The bubbling outrage over the Israeli court ruling that International Solidarity Activist and U.S. citizen Rachel Corrie’s 2003 killing was an accident is understandable and justified. It also points to a problem about which lives we do and do not value. Bassem Abu Rahmah who, like Corrie, was killed participating in nonviolent direct action, is remembered by some because of the initial outrage around his death in 2009. But there is no international campaign seeking accountability for his killing and no lasting debates about the circumstances surrounding it, we just make a brief remark on Facebook or Twitter on anniversaries of his murder. And his sister Jawaher, also killed in similar circumstances, barely comes up at all. Noha Suidan – a pregnant mother of three also killed during a demolition eleven days before Corrie – is barely footnote in discussions of solidarity and accountability, and then only because her name was on a plaque outside Salim Shawamreh’s house in Anata before it was demolished for the fifth time earlier this year. Salim Najjar – a guy smoking a cigarette outside his house who was killed by an Israeli sniper – whose body followed Corrie’s on the medical examiner’s table is not even a footnote.
This is one way white supremacy moves through the Palestine solidarity movement. We choose which lives to value and organize around. Whose life is worth a prolonged international campaign of pressure? Rachel Corrie’s is. Tom Hurndall’s is. James Miller’s is. But if Corrie’s name was Khoury, she’d most likely be mostly forgotten like Noha Suidan or Jawaher Abu Rahmah.
It’s not the circumstances of Corrie’s killing that matter to solidarity activists, or we’d have a similar campaign for Suidan. It’s not that she was an activist killed with many internationals nearby, or we’d have similar campaigns for the Abu Rahmah siblings (whose killings are on even video to organize around). It’s not when and where it happened, or we’d have a campaign for Salim Najjar. What matters is Corrie is more like ‘us’ (a definition and boundary we create processing these disparate valuings of human lives) and Suidan, Najjar and the Abu Rahmahs are more like ‘them’.
We do this for a few reasons. Often it’s because we simply don’t value Palestinian lives like we value American lives, specifically white American lives (Have we demanded for justice for Furkan Doğan lately?). Second, we organize around Rachel Corrie because we don’t think everyone else values Palestinian lives and thus we believe we’re more likely to find success organizing around Corrie’s killing. In doing so we consciously choose to cooperate with local and global racism and not challenge the dehumanization – the undervaluation of lives and deaths – of Palestinians, Arabs and Muslims. We do this because intersectional work – work that connects Palestine solidarity to other struggles for justice such as fighting racism and Islamophobia in the U.S. and Europe – is seen as harder and because we have a patronizing and condescending view of the rest of our neighbors whom we believe incapable of our supposed enlightenment. We call this being ‘strategic’ (or worse, ‘realistic’) never considering that our patronizing strategies and attitude might play a role in why so many people reject progressive and radical messages even while holding progressive and radical values. And last, making this ‘strategic’ decision allows us to not confront that we’re definitely part of the group that devalues Palestinian lives because we struggle to describe to others why killing Palestinians is problematic.
My departed brother David, a tremendous educator and teacher of teachers, told me one of the biggest problems so many teachers have is a tendency to blame the students for the teacher’s own failure to teach. We blame the rest of the population for not valuing Palestinian lives but never hold up a mirror and look at our own failure to do so, and our general failure to even try to convince others. Instead we prepare press releases, reenactments and protests around Rachel Corrie, because Europeans and Americans ‘get’ that her life was valuable. David would say that we teach to the level we imagine students probably will not fail at, even if they (and thus the teacher too) might not learn anything.
True, in times like Operations Defensive Shield and Cast Lead we do trot out the shocking casualty numbers. It requires a certain quantity of Palestinian deaths to organize around. It requires just one white American. I want to be very clear that I do not think Rachel Corrie’s killing receives too much attention or effort. It does not. The lack of justice means it does not receive enough attention and we should absolutely continue to struggle for accountability for her killing and for justice for her family (which has mobilized tremendously seeking justice for their extraordinary daughter and in solidarity with Palestinians generally) and the Nasrallah family (though we should not do so apart from the context of solidarity and Palestinian liberation). The problem is that Suidan, Najjar and the Abu Rahmah siblings to not receive enough attention, normally none at all.
When Rachel Corrie’s name is invoked the eyes of the West (appropriately) fix upon Israel with an accusatory gaze. When Salim Najjar’s name is invoked, the eyes of the West look around briefly and say, “Who?” There have been no demonstrations outside Colt, the maker of the M4 carbine rifle that killed him. No one brings Najjar’s family to speak about their loss or supports their tireless efforts for accountability. No one shows up at Colt stockholder meetings to confront their CEO. No lawsuits have been filed in US or European courts seeking the justice unavailable in Israeli courts. No one calls on their government officials and representatives to pressure Israel about his death. He was killed near Corrie on the very same day and like her, Israel bears full responsibility for his murder. He’s not remembered like her though, because we who struggle in solidarity with the Palestinian people do not ourselves value Palestinian lives the way we value white American lives.