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Ketchum's Sometimes Ugly Israeli/Palestinian Debate

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For a supposedly low-key destination, Sun Valley isn't always so relaxed. Take the grumbling, shouting and spewing that surrounded recent cultural events addressing the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

It all started when Ketchum's NexStage community theater staged a reading of the controversial play My Name is Rachel Corrie. The one-woman drama recounts the experiences, as told through an edited assemblage of e-mails and journal entries, of the 23-year-old American activist killed by an Israeli bulldozer in Gaza in 2003.

When the London-based play first arrived in the US at Manhattan's Minetta Lane Theater in 2006, The New York Times announced, "Few plays have traveled to New York with as much excess baggage as My Name is Rachel Corrie." The typically progressive New York Theater Workshop had delayed the play's arrival, and both sides of the free speech debate were dug in. The Times recounted how "Rachel Corrie became a name best not mentioned at Manhattan dinner parties if you wanted your guests to hold on to their good manners."

Four years later and a couple of time zones away, Rachel Corrie once again stoked the fires of emotional politics. This time, in sleepy little Ketchum, it was a handful of casually dressed summer folk who lost their grip on good manners.

It was astonishing that such a play had arrived in Ketchum at all. More astounding was the fact that Rachel's bereaved parents, Craig and Cindy Corrie, had traveled to Central Idaho to see the play and participate in a question-and-answer session following its performance. It was during that session that tempers flared. Some people had arrived with protest in mind, and when it was their chance to talk, many delivered terse lectures to the Corries about their late daughter's flawed beliefs. "I know you want to think your daughter didn't die in vain," one woman began.

At this point, some disclosure is necessary. Following the performance, I submitted a letter to the Idaho Mountain Express newspaper that disavowed the behavior of the few at the expense of many who appreciated the play's staging. Many letters to the editor, of varying opinion, followed.

The play speaks for itself. Yes, Corrie's writing was politically charged and she lived a life of politically motivated sacrifice. But the play is ultimately not a polemic; it's one individual's call for peace and compassion in a world gone mad, written by a passionate, if naive, young activist.

In the weeks that followed the scene at the NexStage, the Wood River Jewish Community invited Jean-Jacques Surbeck, a former International Red Cross attorney, to speak as a counterbalance to the Palestinian sympathies embedded in the Rachel Corrie play. Surbeck's lecture, which filled the pews at St. Thomas Episcopal Church to Christmas mass levels, was nakedly pro-Israel and ultimately did little to diffuse the high drama that began after the play.

Surbeck's question-and-answer session spun out of control when a teenage questioner hijacked the microphone. An agitated audience member rose to take the microphone back and, for an instant or two, it seemed entirely possible that we all might see a brawl at the altar. The Rev. Ken Brannon eventually calmed the crowd and received a robust applause after calling for calm and mature discussion.

The behavior at both events was remarkable, not for highlighting any uniquely compelling or previously unknown facts about the Mideast conflict, but rather for what they revealed about Ketchum. They will be remembered for the reactions of easily provoked, emotionally trigger-happy audiences.

A third related event held Aug. 10 put a cap on the recent emotional gusher. The College of Idaho and the Wood River Valley Jewish Community co-sponsored a lecture by Akiva Tor, the Consul General for the Pacific Northwest for the state of Israel. The event was held in conjunction with the College of Idaho's fundraising campaign to establish an endowed Chair of Judaic Studies at the Caldwell liberal arts school and was unrelated, at least in planning, to the earlier play or lecture at St. Thomas.

Tor is a ranking diplomat, and his credentials were evident during his 50-minute talk on the conflict's past, present and future. The talk was an immensely informative and condensed take on a dizzyingly complex subject. The audience was notably calm, respectful and gracious, even during the Q&A. If Tor's lecture was a sign of things to come, Sun Valley's Mideast dialogue may be less like a cage match, and it might even teach us a few things.