Juliano Mer Khamis was killed yesterday by a gunman in Jenin. I met him on a number of occasions. He exuded a unique charisma that was bound up with unpredictable rage and spontaneous joy. Gideon Levy has done justice to his legacy in a short but powerful obituary.
My friend Jen Marlowe helped create this video about Juliano’s work with the Jenin Freedom Theater. Watching it is all anyone needs to do to understand how much of a void his murder has created:
Juliano’s documentary, “Arna’s Children,” is the best film I have seen about the occupation. There is really no other film that approaches its emotional impact or captures the way in which the trasher of the occupation methodically destroys the lives of everyone in its path — and how those in its way resist it no matter what. So here it is, a testament to the genius of Juliano, the courage of his mother, who founded the Jenin Freedom Theater in 1988, and the humanity of the children of Jenin:
Juliano was born to a Jewish Israeli woman, Arna Mer, who dedicated the last years of her life to challenging the occupation, protesting at checkpoints and traveling to and from the Jenin refugee camp, even while in the terminal stages of breast cancer. His father was a Palestinian Christian bureaucrat, Saliba Khamis, who met Arna in the Israeli Communist Party, which was for decades the only party in Israel that promoted co-existence between Arabs and Jews. Mer and Khamis named their son after Salvatore Giuliano, a strikingly handsome, swaggering Italian bandit who led a small band of landless peasants against powerful oligarchs, earning himself a reputation as “the Italian Robin Hood” and eventual media stardom.
After making Arna’s Children and appearing in films like Amos Gitai’s “Kippur” (not the best Gitai film but still worth watching), Juliano set out to revive his mother’s Jenin Freedom Theater. The theater had been in ruins since the Israeli army destroyed it while reducing Jenin to a post-apocalyptic moonscape of destruction. Once the Second Intifada was crushed, the camp was transformed into a laboratory for Tony Blair and General Keith Dayton’s cynical security plan. Now Jenin was ringed by electrified fences, a virtual prison inhabited by thousands of children with post-traumatic stress disorder.
Juliano’s return to Jenin was a rebuke to the promise of former Israel Labor Minister Shlomo Benizri to “convert the life of Palestinians into hell,” as he restored a creative outlet for a generation the occupation had sought to demoralize and destroy. In turn, he brought young Israelis (including Palestinian Israelis) and international activists over the Green Line to help him build the theater, promoting a model of co-existence based on solidarity with the Palestinian grassroots.
With assistance from Zacharia Zubbeidi, a former leader of the armed insurgency during the Second Intifada, the theater allowed young people from the camp to take aim not only at the occupation, but at the internal problems plaguing Palestinian society. The next Intifada would consist of theater, music, poetry — the struggle of a dispossessed, dehumanized generation asserting itself through culture. That was Juliano’s vision.
Through their work in the theatre, young Jenin residents challenged traditions and entrenched social mores like corporal punishment and the relegation of young women to secondary social roles. “For me freedom is the occupation ending and the army leaving,” a young boy who participates in the theater said. “But it’s also playing snooker and not having anybody hit me.”
Juliano’s final play, a production of “Alice in Wonderland,” was filled with themes and symbols that explicitly challenged patriarchal authority. I wish I had traveled to Jenin with Matan Cohen when he invited me to see the play; the reviews I heard from those who attended it were glowing.
Was Juliano’s murder motivated by religious extremism? For now no one knows. The theater has been attacked with molotov cocktails and Juliano has been denounced as a Zionist agent by militant elements. He knew the risks of his work and was committed enough to risk paying the ultimate price.
“At the end, there’s a feeling that the spirit [of freedom] is already here, it’s already seeded,” he said during an interview in Jenin. “And I don’t believe that someone or anyone can stop it.”