A Sister City Debate in Rachel Corrie’s Hometown

“Hope is a little child.”

Charles Péguy (1873-1914)

Charles Péguy, French poet and essayist, once said: “It will never be known what acts of cowardice have been motivated by the fear of not looking sufficiently progressive.” However, after the April 17, 2007, City of Olympia, WA, Council public meeting where six council members, including the Olympia mayor, had every chance to prove that they lead Olympia toward being a progressive and forward-thinking community, I had to rethink its meaning. The ratio of the council’s progressiveness, if I may venture to come up with this definition, was 2-to-4, with Councilmember T.J. Johnson and Mayor Pro Tem Laura Ware being the only ones who were admirably courageous and eloquent in their heroic effort to grant official status to the Olympia-Rafah Sister City Project (ORSCP) and, thus, recognize as an official sister city of Olympia a city in Palestine, Rafah, an ill-fated city by dint of the Israeli occupation and pathetic political passages by the U.S. toward peace in the Middle East. To reflect the situation at hand, I had to paraphrase Péguy’s quote thus: “It will always be obvious when acts of cowardice have been motivated by the fear of looking too progressive.” On April 17, my interpretation of the actual saying was a close match to what’s transpired in the Olympia City Hall.

In many regards, this meeting could be named as one portending a national political watershed because the people of Olympia and a few others who arrived from Steilacoom, Lacey and Tumwater had an opportunity to openly voice their opinion–in a very civilized way, as the mayor of Olympia commented at the end of the meeting–about the possibility of friendship with the people of Rafah and of all the pros and cons that official status for such a friendship entails. The issue of Palestine has never been a comfortable topic of any discussion in the U.S.A., and a few years ago, such a meeting could never have happened in the sanctum of the Olympia City Hall; moreover, even having such a word as “Palestine” on the agenda could be, and still is, considered by some timid souls as the egregious act of an importunate and impudent constituency.

However, since Olympia purports to be in the ranks of the progressive avant-garde–when compared to other, less free-thinking and more narrow-minded communities–the House of Olympus, or the Olympia City Hall, on April 17 was the place where Olympian political gods, presided over by Zeus–pardon me, by Mayor Mark Foutch–had a right to decide whether they will deign to concede the ORSCP’s request legitimization of the town’s existing friendship with people in Rafah. The myth of democracy was truly at display that evening, for the only voices that were counted were the voices of “elective aristocracy,” to use the term coined by Benjamin R. Barber, a political theorist and professor at the University of Maryland.

We Americans are very often to be found patting ourselves on the back for living in a truly democratic society. However, this naïve belief is rather a sign of either complete ignorance or of the insidious mutation of our cerebral faculties. In the cradle of democracy in ancient Greece, the collective nature of the law and of public decisions was truly the foundation of a democratic society. Whereas all other societies before and most societies since would rather say of the rules they proclaimed and enforced that they are good and ought to be obeyed for that very reason. Self-government of a true democracy is a utopian dream, no less, no more. Nowadays, we observe that our government decides what is good for the people, as it was with the April 17 meeting in the Olympia City Council chamber, where representatives of the people, in this case, six council members, were the only ones who had full authority in a matter of vital importance. On that evening, the City Hall had been filled to its capacity, and there were many more people who gathered outside and listened to the proceedings through microphones. There were 83 community members who signed to testify and–because people didn’t have enough authority to decide for themselves–they urged the City of Olympia council members either to support or reject the proposal.

Indeed, the public hearing was conducted in an exemplary pattern. Out of 83 speakers, 28 were against and 55 for the proposal. There were no speciously expressed rude remarks or raised voices. However, some of those 28 were mere mouthpieces of an insidious racism–toward Arabs in general and Palestinians in Rafah in particular–commonly spread throughout the U.S.A. Let’s heed some of the reasons why the opponents thought that the proposal should be rejected:

“Rafah is a known violent area associated with multiple terrorist attacks.”

“Rafah is associated with terrorism.”

Palestinians try to “destroy Israel and drive Jews into the sea”; it is “an anti-Israeli proposal.”

“Violent country, violent city.”

All in all, the comments opposing official sisterhood were lacking in creativity. They were mostly confined to common prejudices against Palestinians, who were stereotyped as terrorists, and to repetitive comments to the effect that this proposal is divisive and controversial. One may ask, why it is so divisive and controversial? Logically thinking, the answer is simple. It is, indeed, divisive because people themselves made it so. Moreover, listening to the opposing voices, I could not help but think that the sharp division between “them” and “us” underlay everything said at this public hearing. They–people in Rafah–are definitely different from us, and this difference is scary, nay, even terrifying for some people here, in Olympia.

In his essay “The Melodrama of Difference,” the late French philosopher and sociologist Jean Baudrillard tackled the issue of difference and ensuing racism with an explanation that seems to me perfectly matched to “the psychodrama of difference” demonstrated on April 17. “Racism does reveal the temptation to fetishize difference.” However, “differences mean regulated exchange,” in whatever field–cultural, social, or political–it may occur, and this exchange would definitely happen, as the ORSCP’s proposal revealed, through people-to-people connection, fair trade, and art and pen pal projects between people in Olympia and Rafah. However, when this “exchange is impossible, what we encounter is terror. Any radical otherness at all is thus the epicenter of a terror: the terror that such otherness holds, by virtue of its very existence, for the normal world. And the terror that this world exercises upon that otherness in order to annihilate it.”

No, those opposing the proposal didn’t want to annihilate anybody, they just didn’t want to have anything in common with people in Rafah, who are so different from and instill terror in us. They appealed to the members of City of Olympia Council to “stick to the issues here, in Olympia,” instead of endorsing an official relationship with “others,” people in the Middle East. Little did the opponents realize, though, that they were direct proponents of racism, which, according to Baudrillard, “does not exist so long as the other remains Other, so long as the Stranger remains foreign. It comes into existence when the other becomes merely different This is the moment when the inclination to keep the other at a distance comes into being.” As the end of the meeting on April 17 disclosed, opponents managed to keep people in Rafah at a distance indeed, thus–unbeknownst to themselves–being puppets on the stage of racism and in the hands of some political leaders in the U.S. government “who manipulate otherness for their own profit.”

As to supporters of the ORSCP’s proposal, they were eloquent and brilliant. There were many of them, 55, which is almost twice as many as the opposing voices. Supporters talked about the “potential to reduce hatred and dehumanization” of Palestinians, the “opportunity to see people in Rafah as people, not the people whom we fear,” also about “influencing choices that Palestinians kids will make in their future” and the positive impact of the Council’s favorable decision, the “impact that could change the world” in the long run. Finally, there were words to the effect that accepting Rafah as the official sister city “defines what kind of community we are–either willing to extend the hand of friendship or just go with the common opinion of Palestinians as terrorists.”

One of the supporters quoted from the ORSCP’s proposal the appeal that had been written by children under the care of the Association for Woman and Child Development in Rafah, Palestine. In this appeal, children wrote: “When we lack security, we dream of a secure world. When tomorrow becomes dark, we’ll hold a candle to light the tunnel. When we lose our school bags, clothes and toys under rubbles, we will look for HOPE and PEACE. When we lose everything, our hearts will go on and we’ll look for a friend. OUR FRIENDS, WE NEED YOUR VOICE ” This heart-breaking appeal didn’t matter. It either was dismissed or just didn’t reach the ears of the four councilmembers who voted against the proposal. After all, it had not been written by children of Olympia, or Israel, for that matter. It also didn’t matter that there were 400 signatures gathered around the community in support of making Rafah our official sister city. The motion failed 2-to-4. The closing remarks of the four community leaders who voted against it were strikingly alike–they felt “uncomfortable endorsing” the proposal while community members are not united on the issue. Will community members ever be united on any issue at hand? Let me assure you, it can be easily arranged, but mostly in a totalitarian nightmare. Would those four council members vote differently if this proposal offered official statue to a sister-city relationship with one of Israel’s cities and if Muslims of Olympia protested it? One might wonder

However, all in all there were many positive things that transpired during the public hearing in the Olympia City Hall on April 17, 2007. Community members brought forward the issue of having Rafah as an official sister city of Olympia, the issue that was met “with defensiveness by some community members,” but everybody involved–either by speaking and being present at the meeting or by watching the proceedings through website video–had a great educational experience. Stories shared by supporters–stories about the human aspect of either Palestinians visiting Olympia or Palestinian families, women and children in Rafah–were generously offered to supporters and opponents of the proposal at hand, to Olympia community leaders, to the whole Olympia community, and to the national community, as well as people in Rafah. On April 20, 2007, Khaled Nasrallah, brother of a Palestinian pharmacist whose house Rachel Corrie, the daughter of Olympia, tried to protect from demolition in March 2003, sent an email, in which he congratulated Olympia community members for their successful–in many regards – meeting:

“It was my pleasure to see all of you at the meeting with the Olympia council regarding [efforts] to convince them to approve our dream of start[ing] the legal form of the ORSCP as a bonus of your great work [you did]; it was a fantastic effort you all made, and we in Rafah are very proud of you, and sure will all continue struggling in both sides to achieve our dream [that] Rachel started alone, but now thousands of people heard about, even thousand support or participate. Please do not [be] disappointed, as what happened was great success to reach this level, even we fail this time for unknown reasons against [the] logic and law.”

At the end of the meeting, two valiant council members, T.J. Johnson and Laura Ware, who–admirably so–had not “been motivated by the fear of looking” too progressive, offered their remarkable and sagacious conclusion–one that would make anyone of our political leaders on the national level pale in comparison. T.J. Johnson admitted that indeed, “Gaza is a mess, and it will continue to be a mess for a longer time if we continue policies of the past, replicate all the mistakes we did in the past.” He proposed to try “something new, talking to each other, reaching out to people you are not agreeing with and find common humanity.” Laura Ware said that they, as community leaders, “are elected to lead and if I afraid what somebody will say about me, I would not be” a councilmember for 12 years. Moreover, feeling “uncomfortable is a good thing sometimes and being divisive makes us talking about things,” as it happened during this public hearing.

I would like to finish my narration about the ORSCP’s proposal and ensuing discussion in the Olympia community by appealing to the genius of Charles Péguy, again, but substituting the word “philosophy” in his quote by the word “community.” After all, community is where display of interwoven differences, prejudices, heroic efforts toward inclusion, education, etc., are being offered for all of us to transform and to be transformed, in short, to make a difference. “A great [community] is not that which passes final judgments, which takes a seat in final truth. It is that which introduces uneasiness [or feeling uncomfortable–sic.], which opens the door to commotion.” As Charles Péguy said, “hope is a little child,” and little children in Rafah extend their hope for friendship and peace.

ALEVTINA REA lives in Olympia, Washington and can be reached at sailcool@comcast.net