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Remembering Rachel, and resisting without despair

Daily Kos

26 July 2009

The screening of ‘Rachel’ yesterday at the SF Jewish Film festival, and to say the least, it was a truly emotional moment for many people, and for many reasons. Of course there is the ‘controversy’ (can I say how much I like the alternative pronunciation of this word?) which has been diaried, but I’d like to discuss other feelings and thoughts this film brought up, with me, with friends, and so forth.

The film takes on the subject of Rachel Corrie in a very clinical way, in terms of its analytical structure. It asks some basic questions, and delves into resolving them by interviewing the people involved, and filming the places where events took place, as well as incorporating pictures and video of the events in question. This is done very thoroughly, and with the filmmaker (Simone Bitton) staying off camera, although we hear her questions from interview to interview.

But connecting this approach, are the words of Rachel Corrie, which as usual, jump off the page and from the lips of the people reading them. The words are direct, passionate, inquisitive, rooted in the person she was, as well as the experiences that she was trying to take in and make sense of in Gaza. Like many others, I find myself a part of that process as well, in my life, and in the many experiences that I have had, in Palestine, the US, Israel, and elsewhere. I have throughout my life always tried to learn from experiences, to grow, to connect with others, in many situations and circumstances diverse and disparate; Rachel was also on this path, a path that was so horribly cut short, like the paths of so many others as well.

Along with the words, there are the people and places that were just heartbreaking to see; again, our paths in Palestine were connected and crossed in many ways. This is not surprising, as Rachel was the catalyst for my decision to get involved with the ISM and the larger peace movement in I/P. There is a slow shot of the hostel in East Jerusalem that many ISMers have stayed at, which is just eerie and nostalgic. I practically slept in every bed in the place, and I don’t know how many cups of sweet tea I drank there as well. And right along with the scene were Rachel’s words, her arrival into Palestine, her beginnings and training, her determination to go to the area that was hit hardest in Palestine, to Rafah.

Much like the congruence between the recent soldiers’ testimony and the Palestinian victims of the Israeli assault in December-January, the tale of the ethnic cleansing of Rafah comes through in the film; the demolished buildings, flattened neighborhoods, the surviving buildings pockmarked with shelling and rifle fire. And then the Palestinians speak of countless demolitions, of round the clock rifle fire and shelling, of snipers killing indiscriminately and firing into buildings. Then a soldier testifies (with his face in the dark) that this was standard practice; they would fire all night at the buildings, under orders to do so, and he says that if your commander was ‘lazy’ you could pretty much shoot at anyone/anything. Add this to the mountains of information available from human rights organizations (Amnesty, HRW, Btselem, PCHR, etc) and you have a very clear picture of a community under siege.

A friend of mine here spent time in Rafah, after Rachel was killed, and he met one of the Palestinians in the film, Abu Jamil. You see him talking of the many meals he happily cooked for the internationals, even though he and so many families there were struggling to survive. They were happy to feed the people that came from so far, and still come, to help them in their struggle to survive and live in dignity. I never got to Gaza, but I felt the same love and hospitality from so many Palestinians and Israelis while I stayed there; I was fed by a total stranger and his family in Nazareth (a Palestinian) and given a ride hitching to Afula by an Israeli once; so many people took me in and helped me during my stay, despite the limited resources and the horrible violence. So many times, it was this kindness, resilience, and determination among Palestinians and Israelis that was my source of strength and resolve; and it still is.

There was a very touching interview with Jonathan Pollack, a good friend and someone I was beaten and tear-gassed with many times. He is a core member of the Anarchists Against the Wall, and he spoke poignantly of the need to resist, often without hope of victory, but without despair; he made an allusion to the resistance of the Warsaw Ghetto, pointing out that they must have known that they would not survive, but they felt it necessary to resist anyway (as this is in the film, I feel that it should be mentioned and is not as such an inflammatory Godwin-offense). He sees resistance as a truth in and of itself, and knowing him, I understand just what he means. When I told him I was leaving I/P, he replied tersely, “I did not approve of this;” I took this as a pretty high compliment, and I urge anyone interested to work with the Israeli Anarchists, among others.

But the person, aside from Rachel, who I felt elevated this film and the screening, was Cindy, Rachel’s mother. I have been friends with her for years now, and have drawn so much strength from her; I just don’t know what I would have done with out her friendship. We run into each other at marches, at events, and even in Palestine. Years ago, I helped ferry her and 20 others from Bethlehem after a non-violence conference, to Bil’in for a demonstration. During a 3-4 hour bus ride (on the Wadi Al-Nahr), I gave her and her husband Craig a crash course in ISM traning, expecting the worst violence from the Israeli military. But when we arrived, the army was all laid back and allowing the day to be a full on festival, with food and music and good times for all; Palestinians, Internationals, and Israelis all gathered together and had a wonderful time that day, and the Palestinians were so honored to have Cindy there; my friend Muhamad held her arm and told the soldiers that “here is my mother and my father,” and I too felt part of a larger family that day and many more since.

We had lunch with many other friends after the screening, and I look forward to seeing Cindy and Craig again. But I hope that we all take in the importance of the screening, of the message of the film, of Rachel, and the real location of the controversy. The Jewish community and other communities (the anti-war movement, ‘Progessives,’ Americans, you name it) are all struggling with a quickly shifting paradigm regarding I/P. I have seen in my own life and experience this shift take place, within me and without me; I have seen the same arguments regarding charters and leaders and recognition and peace processes being recycled, rehashed and practically zombified in the media and in popular discourse. I have also seen a remarkable level of change and upheaval; new information and unheard testimony, of narrative and points of view shifting, of new research and ideas becoming part of the popular discourse, and of the courage of people resisting without hope, but never with despair.

I wish Rachel, and so many others, could see it as well, for their lives have made it possible; I only hope that I too can contribute in a way that honors them, and brings the peace and justice that so many have been denied for so long.