The publication of Let Me Stand Alone: The Journals of Rachel Corrie adds yet another item to the growing body of Corrie memorabilia.
The twenty-three-year-old American from Olympia, Washington, died in Gaza in March 2003 when, as a member of the International Solidarity Movement (ISM), she tried to obstruct an IDF bulldozer that, according to the IDF, was destroying rocket launchers in the overgrown brush near a Palestinian home.
An official Israeli investigation concluded that her death was an accident. The driver, in the 10 foot-high bulldozer with its limited visual field, could not see Corrie, who was hidden by a mound of dirt or standing in a trench in the military security zone. The Israeli autopsy report determined that she had been killed by a blow to the head from debris probably dislodged by the bulldozer.
However, the ISM and other activists insisted the driver had seen Corrie, and intentionally killed her. They released two photographs for evidence. The first showed Corrie standing in full view of the bulldozer, shouting at the driver through a bullhorn she was holding. In the second photo, she lay crumpled on the ground in front of the bulldozer. Within hours of the photos’ release, observers noticed from the position of the sun that the two photos had been taken hours apart, and that the bulldozer in the first picture was not the same as the one in the second. Other questions surrounded her death: had she died on the spot, in the ambulance or in the hospital emergency room; did the Gazan doctor do all he could to save her?
Despite these questions, the ISM and other anti-Israel activists seized upon Rachel’s death for public relations purposes. The young American instantly became their poster child, an alleged symbol of youthful idealism, Palestinian victimization, and Israeli brutality. As a Hamas activist said at Rachel’s funeral, “‘Her death serves me more than it served her…Her death will bring more attention than the other 2,000 martyrs.’….” Corrie was the first American to be hailed as a Palestinian martyr. It is not surprising that these activists refuse to even entertain the possibility that her death was an accident. If it were, she would no longer be a useful symbol for indicting Israel’s self-defense measures and its very right to exist.
The efforts to elevate Rachel into a martyred idealist and artist began immediately, followed shortly by efforts to portray her as a new Anne Frank. Today there are Rachel Corrie memorial websites, scholarship funds, and events commemorating the anniversary of her death. More well-known is the controversial play based on her diaries, My Name is Rachel Corrie, which had runs in London, Seattle, New York and other U.S. cities. Her parents, who had never shown interest in the Middle East conflict, are now regulars on the international anti-Israel lecture circuit. This spring, they appeared at several southern California anti-Zionism week events, which are mounted annually by campus Muslim Student Associations. Corrie has also become the cause celebre for divest-from-Israel campaigns whose new strategy is to focus on the Caterpillar Corporation, primarily because a Caterpillar bulldozer was involved in her death. The family and other Palestinians brought a suit against Caterpillar in U.S. federal court for its complicity in Israel’s “inhumane actions.” The court dismissed the suit in July 2007 for being a political issue outside the court’s jurisdiction.
Now yet another item has been added to the Rachel Corrie industry: the book, Let Me Stand Alone: The Journals of Rachel Corrie edited by her family with an introduction by her father, and released in 2008.
“She was, first and last, a writer and artist,” her father writes in the introduction, and her family evidently wanted to give her, posthumously, the writing career she sought. According to her father, “In offering Rachel’s writing to the public, our family helps her complete the journey to become a published author.”
Her depiction of the Palestinian-Israeli conflict and of Gaza in the journals seems almost quaint, an echo of Palestinian propaganda from the days before Israel’s disengagement, the brutal Hamas coup, and surfacing reports that Hamas charges a $3,000 tax on owners of Gaza’s 150 tunnels — the very kinds of tunnels Rachel was trying to protect. Historians may find the Journals useful for documenting the stages of the propaganda war against Israel.
The Journals are of interest primarily because they provide insight into how a young American girl ended up in Gaza with the ISM, trying to protect terrorist operations and demonizing Israel, about how anti-Israel propaganda and the ISM work, and about who or what actually killed Rachel Corrie.
Little in her diaries and writings suggested her future activities. She had what comes across as an almost idyllic childhood in a semi-rural area of Olympia, with an older sister and brother and doting, modestly middle class parents who liked camping and the out-of-doors, and who encouraged her writing, drawing and ballet, and seemed to help cultivate her belief that she had a “special potential.” Raised in a nurturing home and apparently nurturing schools, she had little reason to doubt herself or doubt that the “fire in my belly” was a sign of artistic drive and of achievements to come.
Her more rebellious teen and college years were filled with intermittent depression, struggles with her mother, neo-beat activities, all-night drug and alcohol parties, a job on the graveyard shift of a mental health service for low-income clients, cigarette smoking in the early dawn streets with the town’s derelicts after her shift, and bouts of agoraphobia.
The diaries demonstrate little introspection. Rachel Corrie rarely questioned herself, her opinions, or her motives. In her writings, she attempted no human portraits, except very brief ones of her first love, Colin, and even these are about how he reacts to her. Hers is a hermetic world, and her idealism was similarly focused inward — an inchoate, vague passion that fastened on a variety of the progressive causes espoused by her family, home town, and college, Evergreen.
All this made Rachel ripe fodder for the ISM. This Palestinian-led organization callously recruited idealistic, naïve “internationals” to break Israeli law, violate IDF security zones, indoctrinate them with its peculiar version of the conflict, and to groom them as future speakers for its anti-Israel cause. While soothing volunteers by insisting that ISM engaged only in non-violent resistance, the organization nonetheless defended and abetted Palestinian violence (its website affirmed the “right to armed resistance against occupation”) and was committed to dismantling Israel’s counter-terrorism measures which were intended to prevent the mass murder of Israelis.
Paradoxically, the ISM described the Territories as a war zone where Israel wantonly killed Palestinians, but assured volunteers that they would not be harmed because of their “international white-person privilege,” in the words of the diaries, and that the greatest risk they faced was “arrest and deportation even though none of us have done anything illegal.The ISM was offering tantalizing heroism: the chance to stand up against an unjust military power as a human shield with any personal danger neutralized by a “white person privilege” as protective as a superhero’s invisible shield.
Despite these reassurances, the ISM’s own website admitted that if an “international” was harmed, the resulting media attention would help its cause. The ISM intentionally exploited the idealism of young foreigners, misled them into believing violating Israeli law and military security was not illegal, and intentionally put them in extremely dangerous situations.
The second culprit should be Corrie’s school, the progressive Evergreen College, which irresponsibly encouraged her participation with ISM. Corrie wrote that the course that most affected her was “Local Knowledge,” whose primary purpose was to get students involved in community activism for progressive causes. The class focused on the “links between historic repression, racism, propaganda campaigns and xenophobia to our present situation.” She concluded that “it’s important that human rights and resistance to oppression be included in the way we define ourselves as a community.” Maybe it was in this class, too, that she learned that the United States is “perhaps one of the most racist countries in the world.”
She had had no particular interest in the Middle East or knowledge about it, but spurred by the class, she began attending Olympia Movement for Justice and Peace (OMPJ) meetings since anti-Israel activism was one of the smorgasbord of causes. There she uncritically absorbed OMPJ’s ideology and learned about “people offering themselves as human shields in Palestine,” and heard ISM activists talk about their “Freedom Summer” in Palestine in September 2002. She was inspired: “They say we are invited there. I can’t believe this can be true. Even me?”
She eagerly signed up, and her indoctrination continued. She began ISM training and reading ISM recommended tracts about the Palestinian-Israeli conflict and staple anti-Israel narratives from Amira Hass, Sarah Roy, Noam Chomsky, Al-Ahram Weekly, and journalist Graham Usher. The three Evergreen faculty and staff members she consulted included Simona Sharoni, an Israeli who co-founded Women in Black. They did not try to dissuade her from going.
There is an air of unreality in all of this. Neither Corrie, nor the faculty, nor the ISM activists ever acknowledged she would be entering a war zone. Suicide bombing in Israel had reached a peak in early 2002, and Israel had launched Operation Defensive Shield to wipe out the terrorist networks in late March and early April. The violent conflict was still intense when Rachel chose to go to “meet the people who are on the other end of the portion of my tax money that goes to fund the U.S. and other militaries”—and to “get the learning that comes from traveling while hopefully having my trip have some use to the people I am going to see.” No one warned her that entering a war zone was not just an interesting travel experience.
She was oblivious to the larger context of the conflict and to her surroundings, and her apparent lack of curiosity about them, is breathtaking. There is not a word in the journals about the terrorist campaign unleashed on Israel in September 2000, not a word that reveals that Gaza, especially Rafah (where Corrie stayed) was a hotbed of terrorism and arms smuggling. She apparently never watched the videos of suicide bombers’ last statements, or questioned the increasing radicalization of Palestinian society. Rachel never mentions the Palestinian Authority or Yasser Arafat, and gives no inkling of Gaza as a clan-based society with competing clans vying for power. There is no sense that she tried to understand or was even aware of the society in which she now lived.
Nor did she make any effort to analyze Israel’s predicament. Her radical sources convinced her that Sharon’s “fingerprints” were on Palestinian suicide bombings: Sharon’s policy is “assassination-during-peace-negotiations/suicide attack within the green line/land grab strategy, which is working well now to create settlements all over the Occupied Territories….” – and again–“Sharon has I think pretty much admitted that suicide bombings are a way of getting more land under the guise of security.”
She continually imposed her own grid of beliefs to interpret facts on the ground. She defended terrorism when she acknowledged it existed, claiming that “international law…recognizes the right of people to legitimate armed struggle.” If people in her hometown of Olympia faced the dire conditions Gaza faced, she rhetorically asked her mother, don’t you think “we might try to use somewhat violent means to protect the edge of the greenhouses, to protect whatever fragments remained?” Unless her family excluded them from the published journals, she also made no mention of Israeli terror victims. Instead, she claimed that “the vast majority of Palestinians right now, as far as I can tell, are engaging in Gandhian non-violent resistance” — a counterfactual observation that led Times of London reviewer Clive Davis to write that “Even the late Yassir Arafat might have blushed at that one.”
Finally, what is most curious about Corrie’s Journals is that hard as she tried to impose the ISM narrative on what she saw, her reports constantly contradicted this narrative, though she didn’t recognize the contradictions.
She wrote that decades of occupation had oppressed Palestinians, yet Gazans kept saying that their difficult situation was due to the Intifada and to Israel’s subsequent counterterrorism measures, not to a decades-old occupation. One Gazan said, “There was a peaceful time in the late seventies and early eighties…things were better before Sharon”—that is, before Sharon became Prime Minister in 2001. (253) Another told her: “Before—no tanks, no bulldozers, no gunshots. Quiet….No noise. After Intifada, daily. Gunshots daily.”
She even confirmed that conditions in Gaza worsened only with the Intifada. She wrote that 60,000 people from Rafah had worked in Israel in 2001, but that the number had dropped to 600 by 2003. But she never drew the logical conclusion that her Gazan informants kept repeating—the terrorist campaign had forced Israel to take defensive measures.
Similarly, Corrie demonized the Israeli soldiers, but they hardly appear demonic. When she and other internationals stand in front of the tanks, the soldiers “open their weird tank lids and wave at us.” The Israeli district command officer worked to “ensure the safety of Palestinian workers.”
Nor, to her surprise, were Palestinians afraid of the soldiers. When a Gazan runs from his home with his two children after ISM mistakenly informed him that his house was to be demolished, she “was terrified to think that this man felt it was less of a risk to walk out in view of the tanks with his kids than to stay in his house.” She tried to interpose herself between him and the tanks, yet he clearly did not need her protection. Children play in full view of the tanks, apparently unafraid. (She was stunned to find that despite tanks and bulldozers passing by, “all of these people are genuinely cheerful”—even though this did not fit into her preconceived notions. When IDF soldiers entered a house to position themselves on the roof, no one was bothered or harassed. The children just watched cartoons on TV.
Indeed, despite Israel’s counterterrorism measures, Palestinians were free to carry on their usual activities and even anti-Israel rallies. While she was there, Eid celebrations were held, and so was the anti-Israel, anti-US rally where Rachel burned a paper replica of the American flag. Such rallies were held even though, according to Corrie, a former IDF commander expressed concern that “terrorists would sneak into our ‘political protest’ and attack settlements.”
While she claimed that the IDF bulldozed homes even though families were still inside, she also admitted (on page 311) that most of the homes were empty during these IDF operations. While she and other internationals denounced the checkpoints, they nonetheless described them as similar to the security checks at international airports.
Oddly, too, while Rachel condemned various IDF actions that she witnessed, she inadvertently revealed that they were justified. When she and other ISM internationals ran to retrieve the body of a “martyr,” she did note that the terrorist group, DFLP, had sent him on his mission to attack soldiers. While she bemoaned the IDF’s destruction of Gazan homes, she admitted that most were located near tunnels—the arms smuggling tunnels the IDF was trying to destroy—or just along the border, precisely where Israel was trying to create a buffer zone to prevent more arms smuggling. She blamed the IDF for blowing up a Palestinian greenhouse, even while she acknowledged that someone from the “Palestinian resistance” had planted an explosive there and the IDF was merely defusing it.
“The surreal thing is that we are safe” here, she wrote. More surreal is the fact that Rachel Corrie, indoctrinated by the ISM, her college, and suspect sources, imposed her preconceived notions on a situation that did not match those preconceptions. Tragically, anti-Israel activists are exploiting her accidental death to promote this surreal narrative.
The greater tragedy is that her parents are doing the same. Their lack of curiosity about the ISM and their wholesale acceptance of its propaganda are startling, especially given that the ISM put their daughter in danger. Nor has evidence that the ISM activists sheltered known suicide bombers and terrorists, and was barred from entering Israel, dampened their defense of the organization. Instead of using their bitter experience as a warning to parents of other would-be ISM recruits, they are using their position as bereaved parents to win sympathy for the group most responsible for their daughter’s death.