As many people know, this month the Seattle Repertory Theater is staging My Name is Rachel Corrie, a play originally produced by the British actor Alan Rickman. The play is taken from the writings of Rachel Corrie, the 23-year-old Olympia native who was tragically killed by an Israeli bulldozer while working with the International Solidarity Movement. The ISM is well-known as a Palestinian organization advocating “armed resistance” against Israel, which can be interpreted to mean terrorist acts.
Rachel was an idealist who fully bought into the one-sided views of the ISM. As a result, the play reflects that viewpoint. When the play first opened in London, and later in New York, Jews were understandably concerned about the possibility that theatergoers with limited knowledge of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict would come away with a distorted view of the situation, unaware of the Israeli side of the story. Because Rachel Corrie was “a local,” that interest here has been substantial, and therefore the risk of the play misinforming people is very real.
There are two issues for us Jews: the Rep’s decision to show the play, and what to do about its impact.
When the season was first announced, some Jews called for the Rep to cancel the show. The Rep’s view is that good theater is provocative, stimulates conversations and debate, and often presents an individual’s narrow view of multifaceted issues. Art is not journalism, and personal impressions are neither balanced nor objective.
While some may still challenge the Rep’s decision to stage the play, others (including the two of us) respect their right to show what they want, and support the ideal of artistic freedom. In fact, stifling freedom of speech is antithetical to our Jewish values. This tension between principle and practice was tested when the Nazis marched in Skokie, Illinois years ago, and it is tested in Seattle now. The very American axiom still holds true: “We may not like what you say, but we will fight for your right to say it.”
The second issue is what to do about the dangers of the play misinforming the viewing public. Partly because Skip is a past chairman of the Rep board, and partly because Rabbi Weiner is seen as a leader in the Jewish community, the two of us met with the Rep’s artistic director, managing director, director of education, and marketing and publicity director. We came away from the meeting feeling that the Rep understands the concerns of the Jewish community, just as they understood the concerns of the Catholic Community when they staged Doubt, a play about pedophilia in the priesthood.
They committed to broader and deeper ancillary programming than they usually would undertake to assist in the community dialogue that they hope the play will engender. They have increased the number of post-play discussions, some of which will include Rabbi Weiner as a panelist. They are providing numerous resources for playgoers to get additional information, and are providing some historical context to the Israel/Palestine conflict.
As members of the Jewish community, what should our response be? First of all, we believe it is not constructive to criticize the Rep’s decision to stage the play. It is a fait accompli, and concerns are best focused on practical solutions. Secondly, we think it is important for Jews to always advocate for Israel and try to explain the complexities of the situation.
The Jewish Federation has put together some message points (below) that it hopes will help all members of the community respond. We were involved in developing those messages. The message clearly describes Israel’s ongoing efforts to pursue peace in the face of significant elements within the Palestinian leadership who refuse to even acknowledge Israel’s right to exist. We must convey how Israel goes out of its way to avoid hurting civilians in its self-defense, whereas Palestinian terrorists deliberately target innocent civilians.
But our messages must also express compassion — compassion for the Corrie family’s loss, and compassion for all the families on all sides of the conflict who have suffered losses. It is important that the community know that Rachel Corrie was well-meaning, but in her youthful naïveté, she was exploited by the ISM. As such, her story and the play need to be understood as the viewpoints of a young, idealistic woman who was anything but well-versed in the complexities of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
Our tradition teaches that “every debate for the sake of heaven will be affirmed.” We have to stand firm in our beliefs, speak out for the oppressed, and work to end violence. Study, analysis and advocacy are critical. But it is through debate and dialogue that lasting truth emerges. We must always work to educate, and to counter presumption with truth. We can be ambassadors for the cause of Israel, but we must do so in ways that are compassionate, truthful, and do not fall victim to the extremist approach taken by our enemies.