IN MEMORIAM: Rachel Corrie 1979-2003 [with introduction by Michael Shaik to the film screening of "Rachel"] 16Mar13 March 17, 2013

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The Melbourne film screening of “Rachel” by Simone Bitton – shown for the first time in Australia on Friday – was a moving tribute to peace activist Rachel Corrie who was tragically killed by an Israeli bulldozer when she tried to stop the home of a Palestinian family from being demolished.  Bitton’s sensitive presentation connected a hushed audience to Rachel through the letters and diaries she wrote to her mother from Gaza, never realising that her words would continue to resonate with so many other people around the world years after that fateful day.

Australians for Palestine was very glad to support the Coalition Against Israeli Apartheid initiative and offers to our readers the wonderful introduction to “Rachel” given by Michael Shaik who worked with her in the International Solidarity Movement (ISM) and who was in Palestine when news of her death came through.  That moment is still seared in his memory.

Introduction to “Rachel” by Michael Shaik 

“As I’m sure most of you know, this screening is being held to mark the 10th anniversary of the death of the American peace activist Rachel Corrie who was killed by an Israeli bulldozer in the Gaza Strip on the 16th of March 2003.   Because 10 years is a long time, I want to take a moment to recall what the world was like back then.

In March 2003 the United States and its allies were one and a half years into a Global War on Terror and were on the verge of invading Iraq.  Israel and the Palestinians were two and a half years into the Second Intifada, which was seen by both the Israeli and American governments as a part of the War on Terror.  And the mass media was full of stories about how the invasion of Iraq was not only essential to Western security but would bring freedom and democracy to the Middle East as well.   There were, however, a great many people who did not buy into this narrative and who joined in the largest peace rallies in history to protest the war.

Rachel Corrie was one of a few dozen activists who, at this time, travelled to Palestine because she believed that she had a responsibility both as an American and a citizen of the world to help make visible the invisible people who were not terrorists but who had nevertheless found themselves on the wrong side of the war on terror.

It’s important, however, to note that since her death, literally thousands of Palestinians have been killed by Israeli soldiers and settlers.  Their lives were no less precious than Rachel’s, nor was the grief of their families any less than that of her family.

Yet no films have been made about them.

Nevertheless, this is an important film, precisely because Rachel was not Palestinian, because she did not have to be there, because she chose to leave the safety of her home in the United States to risk her life working with the Palestinians, and that, because of this choice, she was crushed to death by an American-made military bulldozer that was a part of the US aid program to Israel.

Last month President Barack Obama unveiled a statue of Rosa Parks, the woman who in 1955 began the US civil rights movement by refusing to move to the back of a racially segregated bus.

In the speech he made for the occasion, he lauded the courage of Ms Parks in the following terms:

Whether out of inertia or selfishness, whether out of fear or a simple lack of moral imagination, we so often spend our lives as if in a fog, accepting injustice, rationalizing inequity, tolerating the intolerable.

Like the bus driver, but also like the passengers on the bus, we see the way things are — children hungry in a land of plenty, entire neighbourhoods ravaged by violence, families hobbled by job loss or illness — and we make excuses for inaction, and we say to ourselves, that’s not my responsibility, there’s nothing I can do.

Rosa Parks tells us there’s always something we can do.  She tells us that we all have responsibilities, to ourselves and to one another.  She reminds us that this is how change happens — not mainly through the exploits of the famous and the powerful, but through the countless acts of often anonymous courage and kindness and fellow feeling and responsibility that continually, stubbornly, expand our conception of justice — our conception of what is possible.

Fine words and perfectly true but, with all due respect to President Obama, it takes no courage at all to unveil a statue and to make pious speeches about a hero almost 6 decades after the cause for which she fought has been won.   It is when the injustice is occurring, when those perpetuating it are active and powerful,  and when there is a clear and present danger of retaliation that one’s courage, one’s conscience, one’s convictions are put to the test.

Rachel Corrie passed that test but it is not my purpose this evening to put her on a pedestal or to portray her as someone extraordinary or superhuman.  In fact, one of the most remarkable things that impressed me about her was how modest and unassuming she always was.  It never seemed to occur to her that she was doing anything heroic or extraordinary.  Children were being terrorised, the homes of innocent people destroyed, the rest of the world was ignoring what was happening, so someone had to do something about it.

That was the Rachel I knew: a young woman who understood that there was work to be done and who got on with it.

Today the situation in Gaza is much worse than it was in 2003.

For the past 6 years it has been under an Israeli blockade, the purpose of which, according to US State Department cables published by the Wikileaks website, is to keep it permanently on the brink of economic collapse.

A little over 4 years ago, Israel launched Operation Cast Lead against Gaza, during which its schools, hospitals, factories, farms and even its sewerage infrastructure were systematically targeted and destroyed.

When a humanitarian flotilla tried to breach the blockade to bring medical and other essential supplies into Gaza in 2010, it was intercepted in international waters and 9 peace activists killed by Israeli commandos.

This month a new crisis has hit Gaza as the Egyptian government began flooding the tunnels which have served as its lifeline throughout the blockade.

It is easy to feel hopeless about this situation but I believe that there is still cause for optimism.

The dissident Czech writer Milan Kundera wrote in the 1970s that the struggle of man against power is the struggle of remembering against forgetting.

When the Coalition Against Israeli Apartheid decided to hold this film night, we never imagined that we would have this kind of turnout, we just felt that we shouldn’t let such an anniversary pass without doing something.

And at this point I’d like to pay tribute to the many people who’ve been working so hard, not just to make this evening a success but to spread the word about what is happening in Palestine on their university campuses, in their churches and their unions.

They are a reminder that Rachel’s spirit did not die with her and that it lives on in the people who are willing to work so consistently and conscientiously for peace and justice in Palestine.

As I said earlier, this is not a film about Palestine or the Palestinians but about an American peace activist who was killed in Palestine.  In order to somewhat redress this imbalance I will finish by reading an extract from an email that Rachel wrote to her mother about the people of Gaza two weeks before she was killed.

You can always hear the tanks and bulldozers passing by, but all of these people are genuinely cheerful with each other, and with me.  When I am with Palestinian friends I tend to be somewhat less horrified than when I am trying to act in the role of human rights observer, documenter, or direct action resister.  They are a good example of how to be in it for the long haul.  I know that the situation gets to them (and may ultimately get them) on all kinds of levels, but I am nevertheless amazed at their strength in being able to defend such a large degree of their humanity – laughter, generosity, family time – against the incredible horror occurring in their lives and against the constant presence of death.  I felt much better after this morning.  I spent a lot of time writing about the disappointment of discovering, somewhat first hand, the degree of evil of which we are still capable.  I should at least mention that I am also discovering a degree of strength and the basic ability for humans to remain human in the direst of circumstances – which I also haven’t seen before.  I think the word is dignity.


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