I didn't know Rachel Corrie, the 23-year old American activist killed on Sunday when she was run over by an IDF bulldozer while protesting the destruction of Palestinian homes in Rafah along the Gaza-Egyptian border.
But I've known many like her, young, politically committed Americans and Europeans who come here to identify with the Palestinian cause in one capacity or another.
Some have been my friends; others made clear that wasn't an option with an Israeli citizen and IDF reservist who serves in the territories. One very special case was a Long Island Jewish woman, who when I met her was living with a Palestinian in Ramallah and claimed she couldn't even abide the very sound of Hebrew.
Today, back in New York, she is a firm (if still left-leaning) supporter of Israel proud to be part of the local Jewish community.
Corrie's death has drawn predictably polarized reactions. "Within hours of being crushed by an Israeli bulldozer, Rachel Corrie became a martyr and hero for the peace activists of her home town," reported the Associated Press from Olympia, Washington.
"Rachel was filled with love and a sense of duty to her fellow man, wherever they lived. And, she gave her life trying to protect those that are unable to protect themselves," declared her parents in an e-mail distributed by the Gush Shalom movement.
Others were far less impressed. A photo showing Corrie looking not especially love-filled as she held up burning facsimiles of the American and Israeli flags is also making the e-mail rounds.
"As an Israeli, how exactly am I supposed to feel about an American who comes to my country to defend those trying to kill my children?" wrote the novelist Naomi Ragen in her own e-mail missive. "How am I supposed to feel about a girl who throws herself in front of my sons, my soldiers, who are risking their lives to uproot terrorism, forcing them to deal with naive foreigners who make their lives even more difficult and dangerous?... What a wasted life. What a foolish death."
Was her life a waste? Her death certainly was, tragically so.
One factor was its timing. Had Corrie died in this manner in almost any other week, I'm sure it would have been given major and repeated play in international news outlets traditionally not sympathetic to Israel. But coming on the eve of a US attack on Iraq, it received relatively little notice from an attention-stretched media.
(Ironically, one place where due notice was taken is [the Jerusalem Post], which of course is editorially not in sympathy with her views.) Had the rest of the world not been busy criticizing the US for its decision to attack Iraq, I'm sure the international condemnation of Israel would also have been far stronger.
As I said, I've encountered a number of young people like Corrie over the years, and when I do, I try my best (if allowed) to dialogue with them. Had I met Corrie, I would have tried to put the Israeli-Palestinian conflict in historical perspective, and explain how we have reached the current (but hopefully not permanent) impasse in large part because of Yasser Arafat sabotaging the Oslo process by giving the green light for violence in October 2000. I would have said that on the human level, I share her sympathy for the hardship of the Palestinian people, but added the suffering is equally experienced by Israelis contending with seemingly unending waves of terror.
I would have shared my experiences as a reserve soldier who more than once was called upon to stand guard when the IDF demolished Palestinian homes in the territories. Sometimes I felt these actions were unjustified, and admit I feel ashamed by my role in them. But the destruction of the homes in Rafah was a response to the terrorism and arms smuggling the Palestinian Authority has allowed to flourish along the Gaza-Egypt border, and it is the PA which bears the brunt of the blame for this particular operation.
I would have commended Corrie for her decision to engage in non-violent resistance, while pointing out that this strategy cannot be effective or morally elevated when it is accompanied by continued violence. Perhaps she should have begun her efforts by protesting against the extremists in her own (adopted) Palestinian camp, as Mahatma Gandhi once did in a famed hunger strike directed against the violent extremists in his Hindu community.
Most likely, at some point I would have lost my temper and accusingly asked her by what right she has to come to a country where she does not live and where she will not have to suffer the long-term consequences of her actions the same question I ask right-wing Jewish activists from abroad who campaign against any compromise in the territories, without a willingness to live here and share in the burdens of that policy.
Finally, I would have pointed to the example of Abigail Litle, the 14-year-old American Bapist girl killed in the Haifa bus bombing two weeks ago. Litle, like her family, was reportedly dedicated to the cause of Arab-Jewish reconciliation, and apparently did so by trying to bring the two sides together, not simply by lifting up a partisan banner for just one camp, an action that put Corrie in league with terrorists dedicated as much to Israel's destruction as to Palestinian liberation.
Litle's death was also a tragic waste; but unlike Corrie, I don't think anyone on either side of the conflict would suggest the same about her all-too-brief life. I do mourn for the death of Rachel Corrie; but I also mourn for the choices she made that led to it.