By Frank Moher
I got to know Kevin Neish, one of three Canadians currently being held by Israel after its attack on the Gaza aid flotilla, last Fall, when a production of the play My Name is Rachel Corrie that I had directed toured to Victoria. Kevin was instrumental in bringing the show to his city, and I slept in his basement office/guest room. It was lined with vintage leftist texts, while Kevin himself bore a striking resemblance to Lenin. For some reason, I thought it might be rude to say so, so I didn’t; I later found out he performs a one-man show about Lenin, when he e-mailed me to ask for some tips on blackening his 53-year old hair.
Kevin, I learned while working with him, was a combination activist, propagandist, and shrewd and good-humoured tactician. On the day I arrived, one of the members of the group sponsoring our visit had received an intimidating phone call from someone who likened its members to Nazis. By the time I got up the next day, Kevin had used reverse search to find an address for the anonymous caller, and visited his small office to leave a note “alerting” him to the fact that someone was using his phone to make harrassing calls. Of course, Kevin knew very well that he was alerting the culprit himself, but he preferred an approach that was both non-confrontational and satirical. He was entertained that it hadn’t occurred to the caller that his number would show up on call display.
He was also, I learned, deeply engaged with the plight of others, not only in Palestine, but in places like Guatemala and Colombia, where he’d done human rights work too. I mention this because Israel, or at least its army, seems to want us to suppose all these things cannot reside together in one human frame, or humanitarian movement. “The equipment that we found is all equipment that we have regularly allowed into the strip over the past year,” an Israeli commander told The Jerusalem Post after inspecting the flotilla’s cargo. “This proves beyond a shadow of a doubt that the whole premise of the voyage was for propaganda and provocation and not for humanitarian purpose.
Either/or. Either the mission was strictly a cargo run, or it was propaganda. But of course it was both. (I doubt it was intended as a provocation, though — as we have learned many times, the IDF is not a beast you want to provoke.) To call it propagandistic is not an insult, any more than I was insulting Kevin when I called him a propagandist. Propaganda is (or can be) simply a means to bring attention to a cause, and the flotilla was certainly designed to do that. But that doesn’t cancel out its simple human value, nor the compassion of those involved. To say otherwise is, well, propaganda of a lesser order.
My stay with Kevin wasn’t our first encounter. That had been the year prior, when we first staged My Name is Rachel Corrie on Gabriola Island. Kevin had travelled up from Victoria and was in the opening night audience. Rachel Corrie is the story of the young American activist who was killed by an Israel Defence Forces bulldozer while attempting to protect a Palestinian home. I don’t think Kevin had known Rachel, but he had worked with the same group, the International Solidarity Movement, in Gaza, and back in Canada had received her e-mails.
After the show, he didn’t move from his seat, and I thought that perhaps he was avoiding me because he hadn’t liked it. Then I moved closer to him, and I realized he was weeping. He wept for a long time. Then we began to make plans.