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‘LRB’ runs Adam Shatz’s long report on murder of Juliano Mer-Khamis

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Juliano Mer-Khamis

Juliano Mer-Khamis

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.

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About Philip Weiss

Philip Weiss is Founder and Co-Editor of Mondoweiss.net.

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14 Responses

  1. a blah chick
    a blah chick
    November 27, 2013, 9:45 pm

    You would think that with all their high falutin’ security personnel Israel would have cracked this case. But this wasn’t the son of a settler so they don’t care.

    This murder reminds me of the Glock killing years ago. The Israelis said it was the Palestinians and the Palestinians said it was the Israelis. Did they ever figure out that one?

  2. W.Jones
    W.Jones
    November 27, 2013, 11:26 pm

    Lots of intrigue. About the same time as the agreement with Iran was signed a Palestinian was caught and accused of bombing Iran’s embassy in Lebanon. What good timing. Why would a Pal. do that? Yasser Arafat it turns out was poisoned with nuclear toxin. Where could that come from and how would it get to him?

  3. W.Jones
    W.Jones
    November 28, 2013, 12:39 am

    Max Blumenthal quotes Akiva Orr (http://maxblumenthal.com/2011/04/akiva-orr-juliano-mer-khamis-was-killed-for-alice-in-wonderland):

    The latest play Jules staged was “Alice in wonderland”… Most theatres in the West Bank refused to show it because the major role of a clever girl outraged all oldies [older generation of Muslim conservatives] in the West Bank… It seems this was too much for the oldies. So Jules paid with his life for staging “Alice in wonderland” in Palestine.

    WW4 report says:

    Hamas spokesman Sami Abu Zuhri identified the suspect as Mujahed Qaniri. He said that Qaniri is known to residents of Jenin as a member of Fatah and its armed wing, the Aqsa Martyrs Brigades. A PA security source confirmed that Qaniri was once a member of Fatah, but claimed that he later defected to Hamas.

    http://ww4report.com/node/9751

    Qaniri has been exonerated after a DNA test solidified his innocence

    http://answers.yahoo.com/question/index?qid=20111106152844AAfdMLs

    The Palestinian Authority, Fatah, and Hamas for their parts have strongly condemned the murder… “The Palestinian Authority will award the ‘medal of Jerusalem’ to… Juliano Mer-Khamis”

    http://www.mepc.org/palestinian-factionalism-and-murders?print

    Adam Shatz writes in the London Review of Books:

    The gunman shot him five times, then walked back down the alley. He left his mask in the street… In a 2008 interview, [Juliano] joked that he would be killed by a ‘fucked-up Palestinian’ for ‘corrupting the youth of Islam’… Nawal Staiti, an old friend of Juliano’s, wouldn’t get out of the car when she drove me to the theatre. ‘I blame the camp,’ she said, bursting into tears. ‘They know who killed Juliano, and they aren’t saying.’ …

    Al-Raee no longer believes that Juliano was killed for challenging the ways of the camp; he thinks the killer was a hired hand, acting on behalf of more powerful forces inside the PA and Israel. The idea that Juliano was killed for introducing transgressive Western ideas about personal liberty to a community that adheres to a conservative form of Islam is no longer popular… As people in Jenin will tell you, violence against solidarity activists, even if they are Israeli, is almost unheard of in Palestine.

    In Ramallah, ex-comrades of [Threatre co-Founder] Zubeidi told Tali Fahima that he was behind the murder. Juliano, they claimed, had discovered that Zubeidi had been diverting money for the theatre in the city to his own real estate investments. The Shabak wasn’t lifting a finger because Zubeidi had always been a useful source of information about the camp… Some, Or included, believe he conspired in his best friend’s assassination… When I spoke to [Zubeidi] by phone, he claimed the Shabak had hired a local hit man to kill Juliano because of the growing success of ‘cultural resistance’. It’s a view you often hear inside the theatre, but almost never outside it

    http://www.lrb.co.uk/v35/n22/adam-shatz/the-life-and-death-of-juliano-mer-khamis

    • marc b.
      marc b.
      November 28, 2013, 8:12 am

      brilliant bit of writing by shatz as usual. such a tangled web. juliano was obviously an extremely courageous, passionate man. i can’t say that i fully understand his motives and the motives of those around him. i don’t believe that he did either.

  4. Dagon
    Dagon
    November 28, 2013, 2:50 am

    I can’t rememner if I recounted this tid bit.I barely remember Juliano,he was three or four years younger than me.Of his older brother Spartack who was a year behind me in elementary school,my childhood memory comes clearer some times; we played soccor during and after school togother untill the family’s sudden “disappearance”.One day I was sent by my uncle to pick up some money from Arna as she and her husband Saleeba had small business dealing with him.I think I was about 12 or 13 years old,I was usherd into their bedroom where Arna with the usuall great blond mane of hair ,got out of bed wearing her robe ,Handed me the money,And told me to tell my uncle that she’ll give him the rest later that afternoon and of course not to lose what she gave me.The family moved away.I knew of spartack going to study in the USSR.But then nothing,I cant explain it, a feeling of “void”,once in a while I would remember the family untill I heard of Juliano’s life and murder which really saddened me.Thanks for keeping the memmory of a great man and family alive.The Israelies will never” catch” the murderer.

    • bintbiba
      bintbiba
      November 28, 2013, 6:41 am

      I still cry tears from my heart at the thought of this vile murder.
      Juliano Mer-Khamis ,….. a warm glow in our hearts.

    • MahaneYehude1
      MahaneYehude1
      November 28, 2013, 2:49 pm

      The Israelis will never ”catch” the murderer.

      Why should they catch the murderer? Jenin is in the area under the PA control and laws. An Israeli-Palestinian was murdered by Palestinian/s in Palestinian control area, and the Israelis are to be blamed.

      By the way,
      Later she (Arna) lost her job as a teacher “for marrying an Arab.”
      I never heard that someone in Israel “lost job” for “marrying an Arab”.

      • W.Jones
        W.Jones
        November 28, 2013, 8:19 pm

        Hmmm… A Jew (mother side) was killed allegedly by a Palestinian, and yet we are to be sure the Israeli army, which spent so long on getting Shalit back and oversees PA-controlled territories, will not catch him. Sounds odd. But whatever.

      • MahaneYehude1
        MahaneYehude1
        November 29, 2013, 12:20 am

        @W. Jones:

        In the same token I can say, The PA which spending so long and a lot of money to investigate the allegedly poisoning of Arafat, do nothing to catch the murderer of a Palestinian (Father side). But to me it is not sound odd, since I guess, they don’t want to expose their intolerance among their society.

    • Stephen Shenfield
      Stephen Shenfield
      November 30, 2013, 9:51 am

      This information about Juliano’s brother strongly suggests that his parents were in the Communist Party (Spartak is the Russian form of Spartacus as well as the name of a Russian soccer team). Even if Juliano himself was not a communist, this is surely relevant to an understanding of what he was trying to do. The communists for a long time formed the only social milieu in Palestine where the ethnic divide was largely if not completely overcome and where intermarriage was a normal phenomenon. They were also for many years the only milieu in the USA and South Africa that bridged the racial divide. They should be given all due credit for that, even though at the same period terrible crimes were being committed by other “communists” in other parts of the world.

  5. bilal a
    bilal a
    November 29, 2013, 2:00 am

    MaxMB:”the West Bank refused to show it because the major role of a clever girl outraged all oldies [o quotes someone lder generation of Muslim conservatives] in the West Bank”

    That doesnt sound right. The arab cartooon 99, now on netflix, is all about clever brave girls, and the West Bank is not known for conservative interpretations of
    Islam. More likely, this Israeli taught enmity for Islam and seduced women into becoming ‘actresses’ and dancer-singers, something close to burlesque in traditional Islamic and Jewish culture, in rebellion towards their brothers and parents which the piece admits, and many were hostile to his Israeli cultural efforts:

    He preached freedom not only from Israel, but also from Muslim tradition.
    Many young girls, who rebel against the subservient role of women in the Palestinian society, were ardent actresses.
    There were two attempts to burn it down.

    http://maxblumenthal.com/2011/04/akiva-orr-juliano-mer-khamis-was-killed-for-alice-in-wonderland/

    Everyone should stop trying to make the Middle East into the West Village. Thats imperialism.

  6. DICKERSON3870
    DICKERSON3870
    November 29, 2013, 2:33 am

    RE: “‘Arna undertook cultural work in Jenin, which her son later memorialized in the film Arna’s Children.” ~ Weiss

    Arna’s Children, 2004, NR, 85 minutes
    Arna Mer Khamis was a legendary activist for the rights of the Palestinian people who founded a theatre group at a refugee camp, teaching children to express themselves through acting. Her son Juliano, a director for the group, filmed Arna working with the children over a 6-year period. Following Arna’s death, he returns to the camp to find out what became of the young refugees. Best Documentary Feature winner at the 2004 Tribeca Film Festival.
    Cast: Arna Mer-Khamis
    Director: Juliano Mer Khamis, Danniel Danniel
    Genres: Foreign, Foreign Documentaries, Israel, Arabic Language
    Language: Arabic
    This movie is: Heartfelt, Emotional
    Netflix format: DVD
    Netflix listing – http://dvd.netflix.com/Movie/Arna-s-Children/70014632
    Internet Movie Database – http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0408504/
    Arna’s Children (2003) – movie trailer [VIDEO, 03:42] – http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_OpScXbMZZI
    ● THIS FILM IS ALSO ON YouTube: Arna’s Children, A film by Juliano Mer Khamis [VIDEO, 1:24:10] – http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=cQZiHgbBBcI

  7. DICKERSON3870
    DICKERSON3870
    November 29, 2013, 2:52 am

    RE: “The murder of actor/director Juliano Mer-Khamis in Jenin refugee camp 2-1/2 years ago was a shattering event… Here was an Israeli activist… who was working to build cultural resistance inside the occupation, and was almost certainly killed by a Palestinian… But neither the Israelis nor the Palestinian Authority seem to have much interest in pursuing the matter. ~ Weiss

    MY QUESTION: Who gained the most from Juliano Mer-Khamis’ murder? Hamas or Israel and the the Palestinian Authority?

    • W.Jones
      W.Jones
      November 29, 2013, 1:28 pm

      Dickerson,

      it was at the time of another strange death of a Palestine activist by alleged intolerant folks- that of Vittorio in Gaza. In that case it was allegedly by Salafists who were against Hamas. It is another interesting story.

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