Unpleasant Anniversaries

March is a cruel month in the recent history of the Middle East.  This year is the fifth anniversary of the death of Rachel Corrie who was crushed to death by an Israeli soldier driving an armored Caterpillar D9 bulldozer on March 16, 2003 as she attempted to stop the gigantic vehicle from destroying the home of a Palestinian family in Rafah.  Rachel’s sacrifice did not prevent Israel from turning Gaza into an inferno.  Its people are mired in poverty and hopelessness, subject to Israeli depredations, and nearly forgotten by the majority of the corporate media which is covering Vice President Cheney‘s wanderings throughout the Middle East as though they were relevant to something mendaciously called a Palestinian-Israeli “peace process.”  Peace and Palestinian statehood have become propaganda terms, emptied of any positive meaning.

The perpetrators of these horrors and their court stenographers are not satisfied with merely committing crimes; they insist on debasing the meanings of words and attempting to control our memories of events so that we will not remember that although we lost — in these and too many other instances — we fought against injustice, war, and inhumanity.  Because keeping alive the memory of our past fights and connecting them to those ongoing today is a wellspring of hope that we can continue to fight, and perhaps next time, or the time after that, win.

A particularly ugly and cold-blooded recent effort at thought control is the campaign to suppress “My Name is Rachel Corrie,” a play composed from Rachel’s journals and e-mails from Gaza.  The play opened at the prestigious the Royal Court Theatre in London and won the Theatregoers’ Choice Awards for Best Director (Alan Rickman), Best New Play, and Best Solo Performance (Megan Dodds).  It was scheduled to open at the New York Theater Workshop in March 2006.  But the theater managers were subjected to pressure from groups purporting to speak for the Jewish community, and it was postponed indefinitely.  The English producers denounced the postponement as censorship and cancelled the show.  It finally opened at the Off-Broadway Minetta Lane Theater on October 15, 2006 for an initial run of 48 performances with Megan Dodds once again playing the solo leading role.

Efforts to suppress the play have continued, notably at CanStage, Canada’s largest non-profit theater.  But, it was revived in London and has been successfully staged in Edinburgh, Scotland, Dublin, Ireland and at venues across Canada and the U.S., including Edmonton, Alberta, Seattle, WA, Ashland OR, Silver Springs, MD, and Shepherdstown, WV.  On March 16 an Arabic translation of the play, translated and adapted by the director Riyad Masarwi and the actress Lana Zureik, opened in Haifa.  The show is now touring throughout Israel and the occupied West Bank.

The play has also been published as a book; and on the occasion of the fifth anniversary of Rachel’s death, her diaries Let Me Stand Alone: The Journals of Rachel Corrie, have also been published.  It would be an act of struggle and solidarity if everyone reading these words bought a copy of the book as a repudiation of those who think that attempting to repress the memories of our struggles and heroines will allow them to win.  And for those in the vicinity of Portland, OR (my wannabe home), Powell’s Books on Hawthorne Ave. in Portland will be sponsoring a book event on Thursday, April 10th at 7:30 pm with Rachel’s mother, father, and sister: Cindy, Craig, and Sarah Corrie.

Only three days after Rachel Corrie’s death, on March 19, 2003, the United States invaded Iraq.  This colossal foreign policy failure was born in lies playing on the post-9/11 fears of a nation that had forgotten, one hopes temporarily, how to think.  It is now the second longest war the United States has fought in the last 200 hundred years, with the exception of Vietnam.  Hardly anyone takes President George W, Bush seriously any more.  But, as anti-war actions unfolded all over the country he had the audacity to address the Department of Defense and the American people with an unabashed defense of his war policies.  As we have come to expect, the President was utterly detached from the reality of the enormous economic, social and political costs of his war, which will continue to mount long after the Bush administration and its occupation of the United States is a bad memory.

The country of Iraq has been destroyed and its people traumatized.  It will take generations to repair the carnage, and it is unclear if a unified Iraqi state can ever be rebuilt.  At least 90,000 Iraqi civilians have died along with nearly 4,000 American soldiers.  Many more have been severely wounded and will suffer severe and permanent debilitation.  Nobel Prize-winning economist Joseph Stiglitz and Harvard public finance expert Linda Bilmes estimate that the eventual cost of the war to the U.S. economy will be $3 trillion.  The United States has destroyed its credibility in the Arab and Muslim world for the foreseeable future.

Shibley Telhami, Anwar Sadat Chair for Peace and Development at the University of Maryland, has been conducting public opinion surveys of six Arab countries since 2003 — Egypt, Jordan, Lebanon, Morocco, the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, and United Arab Emirates.  The results of the latest survey, conducted in 2006, (2008 results will be available soon) indicated that 38% of the respondents disliked George W. Bush more than any other political leader outside their own countries — over three times more than chose Ariel Sharon; 69% had no confidence in the United States.  If there were just one super power in the world 19% thought that it should be France; only 8% the U.S.  The largest number of respondents also considered France the country with the most freedom and democracy for its own people, the most desirable country to live in, and the most desirable country to study in.  Israel and the United States were considered by far the greatest threats to the Arab countries.

According to Telhami’s respondents, the single most effective thing the U.S. could do to improve its image in the Arab world would be to broker a comprehensive Palestinian-Israeli peace with Israel withdrawing to its 1967 borders and the establishment of a Palestinian state with its capitol in Jerusalem.  The next most important thing the U.S. could do is to withdraw its forces from Iraq.  These are precisely the things which the Bush administration refuses to do.  This is, in brief, why the much ballyhooed Annapolis conference of last November quickly became a charade.  And, to recall another grim anniversary, it is also why the Road Map President Bush endorsed on March 14, 2003, as one of the preliminaries to the invasion of Iraq, led nowhere.

Telhami, along with William Quandt and Steven Spiegel recently participated in a study group chaired by former U.S. Ambassador to Israel Daniel Kurtzer that evaluated U.S. diplomacy in the Arab-Israeli conflict since the end of the Cold War.  Last month their results were published in Negotiating Arab-Israeli Peace: American Leadership in the Middle East.  They have produced some sensible recommendations which they hope will guide the administration which takes office on January 20, 2009.  Don’t count on it.

Joel Beinin
March 22, 2008

Joel Beinin is currently Director of Middle East Studies at the American University in Cairo while he is on temporary leave from his position as History Professor at Stanford University.  Beinin is also a past president of the Middle East Studies Association of North America.  This analysis was first distributed by the mailing list of Jewish Voice for Peace.

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