Juliano Mer-Khamis, Activist Who Lived in Two Worlds, Murdered in Jenin

Actor and Filmmaker With Jewish and Palestinian Roots Brought Theater to West Bank Refugee Camp

Slain: Juliano Mer-Khamis, pictured with Palestinian children at the theater he founded in the
Jenin refugee camp, was murdered April 4 by unknown gunmen.
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Slain: Juliano Mer-Khamis, pictured with Palestinian children at the theater he founded in the Jenin refugee camp, was murdered April 4 by unknown gunmen.

By Mairav Zonszein

Published April 06, 2011, issue of April 15, 2011.
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Like his life and his work, Juliano Mer-Khamis’s funeral procession cut across boundaries: It made its way from Haifa, crossing an Israeli army checkpoint to stop in the West Bank Palestinian town of Jenin and ended up at Kibbutz Ramot Menashe in northern Israel, where the slain filmmaker and actor was laid to rest and where his mother and fellow activist Arna Mer is buried.

Mer-Khamis was shot and killed two days earlier in Jenin’s refugee camp on the afternoon of April 4, outside the Freedom Theatre, which he founded in 2006. Although the exact circumstances of his murder are still unclear, witnesses say masked gunmen shot 52-year-old Mer-Khamis while he was in his car with his 1-year old son and his child’s nanny.

Born in Nazareth in 1958 to a Jewish mother and a Christian-Palestinian father, both citizens of Israel, Mer-Khamis was a unique cultural and activist figure. In recent years he divided his time between Haifa and Jenin. His assassination drew expressions of outrage both from many in Israel’s cultural world and from Palestinians whose cause he made his own.

“This despicable crime will not be tolerated under any circumstances, it constitutes a severe violation of our principles and values and goes against our peoples’ morals and beliefs in co-existence,” Palestinian Prime Minister Salam Fayyad said in a statement.

Mer-Khamis is perhaps best known for his acclaimed 2004 film “Arna’s Children,” which looked at the life and legacy of his late mother, who had worked with the children of the Jenin refugee camp and used theater and art to help them cope with the traumas of their lives under occupation. The documentary, which originally did not find a distributor in Israel, follows the lives of Jenin’s children, from their days playing kings and princesses in fairytale plays, to their troubled adulthood in the war-torn refugee camp, where some of them turned to violence.

The film includes footage of the April 2002 Israeli military incursion into Jenin launched following a wave of suicide bombings targeting Israeli civilians, many emanating from the city’s refugee camp. The camp, the scene of intense fighting, was devastated, and the theater that Arna established there in 1989 was left in ruins.

Given his background, Mer-Khamis was intimately familiar with both sides of the Israeli-Palestinian divide. In 1978 he served as a soldier in an elite Israeli army unit. However, he refused to carry out specific orders from his commander, went to jail and was eventually dismissed from the army. He went on to a successful career as a film and stage actor in Israel. He has a small role in the recently released American movie “Miral,” directed by Julian Schnabel, about the life of a Palestinian orphan.

In the 1980s, Mer-Khamis joined his mother in Jenin, where they worked together in the community, until her death in 1994. In 2002, Mer-Khamis returned to Jenin, where he began work on his film. The Freedom Theatre was his attempt to carry on his mother’s legacy and provide the children of Jenin, who have grown up amid military incursions, violence and trauma, with creative and positive ways to express themselves.

Mer-Khamis, who identified himself as “100% Palestinian and 100% Jewish” and whose friends describe him as defiant, intense and sardonic, encouraged Palestinians to wage their struggle through poetry, music, film and theater — what he called a “cultural intifada.”

Many in Jenin embraced his work — the Freedom Theatre’s co-director is the former leader of the city’s branch of the Fatah-affiliated Al-Aqsa Martyrs Brigades, Zakaria Zubeidi, who had previously been wanted by the Israeli military before renouncing violence and taking advantage of an amnesty deal. Some residents, however, disapproved of the liberal approach of the theater, where boys and girls study together and which staged a production of George Orwell’s “Animal Farm” featuring actors playing the roles of pigs, a bold decision in a mostly Muslim city. Firebombs were thrown at the theater several times, and Mer-Khamis reportedly received death threats.

Matan Cohen, an Israeli activist with Anarchists Against the Wall who worked at the theater, described it as a place that “pushes boundaries, pointing to the intersection of oppression, the ways in which violence from outside the occupation are also internalized, and inflicted on women, gays, blacks, etc. The theater shows that self-critique is not a sign of weakness but of strength.”

Those close to Mer-Khamis said he was not afraid, feeling that one could not get anywhere without taking risks. “In a reality where separation is the principle, someone like Jule made many angry,” Cohen said. “He didn’t take ready-made paradigms or ideas. He’d always surprise you.”

The writer and scholar Ammiel Alcalay, who became friends with both Mer-Khamis and his mother at anti-occupation rallies during the First Intifada, called his work a “real form of creative resistance. Juliano had many more tools of experience and language and context at his disposal and he chose to use those experiences and take on those burdens, of being an Arab and a Jew, of being an Israeli and a Palestinian, of being an artist and a resistance fighter, in order to allow other people to realize their own possibilities, in a personal, creative, and political context.”

The day after the murder, the Jenin refugee camp held a memorial, and a spontaneous rally took place in Ramallah’s main square. The Freedom Theatre’s school director, Rawand Arqawi, insisted that the theater would continue to operate. “We are his sons and daughters,” she said, “and we must continue in order to defy the killer’s wishes to stop this work.”

Contact Mairav Zonszein at feedback@forward.com

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