Free Speech for Palestinian Terrorists, But Not for "Racist, Fascist" Muhammad Cartoons

March 17th, 2006 7:14 AM

Over at TimesWatch on Thursday, Clay Waters tackled a controversy over a postponed play celebrating the life and activism of Rachel Corrie, an American-flag-burning activist for Israel-hating Palestinian terrorism. The third anniversary of Corrie’s death by standing in front of an Israeli bulldozer drew Jesse McKinley to write in the Times about how a Manhattan theatre company was delaying its staging of a British Corrie-celebrating play drawn from her life and writings. As Clay reported:

McKinley presents a false choice on how to take Corrie's activism: "Given the sharply divided opinions of Ms. Corrie -- idealistic or recklessly naive, depending on one's political point of view -- Mr. Nicola said on Monday that the workshop needed ‘more time to learn more and figure a way to proceed.’"

But was Corrie truly "naive" about what her group, the International Solidarity Movement, was doing?

ISM supports "armed struggle" against Israel. When Corrie was killed the ISM group was stopping Israeli army bulldozers from destroying homes concealing tunnels, through which explosives were being smuggled from Egypt.

None of this necessary political back-story made it into the paper. The Times in the past has tended to take the radical ISM’s side of things against Israel.

The paper’s prominent hand-wringing over the postponement of the play can be compared unfavorably to the paper’s harsh and hypocritical treatment of another, far more benign piece of politically provocative art: the Danish newspaper cartoons featuring the prophet Mohammad.

McKinley found radical leftist drama types were shoveling outrage: "Criticized by celebrities like Harold Pinter, Tony Kushner, Vanessa Redgrave and lesser-known theater artists for censorship and artistic cowardice, the leaders of the workshop blame the entire brouhaha on a simple misunderstanding. In an interview this week James C. Nicola, the workshop's artistic director, and Lynn Moffat, its managing director, insisted that they wanted only to postpone, not cancel, the show — despite declarations by the authors and the Royal Court Theater, the London troupe that initially produced the award-winning play, that the workshop pulled the plug on a done deal."

Putting Vanessa Redgrave and the Muhammad cartoons together reminded me of a March 8 Pacifica Radio "Democracy Now" interview, also focusing on the Corrie play. Redgrave seemed very situational in her support for free speech, supporting it for artists like herself, but certainly not for the "fascist" cartoons that mocked Muhammad.

VANESSA REDGRAVE: Now, if you have an artistic enterprise that then moves in and opens the door for all the censorship-directed policies of any government, then that becomes a conduit for silencing of an awful lot of people who have got things to say about many other things. So I’ve never known -- I must say, in my experience, I had the support of Jewish communities. I had the support of American Actors Equity, because, you know, efforts were made to silence me along the way, and I had to, you know, go to several court cases, in fact, and I did. I sued, and it was in the suing that the truth came out --


VANESSA REDGRAVE: -- that, actually, there’s many more people want the freedom to communicate, as long as it’s not blasphemous and destructive in a rotten way of other people, in other words, racist. I mean, those cartoons, for instance, that have shocked us all were racist. They were fascist in character, the cartoons of the Prophet with a bomb on his head. I mean, that's a very rightwing paper, Jyllands-Posten, and it’s not surprising that they published those cartoons as a sort of provocation. We have got these sort of fascist kind of things happening in the world, and we don't need any more of them.

However, the play, because the New York Theater Workshop canceled, there’s a producer in London, and it’s going to open in London at a major West End Theater, My Name Is Rachel Corrie, and the press night’s March the 28th. So, while every attempt has been made to suppress by governments, I think we’ve got that reminder of what Shakespeare said, “The truth will rise, though all the earth o’erwhelm it, to men's eyes.


On March 6, New York Times critic Edward Rothstein found the theater producers to be the naive people:

The postponement of this one-woman drama about a 23-year-old pro-Palestinian American activist killed by an Israeli bulldozer in the Gaza Strip in 2003 has been attacked as an act of censorship. One of the play's creators compared the decision to backing down in the face of a McCarthyite "witch hunt." Hundreds have sent e-mail messages accusing the theater's directors of everything from cowardice to being "Zionist pigs."

There might have been assertions that the company was glorifying the mock-heroics of a naif who tried to block efforts to cut off terrorist weapon smuggling. Donors might have pulled away. And the New York Theater Workshop might have been accused of feeding the propagandistic maw of Hamas, just as it came into power in the Palestinian territories. Is it any wonder the company got jittery?

The surprise, though, is that there was so much surprise on the theater's part: surprise, first, that the play might cause controversy, then surprise that the postponement actually did.