The deplorable state of Middle East Studies on college campuses has been a topic of grave concern for many of those who follow the declining fortunes of American scholarship. That an entire field of academic study has grown up in the last quarter-century that seeks to delegitimize Zionism and Israel is not news. But efforts to do something about it are worth mentioning.
How bad is the situation? Bad enough that Gratz College, a nondenominational Jewish institution here in the Philadelphia area feels that it’s worth it to create a new institute specifically designed to be an academic answer to Mideast-studies departments that are hotbeds of anti-Zionism. Speakers at a local dinner that sought to galvanize support for the project noted that pervasive bias in the academy against Israel – the hallmark of intellectual discourse on campuses around the country – needs an academic response rooted in scholarship.
But how is it that supposedly intelligent people have bought in to the notion that the presence of Jews in their ancient homeland and their attempts to defend their presence are an offense to Arabs?
As it happens, you needn’t go back to college to observe how the conversation among the elites about Jewish topics is changing. Instead, a visit to a performance of a much acclaimed British play that’s opened at an off-Broadway theater in New York City will give you an indication of which way the wind is blowing.
The play is “My Name Is Rachel Corrie,” an adaptation of the letters and e-mail messages of a member of the International Solidarity Movement, a group that proclaims its opposition to Israel’s existence and whose members actively seek to prevent the Israeli army from acting against terrorist targets.
Corrie, a 23-year-old American from Everest, Washington, was one of the “internationals” planted in the border town of Rafah, where the IDF was seeking to demolish tunnels that were used by the Palestinians to bring arms and explosives into Gaza to use against Jewish targets (a practice that continues to this day).
In the course of one such Israeli attempt to knock down a structure shielding one of the tunnels that ran from Egypt into Gaza in March 2003, she placed herself in front of an Israeli bulldozer. But she slipped on a mound of dirt, and was killed in what the IDF determined was an accident, but her cohorts charged was murder.
It was – like all the deaths that have resulted from the Palestinian war to destroy Israel – a pointless waste of life. But for left-wing activists like acclaimed British actor Alan Rickman and former Guardian editor Katherine Viner, Corrie’s life and death was perfect fodder for a work designed to further the cause for which she gave her life: the delegitimization of the State of Israel.
We needn’t waste time discussing the artistic merit of the piece. Despite the praise it got in London, the Corrie play is a one-woman rant devoid of drama or literary appeal that is as likely to put its audience to sleep as it to send them to the barricades.
But “My Name Is Rachel Corrie” is a polemic with a clear purpose: the creation of a secular saint. And not just an ordinary saint. It is a hagiography of a particular kind of saint: the victim of a Jewish blood libel.
The seemingly endless first half of the play is devoted to her life back home in Washington. But the presentation of her banal observations about an ordinary life have a motive. The Rachel Corrie we are shown is a New Age, non-Jewish Anne Frank.
She is portrayed as a sensitive American kid who went off to Gaza, where she wound up questioning her belief in the humanity of the Israelis who were battling her Palestinian pals. Seen through Corrie’s peculiar tunnel vision, Israel is an evil power whose only purpose seems to be to make nonviolent Palestinian Arabs miserable.
In her version of Gaza, terror groups were invisible. The Palestinian decision to launch the intifada, which created the fighting she witnessed, never happened. All she sees is a Palestinian population resisting Israeli “oppression” with “Ghandian” forbearance.
The Israel that Corrie passes briefly through on her way to Gaza is a blank slate. Though she disavows anti-Semitism, the Jewish state is for her, and for the play’s authors, merely an extension of evil American foreign policy and military power. This pilgrim’s only reaction to signs of Jewish life is to note that she has never before seen a Star of David used as a symbol of “colonialism.”