More on Juliano Mer-Khamis

April 16, 2011

juliano-mer-khamisWe reported on Julian’s murder’s last week in our posting Israeli actor Juliano Mer-Khamis, founder of the Freedom Theatre, shot dead in Jenin. Many tributes and obituaries have since appeared and we reproduce Rachel Shabi’s obituary notice here.

Juliano’s death has also been used by Haaretz reporter Ari Shavit to bash the left, no less. Daniel Breslau responds in A leftist has been murdered: attack the left!

juliano mer-khamis_obitJuliano Mer-Khamis obituary

Rachel Shabi, 11 April 2011

Palestinian-Israeli actor, activist and theatre director with a global reputation

The Palestinian-Israeli actor Juliano Mer-Khamis, who has been shot dead at the age of 52, was a successful stage and screen performer, film-maker and activist, widely known for his work as the artistic director of the Freedom theatre in the refugee camp in the West Bank town of Jenin. Dedicated to equipping young Palestinians with the potent powers of art and self-expression, Juliano carved out a stage on which children could find their feet – and voice. The theatre’s achievements have resonated around the world as a focal point of creativity against the odds.

In Israel, Juliano was a stage and television star. He was known abroad as a film actor, making his debut in the 1984 adaptation of John le Carré’s The Little Drummer Girl, starring Diane Keaton, and his last role was in Julian Schnabel’s Miral (2010), based on Rula Jebreal’s autobiographical account of growing up as an orphaned Palestinian girl.

I first met Juliano – “Jule” – at the opening of the Freedom theatre in 2006. Then and many times subsequently, he spoke of building an autonomous space – both emotional and physical – for the children of the Jenin camp, traumatised by Israeli attacks and the occupation. Jenin was known as Israel’s “terror capital” during the second intifada, or uprising, starting in 2000, because of the number of suicide bombers that came from the camp, and in April 2002 it was the site of fierce sustained conflict. Juliano said that the third Palestinian intifada should be cultural, with “poetry, music, theatre, cameras and magazines”.

The Freedom theatre was a community project that evolved to include art exhibitions, drama therapy, film-making courses and a computer room. Currently in the middle of an expansion plan, the theatre has staged provocative plays, using drama to challenge power, corruption, conservatism and traditionalism.

A recent daring adaptation of Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland brought criticism from sectors of Palestinian society. There were arson attempts on the theatre in 2009, over a production of Animal Farm that took George Orwell’s satire of the corruption of socialist ideas and spun it into a critique of Palestinian politics. At the time, Juliano spoke of receiving death threats.

He was not a readily acceptable character in mainstream Israeli society – as an advocate of a bi-national state, he did not sugar-coat his views on the politics of the conflict.

The Freedom theatre continues the work of his mother, Arna Mer, who founded a children’s drama therapy and education project at the camp during the 1980s. Juliano, by then an established actor, often helped his mother. As chronicled in the documentary Arna’s Children (2004), which he directed, he returned to the camp in 2002, seven years after her death. The recent battles between the Israeli army and Palestinian fighters had reduced the Jenin camp to rubble – and razed Arna’s theatre to the ground.

The actor sought out the children taught by his mother, and found that several had become militants and had been killed. Another, Zakaria Zubeida, was the military leader of the al-Aqsa Martyrs Brigade, but later put violence aside and joined the Freedom theatre.

Juliano was born in Nazareth: Arna was Jewish, and his father, Saliba Khamis, was a Christian Palestinian. Arna was in the Palmach, the armed wing of the Haganah, the Zionist resistance movement that operated in British mandate Palestine before Israel’s creation in 1948. During the 1950s she became a committed member of the Israeli Communist party, which advocated bi-national democracy, and there she met Saliba, one of its leaders. Juliano spoke of the “racial lunacy” into which he was born – he said that his mother nearly bled to death when she gave birth to him in an Israeli hospital, because doctors knew of her Palestinian husband and refused to treat her.

When Juliano served in the Israeli army as a paratrooper, Saliba refused to speak to him for a year. Later, Juliano refused an order, went to prison and was dismissed. He came to describe himself as “100% Palestinian and 100% Jewish”.

Juliano was killed by a masked gunman outside the Freedom theatre – an end he had predicted three years ago on Israeli television. He is survived by his wife, Jenny, who is expecting twins; by their son, Jay; and by his daughter Milay and stepdaughter Keshet, both from an earlier relationship.

• Juliano Mer-Khamis, actor, film-maker, theatre director and activist, born 29 May 1958; died 4 April 2011


A leftist has been murdered: attack the left!

Daniel Breslau, 13 April 2011

Fitting the assassination of Juliano Mer-Khamis into Israel’s consensus narrative

When a unique figure in the struggle for Palestinian rights, a unique kind of leftist, was gunned down in Jenin, most commentators pointed out the senselessness of the crime. Ha’aretz colmnist Ari Shavit saw the tragedy as a wonderful opportunity to bash the left. Of course Israeli pundits can find in any death, or even unseasonable weather, an occasion to bash the left. But how was Shavit provoked by the assassination of Juliano Mer-Khamis to write a piece that would make Avigdor Lieberman proud, attacking a group of his fellow citizens?

With no evidence, Shavit claims the left has fallen silent, overcome with moral confusion, in the face of the murder in Jenin. Leftists can only conceive of evil emanating from Israel or Western forces. So when a “peace hero” is murdered by Palestinians, their brains short circuit. This invention launces Shavit into a tirade on the left’s selective morality and denial of “the forces of evil in the Arab-Muslim world.”

But Shavit has fabricated a description of “the left’s” behavior in order to support his attacks. Any quick survey of responses to the murder will show that his charge of confusion and silence is ridiculous. Mer was “killed in cold blood” (Combatants for peace – Hebrew), his murder was “a crime against humanity” and the result of “religious fanaticism” (The Left Bank – Hebrew), and these poignant words from his friend, Natan Zahavi (Hebrew):

Juliano was murdered by cowardly maniacs beside the theater that he founded for the children of the refugee camp, “Freedom Theater” he called it. Five bullets made orphans of the 150 children of the theater, as they lost the man who tried to teach them the word’s most original form of warfare, war on the stage without bloodshed. Blessed be his memory.

Some clues to Shavit’s animus can be found in other comments that maek the same point without Shavit’s vagueness and code words. Less diplomatic was Asaf Golan (Hebrew) in the right-wing Makor Rishon (the online paper that brags that it is “unbiased, and unabashedly Jewish and Zionist.”):

This disturbing and simple truth is hard for many students of the western liberal school to digest, as they try in various ways to please the Islamic demon, in order to open up a dialogue with him. However, in practice this approach only strengthens the darkest dictatorships in the world, and produces tragicomic situations, in which a moral army like the IDF is presented as war criminals, while hideous murderers like Moamar Gaddafi, Bashar Al-Asad, and Mahmoud Ahmadinejad are presented as exemplary human beings.

Still more direct was a publicist named Yehuda Drori (Hebrew), who gives us a full translation of Shavit’s thesis into plain language:

I have no doubt that Juliano Mer fell victim to murderers representing the very group of people that he was trying to help. But in plain terms, he lived among snakes, and one of them killed him with its bite. … Now I believe that Juliano Mer is of greater value in death than in life, because he proves to us once more that there is no one to talk to, there’s no one there to work with toward “peace” and we must be extremely wary of them, and of all the do-gooders who believe that it is possible to build a bridge to peace with that rabble.

If you find this message is still too subtle, here’s self-styled journalist Dudu Cohen on Mako (Hebrew), the website of Israel’s commercial channel 2, finally doing away with niceties:

Not that I didn’t already know this, but the barbaric murder of Juliano Mer just reminded me of whom we are dealing with. … The murder of Juliano Mer demonstrates that opposite us stand human animals. A civilized people that seeks peace? Don’t make me laugh. A poor oppressed people that just wants to live with us in peace beneath the olive trees? Get real. A moral, kind, and humane people that is only looking for a chance to make the world a better place? Yeah, right. What is funny is that many among us Israelis, particularly from the liberal-humanist department, paint the Palestinians with such flattering colors. The Palestinians themselves refuse to fit that image, and are driven mostly by hatred of others, discrimination against women, lack of democracy, and values that are completely opposed to those of the world of humane values.

In all of these comments racism is tightly coupled with attacks on the left. The belief that the Palestinians suffer from inherent moral and cultural deficiencies, and that the left makes things worse by ignoring this self-evident fact, are two sides of a single discourse. From this outlook, which is that of the Israeli mainstream, the murder of Juliano Mer-Khamis is the perfect parable: naive leftist meets his death at the hands of the inherently hateful Palestinians whose dark side he willfully denied.The Palestinians are evil and the left is in denial. What better way to justify continued oppression of four million than to hold that they are undeserving of human rights and that those who advocate for them are hopelessly deluded?

Political repression, violent Islamic political movements, oppression of women: are these phenomena better understood by those who insist they be denounced as “forces of evil” or by those who see them as having historical causes, as not inherent to a race, religion, or culture? Which of these demonstrates an “ability to see historic reality as a whole, in all its complexity”? There are countless studies, essays, and commentaries by people on the left that relate the rise of Islamic violent movements to a set of historical circumstances that include autocratic regimes, Western imperialism, the distortion of the political space by autocrats and occupiers, and the repression of secular alternatives, among other factors.

But Juliano Mer himself is perhaps the best refutation of the slander of Shavit and his more straight-talking allies. This fighter for Palestinian rights knew he was simultaneously fighting religious and political repression in Palestinian society. Those who use such phenomena to confirm their sense of superiority and to blame the victims of oppression cannot claim to understand the problems of that society better than Juliano Mer.

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