"My Name is Rachel Thaler" is not the title of a play that is likely to be produced anytime soon in London. Thaler, aged 16, was blown up at a pizzeria in an Israeli shopping mall. She died after an 11-day struggle for life following the February 16, 2002 attack, when a suicide bomber approached a crowd of teenagers and blew himself up.
She was a British citizen, born in London, where her grandparents still live. Yet I doubt that anyone at London's Royal Court Theatre or most people in the British media, have heard of her. "Not a single British journalist has ever interviewed me or mentioned her death," her mother Ginette told me last week.
"Heroine" Rachel Corrie burns mock American flag at pro-Hamas rally
Thaler's parents donated her organs for transplant (helping to save the life of a young Russian man), and grieved quietly. After the accidental killing of Rachel Corrie, by contrast, her parents embarked on a major publicity campaign. They traveled to Ramallah to accept a plaque from Yasser Arafat on behalf of their daughter. They circulated her emails and diary-entries to a world media eager to publicize them.
Among those who published extracts from them in 2003 was the influential British leftist daily The Guardian. This in turn inspired a new play, "My Name is Rachel Corrie," which opened this month at the Royal Court Theatre, one of London most prestigious venues. (The New York Times recently described it as "the most important theatre in Europe.")
The play is co-edited and directed by Katharine Viner, the editor of The Guardian's weekend magazine, and by film star Alan Rickman (of Die Hard and Harry Potter fame). Their script weaves together extracts from Corrie's journals and e-mails.
For those who don't recall the story, Corrie was a young American radical who burnt mock-American flags at pro-Hamas rallies in Gaza in February 2003. A short while later she died after jumping in front of an Israeli army bulldozer that was attempting to demolish a structure suspected of concealing tunnels used for smuggling weapons.
Partly because of the efforts of Corrie and her fellow activists in the International Solidarity Movement (ISM), the Israeli army was unable to stop the flow of weapons through these tunnels. Those weapons were later used to kill Israeli children in the town of Sderot in southern Israel, and elsewhere.
However, in many hundreds of articles on Corrie published worldwide in the last two years, most papers have been careful to omit such details. So have Rickman and Viner, leaving almost all the critics who have reviewed the play completely clueless about the background of the events with which it deals.
"Corrie was always a progressive with a conscience … she went to work with the International Solidarity Movement in Gaza," wrote Michael Billington in The Guardian last week, without a shred of explanation as to what the ISM actually is.
The ISM is routinely described as a "peace group" in the western media. Few make any mention of the ISM's meeting with the British suicide bombers Omar Khan Sharif and Assif Muhammad Hanif, who a few days later blew up Mike's Place, a Tel Aviv pub, killing three and injuring dozens including British citizens. Or of the ISM's sheltering in its office of Shadi Sukia, a leading member of Islamic Jihad. Or of the fact that in its mission statement, the ISM said "armed struggle" is a Palestinian "right." "'Israel' is an illegal entity that should not exist," wrote Flo Rosovski, the ISM "media co-ordinator," clarifying the ISM's idea of peace.
Unfortunately for those who have sought to portray Corrie as a peaceful protester, photos of her burning a mock American flag and stirring up crowds in Gaza were published by the Associated Press and on Yahoo News on February 15, 2003, before she died. But the play doesn't mention this.
So British reviewers are left to tell the British public that the play is a "true-life tragedy" in which Corrie's "unselfish goodness shines through" (Evening Standard).
"Corrie was murdered after joining a non-violent Palestinian resistance organization," writes Emma Gosnell in the Sunday Telegraph. ("Murdered" is a term that even Corrie's staunchest defenders have hesitated to use up to now.)
Charles Spencer in the Daily Telegraph, talks of "Corrie's concern for suffering humanity… ones leaves the theatre mourning not only Rachel Corrie but also one's own loss of the idealism and reckless courage of youth."
Not surprisingly, the play has also been praised on Al Jazeera's website and in the Beirut Daily Star.
In one of the most astonishing comments, Michael Billington, the Guardian's critic, writes of the play: "The danger of right-on propaganda is avoided."
It is ironic to reflect that there have been some real victims of the Intifada called Rachel and it is hard to believe that these critics have ever heard of them. All these other Rachels died within a few months of Corrie, but unlike her in circumstances that weren't disputed. They were deliberately murdered: Rachel Levy (17, blown up in a grocery store), Rachel Levi (19, shot while waiting for the bus), Rachel Gavish (killed with her husband, son and father while at home celebrating a Passover meal), Rachel Charhi (blown up while sitting in a Tel Aviv cafe, leaving three young children), Rachel Shabo (murdered with her three sons aged 5, 13 and 16 while at home).
Only one critic (Clive Davis in the Times of London) dismisses parts of the play as "unvarnished propaganda." At one point Corrie declares "the vast majority of Palestinians right now, as far as I can tell, are engaging in Gandhian non-violent resistance". As Davis notes, "Even the late Yasser Arafat might have blushed at that one."
Katharine Viner, the co- director of the Corrie play, is certainly familiar with Palestinian terrorists. For example, in 2001, she described a Palestinian hijacker she interviewed in The Guardian as such:
"The iconic photograph of Leila Khaled, the picture which made her the symbol of Palestinian resistance and female power, is extraordinary in many ways: the gun held in fragile hands, the shiny hair wrapped in a keffiah, the delicate Audrey Hepburn face refusing to meet your eye. But it's the ring, resting delicately on her third finger. To fuse an object of feminine adornment, of frivolity, with a bullet: that is Khaled's story, the reason behind her image's enduring power. Beauty mixed with violence."
(Since that interview Viner has twice been named British Newspaper Magazine Editor of the Year.)
Rachel Corrie's death was undoubtedly tragic. But ultimately this play isn't really about Corrie, but about fomenting hatred of Israel. The production is now sold out and there is talk of it being staged in America. The Royal Court is also rushing out a printed edition of the play to give to schools.