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Night Labor, a Poem for Rachel Corrie

by Michael R. Burch

Tonight we keep the flame alive;
we keep the candle lit.
We burn bright incense in your name
and swear we’ll not forget—
your innocence, your courage,
your example—till bleak night
surrenders to irrevocable dawn
and hate yields to love’s light.


Why have I written poetry to honor Rachel Corrie? Because I believe in her work and good example. Rachel Corrie was a young American peace activist who used her body as a "human shield" to protect Palestinians from home demolitions in the Gaza Strip. On March 16, 2003 she was killed by an Israeli Defense Forces (IDF) bulldozer as she tried to prevent it from destroying the home of Palestinian pharmacist Samir Nasrallah.

Colin Reese, her roommate, said Rachel was "not the most punctual or tidy person in the world," but that when it came to peace work, she "would work harder and longer than anybody else." Hence, the title of my poem, "Night Labor."

According to a report by Gordon Murray, during the last month of her life Rachel "spent a lot of time at the Canada Well helping protect Rafah municipal workers" who were trying to repair a vital well that had been damaged by Israeli bulldozers. Rachel and other International Solidarity Movement activists were interceding because even though Rafah had been under "strict rationing (only a few hours of running water on alternate days)," Israeli snipers and tanks "routinely shot at civilian workers trying to repair the wells." In one of her own reports, Corrie said that despite having received permission from the Israeli District Command Office and carrying banners and megaphones "the activists and workers were fired upon several times over a period of about one hour. One of the bullets came within two metres of three internationals and a municipal water worker close enough to spray bits of debris in their faces as it landed at their feet."

Rachel had studied the nonviolent methods of Gandhi and Martin Luther King Jr. In an email to her mother she wrote, "The vast majority of Palestinians right now, as far as I can tell, are engaged in Gandhian nonviolent resistance." Other peace activists have said similar things. I recommend the book Witness in Palestine by Anna Baltzer, for people interested in hearing what people who have lived among the Palestinians have to say. The prevailing fictions that "all Palestinians are terrorists and/or religious fanatics" and that "Israel is only protecting itself from acts of terrorism" simply don’t hold water. The plain truth is that Israel has been stealing land from the Palestinians for more than sixty years: this is why the IDF uses bulldozers. The bulldozers regularly demolish Palestinian homes so that Israeli "settlers" can steal the underlying land. It’s much easier to steal land when it’s unoccupied.

Two days before her death, on March 14, 2003, during an interview with the Middle East Broadcasting network, Rachel said: "I feel like I'm witnessing the systematic destruction of a people's ability to survive ... Sometimes I sit down to dinner with people and I realize there is a massive military machine surrounding us, trying to kill the people I'm having dinner with."

The circumstances of Rachel’s death are disputed. Eyewitnesses claimed that she was wearing orange fluorescent clothing with reflective strips, and that she looked directly into the cabin of the bulldozer before it killed her, and that it seemed the operator ran her over on purpose. The bulldozer operator claimed he did not see her. A lawsuit is pending.

While we mourn the death of Rachel Corrie, we must not forget that thousands of Palestinians have died, without being mentioned by the Western press or eulogized by Western poets. On the night of Rachel’s death, nine Palestinians were killed in the Gaza Strip, among them a ninety-year-old man and a four-year-old girl. The death of the young girl makes me think of the Bible verse about Rachel weeping for her children. Palestinians know the death of one American receives more attention than the killing of hundreds of Muslims. But of course we shouldn’t accept or forget the death of anyone who died unjustly, or who died without ever living as a free human being.

The purpose of my poem is not to exalt Rachel Corrie’s death above those of the many Palestinians who have died — I’m sure she wouldn’t want that — but to commend her work and encourage others to continue it. The Palestinians have been denied equal human rights and the protection of fair laws and fair courts for over sixty years, since the Nakba ("Catastrophe") of 1948. While it is true that Israeli Jews have also died during the ongoing conflict, there is a tremendous difference: every Israeli Jew lives and dies free. This is not true for the Palestinians who live in Gaza and the West Bank. This is the same terrible disparity that existed between white settlers and the Native Americans who walked the Trail of Tears, and between the white slaveowners of the Deep South and their black slaves, and between white Germans and Jews during the Holocaust. In each case, the violence on both sides (and by far the greater violence was on the part of the oppressors) was primarily the result of the massive injustices and imbalances created by government-sanctioned racism.

Israel has near-total power over the Palestinians. With power comes responsibility. It is the responsibility of every nation on earth to establish fair laws and fair courts for every human being under its aegis. Israel has not done this. The fact that Israel regularly bulldozes Palestinian homes and claims the underlying land, says worlds. What other nation on earth allows bulldozers guarded by snipers and soldiers with machine guns to demolish the homes of its minorities? Only in this case, as in South Africa during the days of apartheid, the Palestinians are the rightful majority. It is past time for Israel to abandon racism and religious intolerance, and to establish fair laws and fair courts that protect the human rights and dignity of every law-abiding citizen. And it is past time for Americans to follow the lead of Rachel Corrie, as she followed the lead of Mahatma Gandhi and Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.

Michael R. Burch
March 21, 2010

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