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Foretold

The Israeli actor and activist Juliano Mer-Khamis, born to a Jewish mother and a Palestinian father, was murdered in the West Bank yesterday, but his legacy of peace, art, and cooperation must live on

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Outside Juliano Mer-Khamis’ Freedom Theatre in Jenin today. (Saif Dahlah/AFP/Getty Images)

Juliano Mer-Khamis was murdered yesterday in Jenin, in the West Bank. The most surprising thing I felt was how unsurprised I was to hear the news. Mer-Khamis—an actor, director, and political activist—was always too good to be true.

In a part of the world where identities are often dyed in the wool and then waved as political banners, Mer-Khamis refused to choose. If you asked him about his background, he would most likely tell you that he was 100 percent Jewish, like his mother, Arna Mer, the scion of a prominent Zionist family, and also 100 percent Palestinian, like his Israeli Arab father, Saliba Khamis, a prominent Communist politician. Mer-Khamis had served as a combat soldier in the IDF’s paratrooper brigade before becoming an actor. Half of the time, he played a tough Israeli soldier; the other half, a Palestinian extremist. (His most recent film role is as a benevolent sheikh in Julian Schnabel’s Miral.)

I met Mer-Khamis at a few political demonstrations in Tel Aviv and Jerusalem and the West Bank in the 1990s. I never saw him on stage, but it was clear to me from those personal encounters that he was a great actor. He embodied the role of activist perfectly, which is not to say he was in the least insincere in his beliefs. On the contrary: With his self torn between two lands and two cultures, he let the gaping void be filled with equal measures of rage and compassion, the twin engines that drive every pure activist to persevere.

In 2003, he won international acclaim with his documentary film, Arna’s Children. Arna was his mother, and her children were the graduates of a theater group she had founded in the refugee camp in Jenin. Mer-Khamis returned to these children, now adults, in the wake of the second Intifada, and he found some in despair, others enraged, a handful still optimistic. That wasn’t good enough for Mer-Khamis; in 2006, he founded the Freedom Theatre in Jenin, which he imagined would be a place where children and adults alike could escape trauma and tragedy and take solace on the stage.

But Mer-Khamis was always on a collision course with reality. In Israel, the increasingly arid political climate could no longer tolerate his statements about the inherently racist nature of Israeli society. In Palestine, the Islamic fundamentalists were displeased with this half-Jew who presided over a co-ed theater that put on subversive productions like a stage adaptation of George Orwell’s Animal Farm. Mer-Khamis’ life was threatened, but he wouldn’t budge. He teamed up with Zacharia Zbeidi, the former leader of the Fatah’s military wing, who turned in his gun in a 2007 amnesty deal with Israel and devoted his life since to co-running the theater with Mer-Khamis. But even the former militant couldn’t keep the fanatics at bay: In 2009, someone set the theater’s doors on fire, nearly burning it down.

Yesterday, as Mer-Khamis was about to drive from Jenin back to Israel—to his wife, pregnant with twins—a masked gunman fired seven bullets into him. He was rushed to the hospital and pronounced dead upon arrival. Palestinian policemen transferred his body across the checkpoint and onto the western side of the Green Line. It was the last time Juliano Mer-Khamis would cross the border he had devoted his life to eradicating.

Now that Mer-Khamis is dead, nothing would be easier than to turn him into what he’d fiercely resisted being in life: a political fable. Some Israeli pundits are already busy telling the story of the kindhearted but misguided humanitarian who wanted to improve the lives of the Palestinians and was rewarded with a bullet to the head. That mustn’t be what we take away from Mer-Khamis’ life or from his death. No matter what one might think of his political persuasions, Mer-Khamis’ legacy speaks for itself. It speaks every time a small child in Jenin takes the stage and plays one of the pigs in Orwell’s famous story, even though local zealots scream that the pig is unholy and that the story is too subversive and critical of Islam. It speaks because the lines of Alice in Wonderland, the theater’s most recent production, drown out the petty politics and the mutual fear. It speaks because Mer-Khamis might be dead, but the idea for which he had died lives on. Plays, he knew, were more potent than politics; they lasted long after the narrow-minded men and the murderous ideologies they served were both long gone.

Night after night, in a cramped space that looked more like a warehouse than a theater, Mer-Khamis and his actors insisted that art can always overcome atrocities and that hope and beauty can trump hate every time. That idea will never die as long as there are decent people who are willing to fight for grace and believe in a better future. One way to support Mer’s legacy would be to make a contribution in support of the Freedom Theatre. If we’re lucky, it will thrive and give us many more human beings as beautiful as Juliano Mer-Khamis.

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Liel, he was just shot dead by Palestinian terrorists, not Israeli racists. If that’s not at least part of what you take away from what occurred, you’re doing no more service to truth or reconciliation than the Israeli moralists whom you dismiss with such alacrity.

Bryna Weiss says:

It is a very sad story. And, fw is absolutely right.

David Sucher says:

It’s odd that out of a murder by a Palestinian comes your “inherently racist nature of Israeli society.”

Otherwise, Mer-Khamis seemed a lovely, admirable man and deserves better than a eulogy filled with cant.

Dani ben Leb says:

“…inherently racist nature of Israeli society.” I think you lost the plot Leibovitz, that statement is one too far.

inherent |inˈhi(ə)rənt; -ˈher-|
adjective
existing in something as a permanent, essential, or characteristic.

I do not think so.

You either write badly, which has crossed my mind before, or you see things inherently wrong.

Mr. Sucher, Mr. ben Leb,

Kindly read the text carefully before taking to the comment section: the statement about the inherently racist nature of Israeli society was Mr. Mer Khamis’s, not mine, which I state rather explicitly in the piece.

Your implication, Liel, is that both Israel and the Palestinians have some share in the responsibility for his death. You set up a rhetorical equivalence between the two–the Israelis who can’t tolerate his views as much as the Islamic fundamentalists displeased with his iconoclasm. But there is no moral symmetry in this instance, whatever the faults of Israel’s political culture.

Natalie says:

A wonderful piece Liel. I’ve been reading the news reports since his murder and wondering about him — I’m grateful to you for providing such an eloquent and evocative portrait.

MonkFish says:

“With his self torn between two lands and two cultures, he let the gaping void be filled with equal measures of rage and compassion, the twin engines that drive every pure activist to persevere.”

“Pure activist”, a bizarre and somewhat contemptible expression. If there is an important lesson to be drawn from Mr.Mer-Khamis’ life, art and struggle, it is that the notion of purity so dear to Mr Leibovitz (c.f. the “Miral” drasha) is utter humbug. Purity whether the ideological sort cultivated of leftist activists locked in a logic of denunciation and one-upmanship of their fellow travellers, or the quasi-racial purity of fundamentalist maniacs, should always elicit scorn. It is a quality invoked only by scoundrels.

I don’t know enough about the admirable Mr.Khamis to say whether his aspirations were to purity. I am however confident that is that such an aspiration can only lead to alienation, isolation and, ultimately to the fate not unlike that of the Qumran community, that proto-Kibbutz that willed itself into extinction.

A timely analysis of activist purity read on +972:
http://972mag.com/denounce/

MonkFish, I stand corrected. A wise and important observation, with which I concur.

Dani ben Leb,

did you read the definition of inherent you posted? As it is racism is a “characteristic” of Israeli society. As far as your use of the word, you yourself seem to write poorly.

powerful piece!!Excellent, Liel!

Daniel says:

Mr. Leibovits writes: “Some Israeli pundits are already busy telling the story of the kindhearted but misguided humanitarian who wanted to improve the lives of the Palestinians and was rewarded with a bullet to the head. That mustn’t be what we take away from Mer-Khamis’ life or from his death.”

I was not previously familiar with Mr.Mer-Khamis’, but from this article I understand that, in fact, he was indeed a kind-hearted humanitarian who was rewarded with a bullet to the head. Those being the facts, it is difficult to understand why “that musn’t be what we take away”. I can only understand your imperative as asserting that we simply must not let the bare facts interfere with our preferred narrative. Perhaps something to keep in mind when reading your work generally.

@fw

I don’t read the article the same way you do. But thank you for the irony. First I read this quote, then your post. It sounds like you care more about who killed this guy, to claim ‘points,’ than about the fact of his death.

“Some Israeli pundits are already busy telling the story of the kindhearted but misguided humanitarian who wanted to improve the lives of the Palestinians and was rewarded with a bullet to the head. That mustn’t be what we take away from Mer-Khamis’ life or from his death.”

I’m not sure what irony you’re referring to or what kind of ‘points’ you think I’m trying to claim. I’m explicitly disagreeing with the paragraph you cite, which is just a tendentious way of using the man’s death as a platform for airing a certain type of political view every bit as much as those seeking to draw a different moral from it.

I stood drinking coffee outside the courthouse one morning, waiting to fulfill my jury service, and ended up watching 2,000 of my fellow New Yorkers incinerated at close range. I’ll call it like I see it, and Mer-Khamis was killed by terrorists, who were only seeking to preserve, in their typically ruthless, bloody and cruel way, perfect adherence to a totalitarian, retrograde and repressive religious and political dogma. If you disagree, why don’t you move to Jenin?

Bella says:

Deepest sympathy to his family and all who loved him.

And with regard to the “kindhearted but misguided humanitarian” slant, Leibovitz is the one who describes him as “always being on a collision course with reality”, which is precisely the characterization that he later objects to.

I’m sure that the appropriate way to celebrate his life is to remember the ecumenical spirit in which he carried on his work. Without that brand of idealism, there really is no hope for any kind of harmony ever prevailing in the Middle East.

But the appropriate, or at least authentic emotional response in the immediate aftermath of a friend’s murder is outrage, not the impulse to sermonize, a sentiment clearly manifest in the Palestinian response to it.

Geoff says:

A sad story. I have to admit, the well-meaning humanitarian killed by the Palestinians he sought to help is a pretty on-target summary. Israelis didn’t kill him. As far as I can tell, Israeli society didn’t reject him or even kill his dreams. So the premise of this story is not borne out by its own testimony.

benj says:

Juliano Mar was not a nice, naive, peace loving guy. He was an extreme-left anti-zionist borderline antisemite who “understood” (menaing supported) terrorism. He was crazy and fanatic. Of course, he was on the “good side” for people like Liel Leibovitz so he is absolved of any crime.

Curious no mention of his great performances in powerful and complex films like Yom Yom and Kedma.

Watch him on screen and you’ll understand what he was wrestling with.

I feel very sad about the death of this important artist.

Killed for his art, who says art is not powerful!

This murder can hardly be the work of a lone madman. I’d say it is the work of the insane that are driving the train in Gaza. By your fruits shall you know them.

There is an ancient Sufi saying that “there can be no peace on earth until the man who has not been wronged is as indignant as the man who has.” Where are the voices from the Arab world who are outraged by this behavior. Or will there be the same hollow silence?

babawawa says:

Shalom, he wasn’t killed for his art. He was killed because he offended the sensibilities of people who have none. He was killed because terrorists don’t understand George Orwell and don’t like seeing men and women mix. He was killed for the same reason these terrorists want to kill the rest of us. He just didn’t think the rules applied to him. Truth is, for all his hatred of Israel and love of its enemies, he died because he was a Jew. I say rest in peace.

Mike says:

Learn about Israel’s strategic land asset – Samaria.

Read all about it here: http://shomroncentral.blogspot.com/

Dear Liel:

Thank for your excellent article on Juliano Mer-Khamis. As the Coordinator of the Half-Jewish Network, I have been following his career for years and was profoundly grieved to hear of his death.

Mer-Khamis could easily have hidden one of his two ethnic/religious “halves” and lived a more peaceful, easy life. But he chose honesty and is to be greatly admired for that.

I hope that the good he did in his lifetime will live after him and that his two children will be proud of their honorable and courageous father.

Cordially,
Robin Margolis
Half-Jewish Network

Thank you Liel. I saw “Arna’s Children” some years ago when The Jewish Theatre San Francisco (formerly Traveling Jewish Theatre) was creating our Jewish-Muslim-Israeli-Palestinian-American collaboration, “Blood Relative” in ’05.
So unspeakably sad to hear of his murder. The fictional protagonist of our play was also a Jew and a Palestinian as was the actor who created and performed the part. To embody “the conflict” in one’s very cells and soul may seem at first to be an exceptional, even freakish condition. But isn’t it really just a very clear instance of the truth of human biology? If you take a long enough view, it’s not a metaphor that we all share a common set of ancestors. Some of us, like Juliano, seem to be able to experience that sense of connection with most everyone they encounter, others may only be able to feel it within a small tribe, and a few, with no one at all

I’m grateful for your courage, Liel, in sharing your grief so openly. I see that some readers are uncomfortable with feelings that challenge opinions and ideas and are prescribing the sort of response to this tragedy that they deem appropriate or correct. Yet those very categories are made irrelevant by the arbitrary horror of this killing.

I’ve been struggling with this news for the past few days. I hadn’t known much of him, and only saw ‘Arna’s Children’ today, so it is very fresh.

Thanks to Liel for the post, and to some of your responders all I can say is see the film. It’s available online and on Netflix and for purchase from The Freedom Theatre website. He was not a kind-hearted man. He was a freedom fighter in his own words and no stranger to extreme violence. Another fitting postscript to the film and context for the news of his murder is this interview, excerpts of which appear on Electronic Intifada. http://southissouth.wordpress.com/2011/04/05/art-is-freedom-without-force-interview-with-the-late-juliano-mer-khamis/

Lastly, we don’t know exactly who killed him, and there is no indication whatsoever which, if any, ‘terrorist organization’ was behind it.

Jennifer says:

Thank You for this article. I was saddened to read this soon after it occurred and feel worse now understanding a little more in regards to his life. It is a shame all around for the world to lose an individual that sought only to be a ‘bridge’ for his combined heritage. May his family find support, comfort & peace. May we all open our hearts a little to this & other tragedies and remember we are of one world, regardless of where our heritage traces. Shalom.

No. Mr. Leibovitz, I don’t think I read incorrectly.

You wrote:

“But Mer-Khamis was always on a collision course with reality. In Israel, the increasingly arid political climate could no longer tolerate his statements about the inherently racist nature of Israeli society.”

The way it’s written make it appear as if “…the inherently racist nature of Israeli society” is something which you, the author, believes and not only Mer-Khamis’ view.

Nevertheless I accept your clarification of what you meant to say.

Learn about Israel’s most important strategic asset – Samaria.

Read all about it here:

http://shomroncentral.blogspot.com/

Jacob says:

Mer was murdered by a Palestinian terrorist even though he was an extreme anti-Zionist. He dedicated a song to a suicide bomber, he supported Bakri’s “Jenin, Jenin”. He strongly encouraged the “brother” Azmi Bishara, after Bishara run away from Israel. He called Zionism one of the worst crimes against humanity.
I regret very much his death, even though I disagreed with most of his ideas. But, one should not ignore the nature of his ideas.
He remained an Israeli citizen , free to publish his opinions, play in films and plays and be very active in support of the Palestinians.
A very good example of the democracy and tolerance in Israel.

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Foretold

The Israeli actor and activist Juliano Mer-Khamis, born to a Jewish mother and a Palestinian father, was murdered in the West Bank yesterday, but his legacy of peace, art, and cooperation must live on

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