Jimmy Carter and Rachel Corrie

by Mark Chmiel

I am thinking of Jimmy Carter and Rachel Corrie, and how they are quite similar. Not on the surface, for who could more dissimilar: A young college student and an august former statesman. But I can think of two ways, and the first way leads to the second way of similarity.

I am fond of quoting Vietnamese Buddhist teacher Thich Nhat Hanh’s 4th precept from his Order of Interbeing: “Do not avoid contact with suffering or close your eyes before suffering. Do not lose awareness of the existence of suffering in the life of the world. Find ways to be with those who are suffering by all means, including personal contact and visits, images, sound. By such means, awaken yourself and others to the reality of suffering in the world.”

What Corrie and Carter have in common is that they both chose to go to Palestine and opened their eyes, and hearts to the suffering of the Palestinian people, Corrie only once, Carter many times (I saw him when I was there in 1990, we went to a service at St. George’s in East Jerusalem).

Here’s a long excerpt from one of Corrie’s emails:

“I have been in Palestine for two weeks and one hour now, and I still have very few words to describe what I see. It is most difficult for me to think about what’s going on here when I sit down to write back to the United States. Something about the virtual portal into luxury. I don’t know if many of the children here have ever existed without tank-shell holes in their walls and the towers of an occupying army surveying them constantly from the near horizons. I think, although I’m not entirely sure, that even the smallest of these children understand that life is not like this everywhere. An eight-year-old was shot and killed by an Israeli tank two days before I got here, and many of the children murmur his name to me – Ali – or point at the posters of him on the walls. The children also love to get me to practice my limited Arabic by asking me, “Kaif Sharon?” “Kaif Bush?” and they laugh when I say, “Bush Majnoon”, “Sharon Majnoon” back in my limited arabic. (How is Sharon? How is Bush? Bush is crazy. Sharon is crazy.) Of course this isn’t quite what I believe, and some of the adults who have the English correct me: “Bush mish Majnoon” … Bush is a businessman. Today I tried to learn to say, “Bush is a tool”, but I don’t think it translated quite right. But anyway, there are eight-year-olds here much more aware of the workings of the global power structure than I was just a few years ago.”

“Nevertheless, no amount of reading, attendance at conferences, documentary viewing and word of mouth could have prepared me for the reality of the situation here. You just can’t imagine it unless you see it – and even then you are always well aware that your experience of it is not at all the reality: what with the difficulties the Israeli army would face if they shot an unarmed US citizen, and with the fact that I have money to buy water when the army destroys wells, and the fact, of course, that I have the option of leaving. Nobody in my family has been shot, driving in their car, by a rocket launcher from a tower at the end of a major street in my hometown. I have a home. I am allowed to go see the ocean. When I leave for school or work I can be relatively certain that there will not be a heavily armed soldier waiting halfway between Mud Bay and downtown Olympia at a checkpoint with the power to decide whether I can go about my business, and whether I can get home again when I’m done.”

Corrie wasn’t there very long, several weeks, and yet, she was able to see a small part of the reality (as my Ramallah friends told me after our detention: “Now you have a very small taste of what we go through all the time”).

Here are a few passages from Carter’s book, Palestine Peace not Apartheid, which, I believe, were able to be written because of his “contact” with Palestinians in Palestine:

“When we arrived there in January 1996, it was obvious that the Israelis had almost complete control over every aspect of political, military, and economic existence of the Palestinians within the West Bank and Gaza.” [141]

“This honeycomb of settlements and their interconnecting conduits effectively divide the West Bank into at least two noncontiguous areas and multiple fragments, often uninhabitable or even unreachable.” [151]

“Utilizing their political and military dominance, [Israeli leaders] are imposing a system of partial withdrawal, encapsulation, and apartheid on the Muslim and Christian citizens of the occupied territories. The driving purpose for the forced separation of the two peoples in unlike that in South Africa–not racism, but the acquisition of land. There has been a determined and remarkably effective effort to isolate settlers form Palestinians, so that a Jewish family can commune from Jerusalem to their highly subsidized home deep in the West Bank on roads from which others are excluded, without ever coming into contact with any facet of Arab life.”[189-190]

“In addition to cutting off about 200,000 Palestinians in Jerusalem from their relatives, property, schools, and businesses, the wall is designed to complete the enclosure of a severely truncated Palestine, a small portion of its original size, compartmentalized, divided into cantons, occupied by Israeli security forces, and isolated from the outside world.” [195]

For all those who lambaste the Palestinians as terrorists, as fanatic Islamists, and scum unworthy of a state, I can’t help but wonder: Ever been there? Ever tried to get from point A to B? Ever talked with someone who’d been jailed for being a young Palestinian male? Even see the wounds of a victim of collateral damage? Ever look into the eyes of a father whose home has just been demolished?

Corrie and Carter took the initiative to go to Palestine, to see it for themselves, and try to communicate to others what their seeing meant to them.

The second similarity stems from this first: Both of them have been defamed, Corrie posthumously (she asked for it, she supported the terrorists, she was stupid, deranged, etc.), Carter currently (he’s anti-Semitic, he’s Hamas’s representative in the U.S., he’s a Nazi).

But really, all what I am writing here is something that was summarized some time ago, I don’t even know the name of the person who coined the expression, so characteristic of the prophets of ancient times: to comfort the afflicted, and to afflict the comfortable.

To comfort the afflicted, you have to see them, hear their weeping, listen to their heart-rending stories, and offer your presence. You have to connect.

And when you speak on behalf of the afflicted, and criticize their oppressors, it’s to be expected that flak and obloquy will be coming in your direction.

Yes, it takes courage to take on the Establishment. And it takes courage to stand before an Israeli bulldozer. I hope that at some point, Jimmy Carter can see a performance of My Name is Rachel Corrie. Like the Palestinian people have already, she, too, will find a place in his heart.

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