Why Did the Activist Cross the Road

Rachel Corrie and the Motivations of Activism

Rachel Corrie, a 23-year old Evergreen State College student and International Solidarity Movement (ISM) activist, died on March 16, 2003 in Rafah, Gaza after being crushed by an Israeli military bulldozer attempting to demolish the home of Samir Nasrallah and his family. For nearly a decade, the exact chain of events on March 16, 2003 has been investigated, debated and litigated by the Israeli military, the governments of Israel and the United States, human rights organizations, social justice movements, the media and Rachel Corrie’s parents, Cindy and Craig Corrie.  On August 28, 2012, Israeli Judge Oded Gershon in the Haifa District Court ruled Corrie’s death an accident and cleared the Israeli military of any responsibility.

In the aftermath of the ruling, columnists and commentators across the mediasphere sought to relitigate the basic facts of the case and frame the ruling within larger discourses of human rights, social justice, personal responsibility and state power. Supporters of the Israeli military championed the decision as a credible judicial review and an exoneration of Israeli soldiers executing their lawful orders. Supporters of Rachel Corrie decried the decision as yet another example of the legal immunity enjoyed by the Israeli military and the persistent denial of rights and protections experienced by Palestinians and transnational activists across Israel, the West Bank and Gaza Strip. Yet within the myriad op-eds and articles generated in response to the Haifa District Court ruling, one particular piece raised a fundamental question that demands more exploration, consideration and thought by transnational social justice activists and the scholars who study them.

Lee Smith, a senior editor at the Weekly Standard and fellow at the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies, asked the questions “Why did she put herself in danger? What, exactly, was Rachel Corrie doing in Gaza?” in his article Why Rachel Corrie Went to Gaza?. These are fair, provocative and shrewd questions largely neglected throughout the coverage of the Corrie case. Moreover, it is a question that many average Israelis ask themselves.

Several years ago, while having dinner at the home of an Israeli friend in Ramat Gan, I was asked about my current fieldwork. When I said that I was interviewing Israeli, Palestinian and transnational peace activists, my host, Uri, turned to me and said “What I don’t understand is why these people are coming here. There are problems in America, there are problems in Turkey, there are problems in Russia; so why must they come to Israel?”.  Like Smith, Uri raised a serious question that requires study and  analysis. Unfortunately, instead of raising such questions, Smith opted to indiscriminately disparage transnational activists by suggesting that they leave their homes and engage in struggles around the world out of deeply rooted sense of self-loathing, boredom, adventurism or, in the Israeli-Palestinian context, thinly veiled anti-Semitism.

As Smith suggests, some activists may be inspired by the allure of adventure or spurred to action by a frustrated sense of social and cultural identity. However, based on years of field research of and interactions with social justice activists, I recognize that this may account for a mere handful of the men and women participating in social justice and human rights struggles. Unfortunately, Smith’s analysis of transnational social justice activists engaged in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict does little more than obscure and denigrate the deeply held convictions and ideals that many activists cite when explaining why they chose to become involved in the conflict. In the end, Smith fails to answer his own question or offer any useful insights for Uri.

Yet, Smith and Uri are struggling to make sense of the same questions. Why, in a world teeming with injustice – from political repression in Russia, to ethnic cleansing in Sudan, to religious persecution in Nigeria, Rachel Corrie selected Israel and Palestine as the place to defend the victimized? Likewise, why did Rachel Corrie and other activists continue to travel thousands of miles to fight injustice when homelessness, hunger, prejudice and inequality exists throughout the United States?

There are two fundamental problems with this sort of reasoning.

First, this reasoning suggests a type of injustice hierarchy whereby some injustices are worth fighting while others are not. This proposed hierarchy appears to work satisfactorily so long as the comparative framework relies upon extreme cases. The hierarchy works if, for example, you ask whether it is more important to combat the injustice of genocide or the injustice of unequal pay in the workplace. However, once we move away from polarized cases, the hierarchy becomes more murky and problematic. For example, it is more difficult and contentious to decide whether to fight against the injustice of childhood hunger and malnutrition or the injustice of child abuse. Here the answer is not as obvious.  Unfortunately, many of the injustices that exist within the world fall within the broad gray zone where deciding which ones must be stopped and which ones can be tolerated is not easily determined. Many of the activists I have interviewed cite a combination of core values and life experiences as key factors in deciding the issues they engage and, in turn, clarifying the injustice hierarchy for themselves.

Second, this reasoning prescribes a form of isolationism whereby individuals, communities and perhaps even states should not fight against perceived injustices until they have first eradicated injustices within their own home, neighborhood or country. The activists I have worked with typically reject this notion of compartmentalization and isolationism; rather, they view all forms of injustice as interconnected. For many activists, the occupation of the West Bank, Gaza Strip and East Jerusalem and hunger in the United States are not discrete issues that can be dealt with individually. Rather, the injustices within the Israeli-Palestinian conflict are seen as linked to the injustices within the United States and elsewhere through a variety of lenses (e.g. the structural violence within neoliberalism and free-market capitalism).

Critics of activists, such as Smith, fail to recognize and appreciate how activists often perceive the interconnectivity of injustice across world and, subsequently, participate in a variety of activist struggles simultaneously. In the group of activists I work with in Spokane, Washington, it is not unusual for an individual to be highly involved in Palestine solidarity efforts while at the same time being active in the anti-war movement, anti-death penalty movement and/or Occupy Wall Street. The question of “Why in Israel and not in Russia, Nigeria, Sudan or the United States?” fails to recognize the symbiotic nature of injustice as well as the potential that activists are engaged in a multitude of efforts simultaneously.

The interconnectivity of injustice and its consequences was perhaps best articulated by Martin Luther King Jr. in his Letter from a Birmingham Jail when he wrote:

Moreover, I am cognizant of the interrelatedness of all communities and states. I cannot sit idly by in Atlanta and not be concerned about what happens in Birmingham. Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly. Never again can we afford to live with the narrow, provincial “outside agitator” idea.

Beyond the various emails and letters written by Rachel Corrie before her death, we will never know specifically what motivated her to travel to Gaza where she risked, and ultimately lost, her life. What is certain is that Rachel Corrie went to Gaza not to aid well-armed terrorists or be an “outside agitator”, but to help the persecuted; a point Smith readily acknowledges in his article. Like countless other activists, Rachel Corrie traveled to the place where she saw an injustice that she was compelled to fight based on a complex set of beliefs, values, ideals and life experiences.

In the end, activists must better articulate and frame this reasoning in order to make clear the complexity and dynamism that governs activism. Further, anthropologists must use their research in this area to challenge the notion that activism is singular, uniform, discrete and idiosyncratic. If they do not, the public discourse will continue to focus on asking activists why they can’t just mind their own business and deal with issues in their own backyard or, at least, choose a greater injustice in the world to fight.

Originally published in Anthropology News

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