March 19, 2009
By David Bromwich
Today is the sixth anniversary of the death of Rachel Corrie. On March 16, 2003, in Rafah, in the Gaza Strip, she was run over by an armor-plated Caterpillar bulldozer, a machine sold by the U.S. to Israel, the armor put in place for the purpose of knocking down homes without damage to the machine. Rachel Corrie was 23 years old, from Olympia; a sane, articulate, and dedicated American who had studied with care the methods of Gandhi and Martin Luther King. At the time that she was run over, and then backed over again, she was wearing a fluorescent orange jacket and holding a megaphone. There is a photograph of her talking to the soldier of the Israel Defense Forces, in the cabin of his bulldozer, not long before he did it. None of the eyewitnesses believed that the killing was accidental. Perhaps the soldier was tired of the peace workers; it was that kind of day. Perhaps, in some part of himself, he guessed that he was living at the beginning of a period of impunity.
The Israeli government never produced the investigation it promised into the death of Rachel Corrie (as her parents indicate in a statement published today). The inquiry urged by her congressional representative, Adam Smith, brought no result from the American state department under Condoleezza Rice. Her story was lost for a while in the grand narrative of the American launching of the war against Iraq. Thoroughly lost, and for a reason. The rules of engagement America employed in Iraq were taught to our soldiers, as Dexter Filkins revealed, by officers of the IDF; the U.S. owed a debt to Israel for knowledge of the methods of destruction; and we were using the same Caterpillar machines against Iraqi homes. An inquiry into the killing of Rachel Corrie was hardly likely, given the burden of that debt and that association.
Less than a month later, on April 5, 2003, the American peace worker Brian Avery was shot in the face and seriously disfigured by IDF soldiers in Jenin. The group he was with were wearing red reflector vests with the word “doctor” written in English and Arabic. As Avery later described it, they “weren’t two blocks from our apartment when an Israeli convoy of two vehicles, a tank and an armored personnel carrier, drove up the street from the direction that we were walking from. And so as we heard them coming closer, we stepped off to the side of the road to let them pass by….We stood to the side of the road, we put our hands out to show we didn’t have any weapons and weren’t, you know, threatening them in any way….And once they drove within about 30 meters of where we were standing, they opened fire with their machine guns and continued shooting for a very long time, probably shooting about, you know, 30 rounds of ammunition, which is quite a lot when you see them in action. And I was struck in the face with one of the bullets.”
Three days ago another American peace worker, Tristan Anderson, who was protesting the new security fence in the West Bank town of Ni’lin, was shot by another Israeli soldier. It now appears that Tristan Anderson will live; if so, it will be the life that follows having a portion of his right frontal lobe cut out, and a major trauma to the bone surrounding his right eye. The hole in his face was blasted by a tear-gas canister that struck him face-on. The canister was fired into the crowd by an IDF soldier from an emplacement high above. There had been sporadic rock-throwing earlier, but at the time of the incident, as more than one witness attests, the crowd was doing nothing; the canister could not have been fired in self-defense. But whether by reckless whim or premeditation, it came from a soldier in the knowledge that it does not greatly matter now if you kill a Palestinian or the occasional European or American who was working to defend the Palestinians. IDF soldiers who commit arbitrary acts of violence enjoy a presumption of innocence that approaches official immunity granted by the state. Where all of the violence performed by the state is justified by self-defense, everything is permitted.
What drives these Americans to risk their lives against Israeli soldiers on behalf of a subject people half the world away? The answer is a passion for justice, and a commitment to civil rights. Why should any of this be of interest to Americans? For a general reason and a particular one. The general: this is a passion and a commitment that we Americans at our best have been supposed to share; it is the largest single reason we have received the admiration of other people around the world. The particular reason is as obvious but more immediate. Barack Obama, our first black president, and a man who has identified himself as a beneficiary and successor of the tradition of Martin Luther King, has promised $30 billion of military aid to Israel over the next ten years — with no conditions, no budget-items specified, no limitations spoken of. Barack Obama is known to be a moderate politician, and so we may deduce that the moderate plan, with Israel, is to keep increasing the leviathan-bulk of the American subsidy and not to ask questions.
We ought to know a good deal about a country to which we give such large continuous donations. But Americans who care for public discussion of this subject are obliged to conduct it ourselves, since, if recent history is a guide, we will get no help from the leading American newspapers. Even the appointment today of Avigdor Lieberman, an avowed racist and a believer in the feasibility of the expulsion of all Palestinians, as foreign minister in the new Israeli government under Binyamin Netanyahu — even this predicted and extraordinary news is not likely to provoke the New York Times or the Washington Post to report with honesty who this Lieberman is, and what he signifies. Nor will the Obama administration do it. They will be as hesitant and mixed and occasionally contradictory in their signals on Israel as they have been on many other subjects; more so, because in this case an organized body of censors and guardians attends to the reputation and support of Israel in the U.S. Let us nonetheless open the discussion by admitting that the Israel we think we know is the Israel of books written sixty and forty years ago, and of movies made from those books.
It is a different Israel one comes to know in a recent book, Lords of the Land, by Idith Zertal and Akiva Eldar.
The authors of Lords of the Land are both Israelis, a scrupulous historian and a respected journalist, and the book, scarcely noticed in the U.S., was the center of a controversy when it first appeared in Israel in 2005. It deals with the settlements, or colonies, in the West Bank. One discovers in Lords of the Land that the IDF, which assists in the illegal administration of those occupied lands, has in fact changed enormously in recent years. Its new moral complexion, witnessed with astonishment by the world in the recent assault on Gaza, is a consequence of the presence of settlers in the army and of political allies of the settlers in the army’s high command. The restraint for which the IDF was once admired has dissipated under a regime in which orthodox rabbis, hungry for the re-possession of a land they believe was theirs from eternity, are able to override officers and to tell individual soldiers by no means to miss a chance to kill anyone who blocks the way to an expanded Israel.
So enthralled are some minds in the grip of this religious state discipline that they refer to the 1967 borders of Israel — the boundaries to which a secular government must largely return if there is to be a two-state settlement — as the “Auschwitz borders.” This mad slogan has been taken up by American admirers of the settlements, keen to be known as victims even when they serve as executioners. Stripped of the savage hyperbole, the sense of that statement is merely that these people want to hold onto the Israeli colonies on the West Bank at all costs. They are defending the confiscation of Palestinian lands and the gradual expulsion and transfer of the Palestinian people.
No person fearful of being a victim can be rewarded with special rights or special powers. If we — Americans, Israelis, everyone — want to deserve our freedom, we must agree to live in a moral world where people are responsible for themselves. And just as we cannot be punished for the things that our parents did, so the crimes we commit can never be justified by the things our parents suffered.
This is a moment to study the life and death of Rachel Corrie. She left letters of great interest which show her to have been a kind of young American that many of us have known and admired. Thoughtless protectors of the status quo will say that this is Israel’s cause after all; that we have no right to ask questions, as Rachel Corrie did; that Israel, like the U.S., is a democracy under siege. This will not do. The U.S. and Israel are not helpless “survivor” countries, trying to work off the trauma of recent victimhood. We are vastly powerful modern states, both of which dominate our regions, and one of which could dream of dominating the world in the year 2000. Both have recently engaged, under the eyes of the world, in exorbitant, brutal, and unjustifiable wars that have tarnished our fame. In both countries, there is no sign of the militarism ending.
Yet in both countries — though the U.S. lacks a newspaper even close to being as serious and candid as Haaretz — there is a citizenry capable of being educated and roused to punctual action in its own long-term interest. The truth about this has never altered. The commandment governing the long-term good of a country is the same as that for an individual — in the dry and accurate words of Thomas Hobbes, “Seek peace.” And in memory of Rachel Corrie, let us say also: the addiction to war and indefinite expansion is no longer an Israeli problem. How did we ever dare to suppose that it was? When Americans are shot by a gun or mauled by a bulldozer, it is as much an American problem as when James Chaney, Andrew Goodman, and Michael Schwerner were beaten, shot, and burned, and their bodies left in a swamp, in Neshoba County, Mississippi, on June 21, 1964.