrie in the grip of “negative bias toward Israel” and its partisans in the United States? Judging by the YouTube video of her post-film discussion with Stein and the audience, no. Asked by Stein if she understood the vehement protests against her presence, she said she regarded them as part of a “very healthy discussion” within the Jewish community. She further remarked that members of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC), with whom she disagrees politically, “believe they’re doing good.” Her comportment was consistent with the words of Rabbi Brian Walt, executive director of Rabbis for Human Rights-North America: “If I were in [the Corries’] situation, I would imagine that the temptation to hate those who killed my daughter would be hard to resist…. Despite their daughter’s tragic death, the Corries have never spoken in a hateful way toward Israel or Jews. On the contrary, they are deeply committed to peace and to the security of all people in the conflict, Israelis and Palestinians.” Indeed, the 1,200 people (mostly Jews) in the Castro Theater on July 25 seemed generally appreciative of Corrie’s remarks.

Nonetheless, the film festival organizers clearly felt the pressure mobilized by the official Jewish organizations. Five days before the festival began, board president Shana Penn resigned with five months left on a two-year term, citing "healthy differences on how to approach sensitive issues." (She will remain on the board.) In the end, the organizers allowed Michael Harris of San Francisco Voice for Israel (affiliated with the ultras of Stand With Us) to speak briefly before what he called “the Rachel Corrie hagiography” played on screen. His remarks are also on YouTube. Where Cindy Corrie was conciliatory, Harris was pugilistic, saying that Rachel “intentionally put herself in harm’s way,” enumerating the names of suicide bombing victims who were doing nothing “more risky than riding a bus, or going to buy a slice of pizza or a cup of coffee” and even averring (to loud boos) that these deaths explained why the bulldozer that killed Rachel was operating in Gaza.

It is difficult to imagine that Jewish Voice for Peace or Simone Bitton would be invited to counter the presentation of a speaker from San Francisco Voice for Israel, or AIPAC, or the Israeli consulate. So were the Bay Area Jewish organizations really upset about lack of balance? The leading figures at J and the Koret and Taube Foundations certainly know that there is sharp debate among Israelis about the occupation, home demolitions and the morality of army actions, so were they really concerned with protecting the security of Israel? A more convincing hypothesis is that their outcry is about power. The official institutions of the Jewish community are built on a foundation of money (lots of it) and draw their strength from the two main pillars of American Jewish identity—Holocaust commemoration and unquestioning “support for Israel.” Taking away one of these pillars would be an institutional disaster.

Although the furor over Rachel in the San Francisco Jewish community is a tempest in a teapot compared to the daily catastrophes suffered by the Palestinian people in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip, it does have some significance. It demonstrates as definitively as possible that the American Jewish community is deeply split on the question of Israel-Palestine. Public opinion polls suggest that the Koret and Taube Foundations represent the minority position in the community, certainly among Bay Area Jews. More and more American Jews find themselves attracted to the moral commitment that animates Rachel, and left cold by the tactics of pressure groups that spend so much money to shut down debate over Israel and its occupation policies. And that is why the pressure groups are beginning to fail.

Filed under: