Play about American activist performed in Israel

Associated Press
In this photo taken Sunday, July 7, 2013. Israeli actress Sivane Kretchner plays American activist Rachel Corrie as she performs in a theater in Jerusalem. A one-person play about an American activist who was crushed to death by an Israeli military bulldozer is being performed for a Hebrew-speaking audience in Jerusalem. (AP Photo/Sebastian Scheiner)
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JERUSALEM (AP) — A one-woman play about an American activist who was crushed to death by an Israeli military bulldozer in Gaza is being performed for Hebrew-speaking audiences for the first time. Producers hope the show will force Israelis to confront an issue that, 10 years later, is still stirring passions.

Rachel Corrie was killed in 2003 as she attempted to block a bulldozer she believed was razing homes in the southern Gaza Strip. She has become a divisive figure since her death.

For pro-Palestinian activists, Corrie became a rallying cry and vivid image of what they say is Israel's harsh repression of the Palestinians.

Corrie belonged to the pro-Palestinian International Solidarity Movement, whose activists enter conflict zones and try to interfere with activities of Israel's military in the West Bank and Gaza, territories the Palestinians claim for their future state.

Many of the areas where they operate have been declared off-limits for civilians by the Israeli military, and most Israelis consider ISM activists like Corrie to be misguided, biased troublemakers and thrill seekers.

Israel captured the Gaza Strip, along with the West Bank, east Jerusalem and the Golan Heights, in the 1967 Mideast war. Israel withdrew from Gaza in 2005, two years after Corrie died.

"My Name is Rachel Corrie" was first staged in London in 2005 and has since courted controversy. A New York off-Broadway theater backed out of plans to stage the play in 2006, drawing charges of censorship from its creators. Performances in Toronto and Florida were canceled, reportedly after pressure from pro-Israel groups.

That drama has followed the play to Israel. The Hebrew version premiered briefly in March at a festival in Tel Aviv. On Sunday night, it opened at Jerusalem's Khan Theater. Both performances drew threats from politicians to cut the budgets of venues that stage the play.

Such opposition has not deterred the producers. They hope the Hebrew version will stimulate some introspection among audience members about Israel's activities in the Palestinian territories.

"(Israel) is the most natural place to hold the play. It's the most appropriate place, where the audience member gets an opportunity to ask himself how he leads his life and how the society he lives in makes decisions," said Ari Remez, the play's director. Remez said he hoped opening in Jerusalem, a city considered less open-minded than Tel Aviv, Israel's liberal cultural hub, would grant the play reach to a more diverse audience.

The play, a 90-minute monologue, was crafted from sections of diaries, letters and emails from Corrie's time in Gaza, along with childhood journals, to create a picture of a passionate and idealistic activist.

The play opened to a full house at the small theater in Jerusalem Sunday night.

Sivane Kretchner, the Israeli actress playing Corrie, flung a keffiyeh, a traditional Palestinian headscarf, around her neck as she delivered Corrie's mundane musings on daily life and grand epiphanies about the injustice she saw.

As the theater lights dimmed, the crackly voice of the bulldozer driver was heard communicating the incident over a military radio to his commander — actual material that was used as evidence in a failed lawsuit by her family against the army.

The case has continued to attract attention in Israel through a civil suit her parents filed, two years after an internal army investigation ruled the death an accident and cleared the driver and other military personnel of any wrongdoing.

Last year, the court sided with the military.

Kretchner said she was moved by the English script and wanted to be part of the Hebrew version.

"I don't see Rachel Corrie as a controversial person," said Kretchner. "She had a beautiful soul, and she was able to look at something and say, this is right and this is wrong."

Corrie, who was 23, died during a Palestinian uprising, a time of heavy fighting between Israel and Palestinian militants. The Israeli army was undertaking systematic house demolitions in the densely populated, violent area along the Egyptian border, where Palestinian militants were using houses as end points for weapons smuggling tunnels. While witnesses and pro-Palestinian activists said Corrie was trying to block the bulldozer from flattening homes, an Israeli court said it was clearing rubble at the time of her death.

Since her death, Palestinians in the West Bank have named a street and a restaurant after her. An Arabic version of the play opened in 2008 and toured Israel and the West Bank.

Corrie's parents, Cindy and Craig, who have seen the play in Icelandic, French and Turkish, welcomed the Hebrew version.

"To have it shown in Hebrew in Jerusalem brings Rachel's story full circle," said Cindy Corrie from her home in Olympia, Wash. "It brings it to an audience that needs to hear Rachel's words, to hear what she had to say." Craig Corrie called it "moving."

Opponents of the performance said they didn't want public money to fund such an event.

"(Corrie) was a self-professed Israel hater, and I don't think we need to glorify her name and to make a play based on her and if we do, then it should be done with private funds," David Hadari, deputy mayor of Jerusalem, told The Associated Press. The theater is partly funded by the municipality.

Despite Hadari's appeal, the Jerusalem municipality approved the theater's funding last week. In a statement, Mayor Nir Barkat said, "The municipality of Jerusalem does not censor content shown in any artistic performance."

Those who attended the opening said it left a strong impression.

"This play shatters a mythos that we didn't want to see," said Moshe Levy, an audience member who lives in a West Bank settlement outside Jerusalem. "It breaks that glass through which we hide reality, this painful reality that we need to deal with."

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Follow Tia Goldenberg on Twitter at www.twitter.com/tgoldenberg .

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