The murder of actor/director Juliano Mer-Khamis in Jenin refugee camp 2-1/2 years ago was a shattering event that the left has done a poor job of examining. Here was an Israeli activist born of a Palestinian father and Jewish mother who was working to build cultural resistance inside the occupation, and was almost certainly killed by a Palestinian, but the murder remains unsolved in part because it took place in a seam, a zone of avowed cultural resistance that Mer-Khamis, 46, created at the Jenin Freedom Theatre. The motive for the murder might have been religious intolerance– under threat, the theater had just canceled a production of a German play about sexual experimentation — or something more personal. But neither the Israelis nor the Palestinian Authority seem to have much interest in pursuing the matter.
Thankfully, Adam Shatz at the London Review of Books decided to make sense of Mer-Khamis’s life, if not his murder, and the long-awaited result is a bravura piece of reporting on the difficulty of pursuing non-violent resistance inside a violent occupation. The story might be said to end happily. Mer-Khamis’s vision, the Jenin Freedom Theatre, is alive and well; a few weeks back I saw its superb production of The Island in New York, starring Faisal Abu Alheja and Ahmad al-Rokh (and Shatz was in the house that night). International support seems to promise that the theater will be a vital Palestinian voice so long as there is an occupation, and then beyond.
Establishing the theater was Mer-Khamis’s achievement, but his life was a turbulent one. He despised the society he was from, and ran from it, and imagined that he could play a role in liberating Palestine’s spirit, but his imagination was not so strong as reality in the end. Shatz writes:
Juliano loved the camp – no one doubts that. But he seemed to forget that he was a guest there, and that the more deeply he penetrated the life of the camp, the more cautiously he had to tread.
The piece is about 10,000 words long, befitting Mer-Khamis’s larger than life personality and meteoric arc, and it resonates in the same way as Algerian and Indian stories of those who failed to chart a third way between revolution and colonialism. The piece is available here, but let me pass along some choice bits.
Mer-Khamis’s mother Arna Mer was a shapeshifter like her son. Born in 1929 to Zionist aristocracy, she fought for the Palmach and then turned against Zionism after helping to push Bedouin out of southern Palestine. Later she lost her job as a teacher “for marrying an Arab.”
Arna undertook cultural work in Jenin, which her son later memorialized in the film Arna’s Children. Her own unconscious contribution to the Second Intifada is part of Shatz’s theme. For Arna Mer believed that
music and theatre can show her students a way out of the occupation. In fact, she is raising the next intifada’s martyrs. Ashraf, Yusuf, Nidal, Ala’a and Zacharia will all become fighters; only Zacharia will survive. Their decision to fight, as shown in the film, is as inevitable as it is tragic: they are patriots defending their homes, not Islamic zealots; their cause, it suggests, is no different from Arna’s. The film is not an inspirational tale but a portrait of failure: you see the weakness of non-violent resistance in the face of a violent occupation.
Her son also had an uncertain relationship to Israeli violence. He served in the Israeli army and then cracked under the duties of occupation. He punched a commanding officer and spent months in prison, then a mental hospital. “His life as an Israeli Jew was over.” And when the Second Intifada exploded, he followed his mother’s footsteps back to Jenin, befriending leaders of the Al Aqsa brigade.
By night Juliano accompanied [Ala’a] Sabbagh and [Zacharia] Zubeidi on patrols, ate with them and slept in their hideouts. He spent seven months with men who were on Israel’s hit list.
Zubeidi became a partner in the Freedom Theatre, which opened in February 2006.
They knew that the camp was a quixotic location; most people there had never even seen a play performed. But that made it all the more exciting. Juliano would be the artistic director, [Swedish Jew Jonathan] Stanczyk the general manager, while Zubeidi would protect the theatre from anyone who threatened it. Zubeidi’s support was indispensable: Juliano and Stanczyk – both outsiders, both Jews – could never have worked in the camp without his blessing and the legitimacy he conferred. But Zubeidi was a wanted man and in no position to defend the theatre from Israel’s threats: that was Juliano’s job…
Shatz relates this amazing story in a flat tone that serves its dramatic main character well, honoring Mer-Khamis’s daring by refusing to judge it. These two paragraphs are the crux of the piece, and get at the reality-defying role Mer-Khamis insisted on performing:
The idea that, even under occupation, Palestinians could improve their situation, was central to Juliano’s pitch. ‘Israel is destroying the neurological system of the society,’ he said, ‘which is culture, identity, communication,’ but ‘if you’re going to keep blaming the occupation for all the problems of the Palestinians, you’re going to end up in the same situation we’re in today.’ He was careful not to denounce the armed resistance; that would have been heresy in the camp. But the next intifada, he declared, ‘will be cultural’. Perhaps art could succeed where violence had failed.‘We have to stand up again on our feet,’ he said. ‘We are now living on our knees.’
The ‘we’ was new. More and more Juliano spoke of himself as a Palestinian. The story of how he came to Palestine became an inspiring conversion narrative. … he spoke of being ‘a killer’ in the paratroopers, of his mother’s work at the Stone Theatre, of the political awakening that led him back to Jenin. ‘When I left Haifa,’ he said, ‘I left Israel. I left my work, I left my society, I left my friends. I live here.’ But Juliano never really left Israel, or his friends there: at the weekend, he was often in Haifa or in Tel Aviv. The story he told about his break with Israel was ‘mainly an instrumental declaration’, Ruchama Marton, the founder of Physicians for Human Rights, told me. ‘He had to say this to work in Jenin. In the same week I would see Juliano one day in Tel Aviv and another in Jenin. Was he a different person? Sure, he spoke Arabic there and Hebrew here. It’s not that he was lying. It was true and not true at the same time.’
Since Mer-Khamis’s murder, the case has fallen through the cracks. His friends still want justice, but his widow has found some solace in the theater’s endurance as an institution. “[A] modus vivendi has been established with the camp, and an eerie sort of normality has set in,” Shatz writes of the theater.
While he offers theories about a possible motive for the killing, Shatz doesn’t provide any neat answers. His is a hard piece to read, about the unforgiving battle lines in a brutal occupation, and the hopelessness of asserting artistic freedom where political freedom does not exist. My favorite line is in a parentheses:
“In Jenin you’re not innocent until you’re dead,” one man told me.