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Too Hot for New York
Philip Weiss, USA
March 16, 2006
The slim book that was suddenly the most controversial
work in the West in early March was not easy to find in
the United States. Amazon said it wasn't available till
April. The Strand bookstore didn't have it either. You
could order it on Amazon-UK, but it would be a week
getting here. I finally found an author in Michigan who
kindly photocopied the British book and overnighted it to
me; but to be on the safe side, I visited an activist's
apartment on Eighth Avenue on the promise that I could
take her much-in-demand copy to the lobby for half an
hour. In the elevator, I flipped it open to a random
"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."
The book is the play My Name Is Rachel Corrie. Composed
from the journal entries and e-mails of the 23-year-old
from Washington State who was crushed to death in Gaza
three years ago under a bulldozer operated by the Israeli
army, the play had two successful runs in London last year
and then became a cause celebre after a progressive New
York theater company decided to postpone its American
premiere indefinitely out of concern for the sensitivities
of (unnamed) Jewish groups unsettled by Hamas's victory in
the Palestinian elections. When the English producers
denounced the decision by the New York Theatre Workshop as
"censorship" and withdrew the show, even the mainstream
media could not ignore the implications. Why is it that
the eloquent words of an American radical could not be
heard in this country—not, that is, without what the
Workshop had called "contextualizing," framing the play
with political discussions, maybe even mounting a
companion piece that would somehow "mollify" the Jewish
"The impact of this decision is enormous—it is bigger
than Rachel and bigger than this play," Cindy Corrie,
Rachel's mother, said. "There was something about this
play that made them feel so vulnerable. I saw in the
Workshop's schedule a lesbian play. Will they use the same
approach? Will they go to the segment of the community
that would ardently oppose that?"
In this way, Corrie's words appear to have had more impact
than her death. The House bill calling for a US
investigation of her killing died in committee, with only
seventy-eight votes and little media attention. But the
naked admission by a left-leaning cultural outlet that it
would subordinate its own artistic judgment to pro-Israel
views has served as a smoking gun for those who have tried
to press the discussion in this country of Palestinian
human rights. Indeed, the admission was so shocking and
embarrassing that the Workshop quickly tried to hedge and
retreat from its statements. But the damage was done;
people were asking questions that had been consigned to
the fringe: How can the West condemn the Islamic world for
not accepting Muhammad cartoons when a Western writer who
speaks out on behalf of Palestinians is silenced? And why
is it that Europe and Israel itself have a healthier
debate over Palestinian human rights than we can have
When she died on March 16, 2003, Rachel Corrie had been in
the Middle East for fifty days as a member of the
International Solidarity Movement (ISM), a group
recruiting Westerners to serve as "human shields" against
Israeli aggression—including the policy of bulldozing
Palestinian houses to create a wider no man's land between
Egypt and then-occupied Gaza. Corrie was crushed to death
when she stood in front of a bulldozer that was proceeding
toward a Palestinian pharmacist's house. By witnesses'
accounts, Corrie, wearing a bright orange vest, was
clearly visible to the bulldozer's driver. An Israeli army
investigation held no one accountable.
Corrie's horrifying death was a landmark event: It linked
Palestinian suffering to the American progressive
movement. And it was immediately politicized. Pro-Israel
voices sought to smear Corrie as a servant of terrorists.
They said that the Israeli army was merely trying to block
tunnels through which weapons were brought from Egypt into
the occupied territories—thereby denying that Corrie had
died as the result of indiscriminate destruction. Hateful
e-mails were everywhere. "Rachel Corrie won't get 72
virgins but she got what she wanted," said one.
Few knew that Corrie had been a dedicated writer. "I
decided to be an artist and a writer," she had written in
a journal, describing her awakening, "and I didn't give a
shit if I was mediocre and I didn't give a shit if I
starved to death and I didn't give a shit if my whole damn
high school turned and pointed and laughed in my face."
Corrie's family felt it most urgent to get her words out
to the world. The family posted several of her last
e-mails on the ISM website (and they were printed in full
by the London Guardian). These pieces were electrifying.
They revealed a passionate and poetical woman who had long
been attracted to idealistic causes and had put aside her
work with the mentally ill and environmental causes in the
Pacific Northwest to take up a pressing concern,
Palestinian human rights. Thousands responded to the
Corries, including a representative of the Royal Court
Theatre in Sloane Square, London, who asked if the theater
could use Rachel's words in a production—and, oh, are
there more writings? Cindy Corrie could do little more
than sit and drink tea. She had family tell the Royal
Court, Give us time.
It was another year before Sarah Corrie dragged out the
tubs in which her sister had stored her belongings and
typed passages from journals and letters going back to
high school. In November 2004 the Corries sent 184 pages
to the Royal Court.
It had been the intention of the two collaborators, Alan
Rickman and Katharine Viner, a Guardian editor, to flesh
out Rachel Corrie's writings with others' words. The pages
instantly changed their minds. "We thought, She's done it
on her own. Rachel's voice is the only voice you had to
hear," Viner says. The Corrie family, which holds the
rights to the words, readily agreed. Rachel Corrie was the
playwright. Any royalties would go to the Rachel Corrie
Foundation for Peace and Justice. The London "co-editors"
then set to work winnowing the material, working with a
slender blond actress, Megan Dodds, who resembles Corrie.
A year ago the play was staged as a one-woman show in a
100-seat theater at the Royal Court. The piece was
critically celebrated, and the four-week run sold out.
Young people especially were drawn to the show.
My Name Is Rachel Corrie—the title comes from a
declaration in Corrie's journal—is two things: the
self-portrait of a sensitive woman struggling to find her
purpose, and a polemic on the horrors of Israeli
The work is marked by Plath-like talk about
boys—"Eventually I convinced Colin to quit drowning out
my life"—and rilling passages about her growing
understanding of commitment: "I knew a few years ago what
the unbearable lightness of being was, before I read the
book. The lightness between life and death, there are no
dimensions at all. . . . It's just a shrug, the difference
between Hitler and my mother, the difference between
Whitney Houston and a Russian mother watching her son fall
through the sidewalk and boil to death. . . . And I knew back
then that the shrug would happen at the end of my life—I
knew. And I thought, so who cares? . . . Now I know, who
cares . . . if I die at 11.15 p.m. or at 97 years—And I know
it's me. That's my job . . ." As the work grinds toward
death, Corrie's moral vision of the Mideast becomes
uppermost. "What we are paying for here is truly evil. . . .
This is not the world you and Dad wanted me to come into
when you decided to have me."
The show returned last fall to a larger theater at the
Royal Court, and sold out again. Most viewers tended to
walk off afterward in stunned silence, but some nights the
theater became a forum for discussions. Rickman or Viner
or Dodds came out to talk about how the show had come
The Royal Court got bids from around the world, including
a theater in Israel, seeking to stage the production. But
the priority was to bring the show to "Rachel's homeland,"
as Elyse Dodgson, the theater's international director,
says. At bottom, Corrie's story feels very American. It is
filled with references that surely escaped its English
audience—working at Mount Rainier, swimming naked in
Puget Sound, drinking Mountain Dew, driving I-5 to
The New York Theatre Workshop agreed to stage the show in
March 2006. But by January the Royal Court began to sense
apprehension on the Workshop's part. "I went to New York
to meet them because I didn't feel comfortable about what
they were saying," Dodgson says.
The Workshop was evidently spooked. Its artistic director,
James Nicola, spoke of having discussions after every
performance to "contextualize" the play, of hiring a
consultant who had worked with Salman Rushdie to lead
these discussions and of hiring Emily Mann, the artistic
director of the McCarter Theatre in Princeton, New Jersey,
to prepare a companion piece of testimonies that would
include Israeli victims of Palestinian terrorism.
"We've had some brilliant discussions, we told them, but
the play speaks for itself," Dodgson says. "It is
expensive and unnecessary to have that after every single
performance. Of course we knew some of the hideous things
that were said about Rachel. We took no notice of them.
The controversy died when people saw that this was a play
about a young woman, an idealist."
Dodgson was further upset when a Workshop marketing
staffer, whom she won't name, used the word "mollifying."
"It was a very awkward conversation. He said, 'I can't
find the right word, but "mollifying" the Jewish
community.' It shocked me."
Corrie's connection to the International Solidarity
Movement was politically loaded. The ISM is committed to
nonviolence, but it works with a broad range of
organizations, from Israeli peace activists to Palestinian
groups that have supported suicide bombings, which has
been seized on by those who want it to get lost.
At the heart of the disagreement was an insistence by
supporters of Israel that Corrie's killing be presented in
the context of Palestinian terror. And that specifically,
the policy of destroying Palestinian homes in Gaza be
shown to be aimed at those tunnels—even though the
pharmacist's house Corrie was shielding was hundreds of
yards from the border and had nothing to do with tunnels.
One person close to NYTW, who refused to go on the record,
elaborates: "The fact that the Israelis and such were
trying to bulldoze these houses was not due to the fact
that they were just against the Palestinians, but the
underground tunnels, ways to get explosives to this
community. By not mentioning it, the play was not as
evenhanded as it claims to be." Another anonymous NYTW
source said that staffers became worried after reading a
fall 2003 Mother Jones profile of Corrie, a much disputed
piece that relied heavily on right-wing sources to paint
her as a reckless naif.
Just whom was the Workshop consulting in its
deliberations? It has steadfastly refused to say. In the
New York Observer, Nicola mentioned "Jewish friends."
Dodgson says that in discussions with the Royal Court,
Workshop staffers brought up the Anti-Defamation League
and the mayor's office as entities they were concerned
about. (Abe Foxman of the ADL visited London in 2005 and
denounced the play in the New York Sun as offensive to
Jewish "sensitivities.") By one account, the fatal blow
was dealt when the global PR firm Ruder Finn (which has an
office in Israel) said it couldn't represent the play.
In its latest statement, the Workshop says it consulted
many community voices, not only Jews. These did not
include Arab-Americans. Najla Said, the artistic director
of Nibras, an Arab-American theater in New York, says,
"We're not even 'other' enough to be 'other.' We're not
the political issue that anyone thinks is worth talking
The run had been scheduled for March 22-May 14. Tickets
were listed on Telecharge in February. But the Workshop
had not announced the production. According to the Royal
Court, Nicola at last told them he wanted to postpone the
play at least six months or a year to allow the political
climate to settle down and to better prepare the
production. The Royal Court took this as a cancellation.
The news broke on February 28 in the Guardian and the New
The Times article was shocking. It said the Workshop had
"delayed" a production it had never announced, and
reported that Nicola had been "polling local Jewish
religious and community leaders as to their feelings."
Nicola was quoted saying that Hamas's victory had made the
Jewish community "very defensive and very edgy . . . and that
seemed reasonable to me."
The Red Sea parted. Or anyway the Atlantic Ocean. The
English playwright Caryl Churchill, who has worked with
both theaters, condemned the decision. Vanessa Redgrave
wrote a letter urging the Royal Court to sue the Workshop.
At first, the New York theater community was quiet.
Enter the blogosphere, stage left. Three or four outraged
theater bloggers began peppering the Workshop's community
with questions. Whom did the Workshop talk to? Why aren't
theater people up in arms? Garrett Eisler, the blogger
Playgoer, likened the decision to one by the Manhattan
Theater Club to cancel its 1998 production of Corpus
Christi, a play imagining Christ as a gay man—a decision
that was reversed after leading voices, including the
Times editorial page, denounced the action.
The playwright Jason Grote circulated a petition calling
on the Workshop to reverse itself. Signers included Philip
Munger, a composer whose cantata dedicated to Corrie, The
Skies Are Weeping, also had experienced politically
motivated cancellations. The young playwright Christopher
Shinn spoke out early and forcefully, saying the
postponement amounted to censorship. "No one with a name
was saying anything," says Eisler. "And Chris Shinn is not
that big a name, but he is a practicing theater artist
whose name gets in the New York Times."
By the time I visited the Workshop, a week into the
controversy, it was a wounded institution. Linda Chapman,
the associate artistic director, who had signed Grote's
petition, said she couldn't talk to me, because of the
"quicksand" that any statement had become. The Workshop
had posted and then removed from its website a clumsy
statement aimed at explaining itself. Playgoer was
demanding that the opponents of the play come forward and
drumming for a declaration from Tony Kushner, who has
staged plays at the Workshop, posting his photo as if he
were some war criminal.
In an interview with The Nation, Kushner said that he was
quiet because of his exhaustion over similar arguments
surrounding the film Munich, on which he was a
screenwriter, and because he kept hoping the decision
would be made right. He said Nicola is a great figure in
American theater: "His is one of the one or two most
important theaters in this area—politically engaged,
unapologetic, unafraid and formally experimental." Never
having gotten a clear answer about why Nicola put off the
play, Kushner ascribes it to panic: Nicola didn't know
what he was getting into, and only later became aware of
how much opposition there was to Corrie, how much
confusion the right has created around the facts. Nicola
felt he was taking on "a really big, scary brawl and not a
play." Still, Kushner said, the theater's decision created
a "ghastly" situation. "Censoring a play because it
addresses Palestinian-Israeli issues is not in any way
right," he said.
The Royal Court came out smelling like a rose. It
triumphantly announced that it was moving the Megan Dodds
show to the West End, the London equivalent of Broadway,
and that it couldn't come to New York till next fall.
The Grote petitioners (519 and counting) want that to
happen at the Workshop, which itself was reaching out with
another statement on the matter, released on the eve of
the anniversary of Corrie's death. "I can only say we were
trying to do whatever we could to help Rachel's voice be
heard," Nicola said. The cut may be too deep for such
ointment. As George Hunka, author of the theater blog
Superfluities, says, "This is far too important an issue
for everyone to paper it over again, with everyone shaking
hands for a New York Times photographer. It's an
extraordinarily rare picture of the ways that New York
cultural institutions make their decisions about what to
Hunka doesn't use the J-word. Jen Marlowe does. A Jewish
activist with Rachel’s Words (which is staging a reading
of Corrie's words on March 22 with the Corrie parents
present), she says, "I don't want to say the Jewish
community is monolithic. It isn't. But among many American
Jews who are very progressive and fight deeply for many
social justice issues, there's a knee-jerk reflexive
reaction that happens around issues related to Israel."
Questions about pressure from Jewish leaders morph quickly
into questions about funding. Ellen Stewart, the legendary
director of the theatrical group La MaMa E.T.C., which is
across East 4th Street from the Workshop, speculates that
the trouble began with its "very affluent" board. Rachel's
father, Craig Corrie, echoes her. "Do an investigation,
follow the money." I called six board members and got no
response. (About a third appear to be Jewish, as am I.)
This is of course a charged issue. The writer Alisa
Solomon, who was appalled by the postponement, nonetheless
warns, "There's something a little too familiar about the
image of Jews pulling the puppet strings behind the
Perhaps. But Nicola's statement about a back channel to
Jewish leaders suggests the presence of a cultural lobby
that parallels the vaunted pro-Israel lobby in think tanks
and Congress. I doubt we will find out whether the
Workshop's decision was "internally generated," as Kushner
contends, or more orchestrated, as I suspect. What the
episode has demonstrated is a climate of fear. Not of
physical harm, but of loss of opportunities. "The silence
results from fear and intimidation," says Cindy Corrie. "I
don't see what else. And it harms not only Palestinians. I
believe, from the bottom of my heart, it harms Israelis
and it harms us."
Kushner agrees. Having spent five months defending Munich,
he says the fear has two sources: "There is a very, very
highly organized attack machinery that will come after you
if you express any kind of dissent about Israel's
policies, and it's a very unpleasant experience to be in
the cross hairs. These aren't hayseeds from Kansas
screaming about gays burning in hell; they're newspaper
columnists who are taken seriously." These attackers
impose a kind of literacy test: Before you can cast a
moral vote on Palestinian rights, you must be able to
recite a million wonky facts, such as what percentage of
the territories were outside the Green Line in 1949. Then
there is the self-generated fear of lending support to
anti-Semites or those who would destroy Israel. All in
all, says Kushner, it can leave someone "overwhelmed and
in despair—you feel like you should just say nothing."
Who will tell Americans the Middle East story? For
generations that story has been one of Israelis as
victims, and it has been crucial to Israeli policy
inasmuch as Israel has been able to defy its neighbors'
opinions by relying on a highly sympathetic superpower.
Israel's supporters have always feared that if Americans
started to conduct the same frank discussion of issues
that takes place in Tel Aviv, we might become more
evenhanded in our approach to the Middle East. That
pressure is what has stifled a play that portrays the
Palestinians as victims (and thrown a blanket over a
movie, Munich, that portrays both sides as victims). I've
never written this sort of thing before. How moving that
we have been granted that freedom by a 23-year-old woman
with literary gifts who was not given time to unpack them.
Philip Weiss is the author of American Taboo: A Murder in the Peace Corps (Harper Perennial).
From The Nation, April 3, 2006.