Two competing narratives define the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Juliano Mer-Khamis represented the troublesome third.
That’s why I so admired him.
Mer-Khamis, 53, was an actor, filmmaker, theater director and playwright. He starred in some major Israeli movies, and with his strikingly good looks and talent, he could have made quite a career of that alone. But Mer-Khamis founded the Freedom Theatre, a playhouse and cultural center in the Jenin Refugee Camp, one of the only professional venues of its kind in the northern West Bank.
In a region defined by competing tribes, he laid claim to both of them. His mother was Arna Mer, a Jewish Israeli who was among the original settlers of the town of Rosh Pina (her father, Gideon Mer, pioneered the eradication of malaria in pre-state Israel). His father was Saliba Khamis, an Israeli-Arab intellectual.
Born in Nazareth, Mer-Khamis said of his background, “I am 100 percent Palestinian and 100 percent Jewish.”
On April 4, 2011, Mer-Khamis was gunned down on a sidewalk in Jenin by two masked Palestinian assailants. He is survived by his widow, Jenny, a Christian Finnish activist who is pregnant with twins, as well as a daughter and son.
I was in Israel the day after the murder, and it cast a pall over many conversations. There was a lot going on in the region at the time: The infamous Goldstone Report had just been heavily qualified — by Goldstone — and Arab governments were still tumbling to pieces and facing off massive citizen protests. But it was Mer-Khamis about whom people felt a need to speak.
“It’s a setback, enormous,” Yael Dayan, the longtime peace activist, author and current chair of the Tel Aviv City Council, said to me during a conversation in her office above Rabin Square.
“Friends from the New York Theatre Workshop came to see him,” she said. “They brought him to New York; they came here; everybody saw in it something exciting. But he was all the time under fire.”
As an Israeli Jew, Mer-Khamis served for a year-and-a-half in the elite paratroopers of the Israel Defense Forces. He was released when he refused to stop some of his father’s elderly relatives at a checkpoint.
As a Palestinian activist, he founded the Freedom Theatre when his mother’s original theater in the Jenin camp was bulldozed by Israeli authorities following her death. His partner was Zakaria Zubeidi, a former military leader of the Jenin Al-Aqsa Martyrs’ Brigades, whom Mer-Khamis persuaded to struggle through art, not violence. The Freedom Theatre’s goal is to nurture skills in Palestinian youth that will help them envision and build a better society.
By 2009, 700-800 children attended every year, including many girls, The Economist reported.
Mer-Khamis’ theater was not lovey-dovey, teaching kumbaya and tolerance. It was theater of rebellion. But the theater’s production of “Animal Farm” dared to suggest that a violent intifada could lead to Palestinians becoming their own oppressors.
No one knew better than Mer-Khamis that while he could, with enormous struggle and talent, merge his own hyphenated identities into a single rich existence, the lure of the fanatics could be too great for many others around him.
There’s an eerie clip I found on YouTube of Mer-Khamis explaining to the camera and to his wife, in Hebrew and English, about his fate.
“I am telling how I am going to end my life,” he says. “A bullet from a f——d up Palestinian, who is gonna be very angry we are in Jenin, with this blond [woman], coming to corrupt the youth of Islam, and he’s going to bam-bam-bam, and they’re going to find me dead on the doorstep.”
That’s pretty much what happened.
Why write about Mer-Khamis now, so many weeks after his murder? For two reasons. One, this is the week American forces finally killed Osama bin Laden. As wonderful and brave an achievement as that is, we all know that we will never be able to eradicate terror by killing every last terrorist and potential terrorist. The reason the Mer-Khamises of the world are so precious is that they illuminate a different way to fight for change, one that doesn’t make the world worse.
“We believe that the strongest struggle today should be cultural, moral,” he said in an interview on electronicintifada.net. “This must be clear. We are not teaching the boys and the girls how to use arms or how to create explosives, but we expose them to discourse of liberation, of liberty. We expose them to art, culture, music — which I believe can create better people for the future, and I hope that some of them, some of our friends in Jenin, will lead … and continue the resistance against the occupation through this project, through this theater.”
You can disagree wholeheartedly with Mer-Khamis’ political opinions. But the larger idea that he stood for — that he died for — is of fighting for one’s rights through art, culture and free expression, of teaching to confront violence, and one’s own feelings of hate, with the power of creativity, which is the power to build up, rather than destroy. What a humane legacy. That is why Jews, Muslims and Christians around the globe mourned Mer-Khamis’ death, yet celebrated bin Laden’s.
The second reason is that this coming Tuesday, May 10, is Israel’s 63rd birthday. It’s a time to celebrate what the state has become and to wonder what it can yet achieve.
Mer-Khamis was an intimation of some possible Israeli future, one in which identities combine rather than conflict, where the sum of the parts, instead of spinning apart, create a greater whole, a greater Israel.