“As I came to Jenin in 2003, I found a swamp, a jungle, steaming with struggles to survive. Here they need hospitals, not a theatre, I thought.” Mr. Juliano Mer-Khamis, in an interview to the Berlin Newspaper Tagesspiegel in early 2010 in Jenin, re-published after his assassination on April 6, 2011.
Mr. Mer-Khamis (53), an Israeli and Palestinian actor, was shot dead on April 4 by masked militants at the entrance to the theatre he built in 2006 in the west bank city of Jenin, “The Freedom Theatre.” He started the theater in Jenin in 2006 following a call from his friend Zakaria Zubeidi, an Al-Aqsa-Brigades fighter, or what we Israelis usually think of as a terrorist. Moving with his wife and children to live in the refugee camp of Jenin, Mr. Mer-Khamis said in several interviews, was a choice he made between being on the side of the soldier and the checkpoint, or on that of the little girl who has no future and no hope.
I first read about the assassination in the Israeli press, linked on friends’ Facebook pages. I was surprised to discover how many of “their friends” reacted directly to the question of whether Mer-Khamis’s actions were just (many users expressed their loathing of his activism, much like replies to the same articles in Israeli news sites).
Journalists and bloggers also asked themselves whether this terrible murder stands as a warning sign to not mix art and politics as Mer-Khamis did in his acting in Israeli theaters, and to not openly criticize both Israeli militarism and the occupation and Palestinian society for its religious narrow mindedness.
There were two camps mourning the murder. On the one hand, there were those who concluded that it was the result of the inhuman, dark and theocratic Palestinian society. It could not tolerate boys and girls acting and playing together and rejected the secular content of the Freedom Theatre’s plays. The other camp lamented the tear in the very identity of Mer-Khamis himself. He tried to be a bridge between the “impossible worlds” in his own biography, of being a Jew and a Palestinian, but, the bloody region’s circumstances, together with the evil of Zionist colonialism, could not tolerate his efforts.
I see an alternative way to commemorate Mr. Mer-Khamis’s legacy, the one he clearly presented in interviews. I celebrate his fight for the everyday of young adults through art and theater. First, by the decision to take the “little girl’s” side, and second, by creating art, and offering other possible “role models” for young Palestinians in the refugee camp. The Freedom Theatre’s mission reads: “While emphasizing professionalism and innovation, the aim of the theatre is also to empower youth and women in the community and to explore the potential of arts as an important catalyst for social change.” The theater, registered as a Palestinian NGO, offers psychodrama classes alongside acting and filmmaking classes. Since 2009, it has been headed by Mer-Khamis and his friend Zakaria Zubeidi. Eighteen thousand guests, actors and students came to performances in the only theater in the northern part or the West Bank in 2009. This is a world in which they have made a difference.
Mer-Khamis was the son of a Jewish Israeli mother, the communist political activist, Arna Mer-Khamis, and a Palestinian intellectual and communist activist father, Saliba Khamis, from Nazareth. His mother separated herself from Israeli society in protest against Zionism, militarism and the occupation. She moved with the family to Jenin during the first Intifada and started an alternative education project called “The Stone Theatre.” For her dedication to alternative education in Jenin, she was awarded the “Alternative Nobel Prize” in Stockholm. In 2002, after the battle of Jenin (what Israel called “Operation Defense Shield”), Juliano Mer-Khamis directed a documentary with co-director Daniel Daniel, which follows the work of his mother in the Stone Theatre. The stories of the children who participated in it are told. Some became freedom fighters and died in the battle of Jenin. Others died during the El Aksa Intifada or in suicide attacks against Israelis. The film, Arna’s Children, won several prizes, among which the best documentary of the 2004 Hot Docs Film Festival.
Mer-Khamis was well aware of the immediate threats to his theater and life. In an interview given to the Israeli Yediot Ahronot daily (Y-net; 21/4/2010), he said “I was never so Jewish as I am here in Jenin. After all this work, it will be very sad to die from a Palestinian bullet.”
He decided not to leave, not even after the doors of the theater were burned down in 2009, and life threats were sent to him and to the parents whose children participated in the “Zionist theatre which sways children to rebel against their parents and which compares liberation from the occupation to liberation from our religion.”
The Freedom Theatre presented a production of Orwell’s Animal Farm as an allegory to current political affairs in the Palestinian society. In the production “Alice,” the Palestinian Alice needs to undergo various ordeals in order to be able to say “no” to her arranged marriage. Udi Aloni, an artist, left wing activist, director and Mer’s friend, who participated in the “Alice” production, wrote that it, and the Freedom Theatre, could be part of a ‘Jasmine revolution’ in Jenin. As an actor in the play stated, “the anti-colonial revolution of the Arab world has to first go through the de-colonization of the oriental image of the Arab himself.” Another actor, recently released from an Israeli jail, and who was presented in the Yediot Ahronot article as a former terrorist who decided to “stop fighting and start acting,” argued, “the theatre taught me that art can be part of the fight against the occupation.”
We should not, on the basis of the schism in Mer-Khamis’s identity, condemn the mix of politics and art that he promoted, nor should we be satisfied by blaming his death on the state-evil of the Palestinian and Israeli sides, as the source of the unchangeable condition of hatred and bloodshed. The possibility of the everyday action, with art as a form of resistance and as life, is the legacy of Mer-Khamis.