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 region 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 that is the hallmark of intellectual discourse at 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 opened at an off-Broadway theater in New York City this week 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.
A SAINT'S LIFE
Corrie, a 23-year-old American from Everest, Wash., 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.
You 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" isn't merely propaganda; it's 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 banality of her life and observations are not without purpose. 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 are 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. Her 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."
As for Corrie's take on the other side of the ledger, the deaths of a thousand Jews at the hands of her nonviolent buddies aren't worth mentioning.
Her reaction to an e-mail from her mother questioning Palestinian violence is an impassioned rant justifying any measures the Palestinians might take to fight the Israelis. Suicide bombings get kashrut certification from Corrie because the sweet Palestinians she meets are worthy and the faceless Israelis are not.
THE POWER OF A LIE
The play concludes on this moderate note. What follows then is an audiotape of one of Corrie's confederates, claiming she was killed deliberately.
After that, the audience is treated to an actual home video of the 10-year-old Corrie affirming her opposition to world hunger before the lights go out.
We can poke fun at the pretensions of the authors of such maudlin trash, as Oscar Wilde did over a century ago when he wrote of another piece of sentimental hogwash, "One must have a heart of stone to read the death of Little Nell without laughing."
But it would be a mistake to underestimate the power of a lie, even one so transparent as Rickman and Viner's mythical version of the misguided Corrie.
There is a tradition of using theater as a political bully pulpit, and you can easily imagine this farrago having a long shelf life, touring the provinces and college campuses where untold numbers of naive audience members will grieve anew over the death of innocent little Rachel at the hands of the rapacious Jews.
Alan Rickman and Katherine Viner and all those who applaud their work want you to believe that Rachel Corrie died for America's Middle East sins.
But if you believe that, it isn't much of a stretch to think, as Corrie apparently did, that the Jews of Israel deserve to die, too. As British writer Tom Gross noted at the time of the play's opening, its promoters, like Corrie herself, might have taken the time to learn about the many other Rachels, the Jewish women and girls slaughtered by Palestinians in the name of a jihad that Corrie supported.
Yet what makes "Rachel Corrie" worth noting is that this premise of Israeli perfidy and Palestinian victimhood is actually presented in many an American classroom.
Those who wonder that truth can be so easily stood on its head need only wander up from the West Village playhouse where the show will appear until the end of the year, and visit virtually any campus where a Middle East Studies department has taken root.