Jerusalem theater revives Rachel Corrie's controversial memory

Jerusalem's mayor is citing freedom of expression as he defends public funding for the theater showing a play about pro-Palestinian activist Rachel Corrie.

Sebastian Scheiner/AP
In this photo taken July 7, 2013, Israeli actress Sivane Kretchner plays American activist Rachel Corrie as she performs in a theater in Jerusalem. A one-person play about an American activist who was killed by the Israeli military is being performed for a Hebrew-speaking audience in Jerusalem.

“When I leave Palestine, I’ll probably have nightmares and constantly feel guilty about not being there,” agonizes the Israeli actress playing Rachel Corrie, the American activist killed in Gaza in 2003. 

She paces the stage in jeans and kaffiyeh, contemplating injustice and the madness of the intifada. 

The theater goes dark and audio of an Israeli soldier relaying the news of her death to his commander plays against the roar of a bulldozer – authentic evidence used in a failed suit against the state.

This is the first Hebrew-language performance of "My Name is Rachel Corrie," a one-woman, 90-minute monologue based on the college student’s diaries and e-mails.  

Ms. Corrie, from Olympia, Wash., joined the pro-Palestinian International Solidarity Movement (ISM) in January 2003 when she was 23.  She was killed by a military bulldozer two months later, while trying to block the demolition of a pharmacist’s house in Rafah, Gaza.

During its rule over the Strip, the IDF attempted to thwart the flow of weapons via smuggling tunnels by razing homes, a practice human rights groups condemned as collective punishment for Palestinian suicide bombings. A 2010 Haifa District Court ruling stated that the state bore no responsibility for Corrie’s death. While the Rachel Corrie incident was largely glossed over in the Israeli press, amongst pro-Palestinians at home and abroad she became an inspirational icon. 

Today, a decade after Corrie’s death, is the perfect time for Israel to review its military history, says Ari Remez, the play's director. And Jerusalem, the epicenter of the conflict, is the perfect setting. The play has gained traction with a diverse crowd, he says. 

“I wanted to understand what brought her here, and what that says about us [Israelis],” says Mr. Remez. 

He was delighted that “people came to see the play – not leftists – explicitly out of curiosity, and many left identifying with Rachel Corrie’s set of ethics and hopes for a better world.” 

But the play has not been unanimously well received. Deputy mayor of Jerusalem David Hadari dubbed Corrie an “anti-Israel tourist.” 

“Rachel Corrie was killed. It was an accident,” says Mr. Hadari. “But it needs to be mentioned that everything she was was against Israel, and we as a state don’t need to acknowledge or appreciate her.”

His campaign to halt the $90,000 in public funding to the Khan Theater, the venue hosting the production, ultimately, was nixed by Jerusalem mayor Nir Barkat

“Even if the municipality and mayor don’t agree with the specific content that presents soldiers in a negative light, we are prevented by law from interfering in the freedom of expression,” said Mr. Barkat in a statement. 

Across town last month in East Jerusalem, the annual Palestinian children’s puppet theater festival was not so lucky.   

Israel’s Ministry of Defense cancelled performances and shut the theater based on the claim that the festival’s organizer illegally received funds from the Palestinian Authority.

By contrast, "Rachel Corrie" was produced by a state-supported organization, and in its content and backstory belonged to an international framework. 

Controversy, however, is nothing new to the play. In New York, Florida, and Vancouver, shows were reportedly canceled due to pressure from Jewish and pro-Israel groups.

“99 percent of the opposition came from those who haven’t seen the play,” says Sivane Kretchner, the Israeli actress in the title role, “But we still need the discussion.” 

In Israel, arts critics have hailed the play as a testimony to innocent lives lost in the crossfire of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

“I don’t agree with the message or with the one-sidedness of the play,” says Jerusalem resident Sara Levinger, who came to the show because she heard it might be closing, “But it’s important that these types of issues are raised, to give us the chance to discuss them.” 

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