The last time I spoke with Juliano Mer-Khamis was exactly five years ago. My companion, Christiane Passevant, and I were in Haïfa to meet with him and others in connection with a project on dissident women in the Middle East. Juliano didn’t arrive for the interview after having told me the previous evening he would spend the day in Jenin and then see us in Haïfa. When he didn’t show I began leaving him messages on his cell phone. We were perturbed because the appointment had been made well in advance and we had meetings in the West Bank and could not linger in Haïfa. Finally we made contact late in the evening: “Larry, Larry,” he said, “I’m stuck at a checkpoint, it’s raining like mad and,” he laughed, “the soldiers are quite nervous. They think I’m a suspicious person.”
All this and more instantly came to mind when I learned that Juliano had just been assassinated in his car upon leaving his Freedom Theatre in Jenin on April 4 with his son and the boy’s nanny. Juliano reportedly received five bullets fired point blank at his head by one or two men with hoods who just walked up to the vehicle and let loose through the window. The woman accompanying Juliano and his son was shot in the hand.
I didn’t know Juliano all that well, but I felt I did, for with him there were never formalities. He was like that—open, friendly and confident. He took things as they came, often giving the impression of being volatile and even superficial. After all, as a friend and long-time activist in Haïfa once told me: “Juliano is an artist and, moreover, an anarchist.” As if the observation explained everything. Maybe it does, but my friend, I am sure, would agree that there was much substance behind his devil-may-care personality. Juliano was a fearless and uncompromising activist against the Zionist state and its colonial oppression.
The first time we met Juliano was in late May 1992 in the northern Palestinian town of Jenin. We went there to work with Juliano’s mother, Arna Mer-Khamis, to help in the preparation of a children’s theatrical production. The event was staged by Arna’s association—Care and Learning—a initiative carried out also in Gaza that sought to help Palestinian children traumatized by the colonial occupation and the struggle against it accompanying the first Intifada (1987-1993). Arna’s idea was that the previous four or five years of strikes, military curfew, repression and uprising had deprived the children not only of educational continuity but also of the stable family relationships necessary for healthy development. Not only was the image of their parents demeaned by the occupier’s brutality, the uprising instilled the idea that only violent retaliation was a respectable response. She saw her role as providing outlets for the rage pent-up in the children because of shattered homes and weakened social bonds. The objective was not to dilute the will to resist Israeli occupation and domination, but rather to strengthen it by helping the children to counter oppression with more reflection and with confidence in themselves and their society. The danger, according to Arna, was that Palestinians would enter increasingly into armed struggle thus allowing the Israeli state to justify its own violence in the use of armed force impossible to compare with that of the occupied and colonized Palestinians.
At the very moment we entered Jenin, we were confronted with a slight taste of what she was talking about. Arna arrived at our meeting place in the midst of a general commotion caused by an Israeli garbage truck driver coming from a nearby Israeli settlement. About a hundred yards from us, some kids had apparently thrown rocks at the truck, and the driver had stopped and climbed down from his seat brandishing an automatic weapon with which he began sweeping the area, although not yet shooting. Arna, seeing that Christiane was carrying a camera, immediately pushed her into the street telling her to take pictures of the man, which she commenced to do. Once having perceived Christiane, he returned to his truck and drove off. Arna explained that seeing someone clearly not Palestinian taking pictures probably stopped the man from shooting. We then introduced ourselves.
The following day we helped in the physical preparations for the children’s play, clearly a great event in the lives of children from the enormous refugee camp in Jenin. We met Juliano two days later when the children gave their grand performance, for which they had rehearsed for weeks. He came and filmed the whole thing. In the evening we all went to Haïfa where we ate with Arna, Juliano and one of his brothers, Spartacus, before leaving for Jerusalem.
Juliano, artist and activist, was born in 1958 into an extraordinary family. Arna Mer, born in 1929 and raised in a Kibbutz, fought with the Haganah and the Palmach in the 1948 war and even figured on a propaganda poster driving a jeep. But she quickly saw the colonial reality and the racist mentality implicit in the Zionist enterprise. Already in 1949, she agitated against the newly created Israeli state. In the 1950s she met and then married Saliba Khamis, against the will of her family. He was a Palestinian intellectual and member of the Communist Party. Anti-Zionist, Arna was a well-known activist throughout her adult life and experienced imprisonment and beatings at the hands of the Israeli authorities. Her creation of Care and Learning and the children’s theatre was the logical continuation of her activities.
When Arna Mer-Khamis died of cancer in 1995, Juliano continued his mother’s work, an effort made difficult by the Israeli assault on the Jenin refugee camp in April 2002. The military blitzkrieg destroyed the camp and massacred many of its inhabitants—a kind of dress rehearsal of the Gaza “Cast Lead” bombardments in 2008. It also left the children’s theater demolished. But in 2004 Juliano brought out his documentary film, Arna’s Children, about his mother’s work with the children and what happened to the children in the interim. A good number of them had become martyrs to the cause. The film was acclaimed and, in 2006, Juliano created Freedom Theatre in the rebuilt Jenin camp.
When asked about Arna’s goals and his efforts to perpetuate them, Juliano explained in 2010: “All our energy is devoted to creating something that doesn’t yet exist. These workshops are perhaps the solution to war.” When people of different cultures and backgrounds can live together and, especially, create together in order to overcome the intolerances that isolation and its enmities that it engenders, the rest is not essential. For us, he insisted, “There is no religion, no identity, nothing, we are just human beings, that’s all. My name is Juliano.”
But the theatre did not please everyone, and Juliano was an easy target. His life was structured by his acting career and, especially, the direction of the Freedom Theatre. He was back and forth between Haïfa and Jenin on a regular basis. And although he had received threats, and arson was attempted on Freedom Theatre on two occasions, he did not allow such intimidation to limit his activities.
Juliano responded to criticism of Freedom Theatre in a declaration made on April 19, 2009. Anonymous leaflets distributed within the Jenin camp, he said, claim the theatre is against religion. On the contrary, responded Juliano: “We respect all religions and the traditions in the Jenin refugee camp. We are not here to take religion away, but to fight the Israeli occupation unconditionally and create an independent Palestinian state. We are here to arm young people with knowledge, values and respect for their history, their religion and their families.” He also accused the detractors of the theatre of only “pretending to protect our children when, in fact, they are ready to sacrifice them for their own interests. In constantly fighting every cultural project in the Jenin camp, they indirectly collaborate with the Israeli occupation.”
Targeted assassinations of activists are, of course, nothing unusual in the Occupied Territories of Palestine. After all, an elite corps of snipers is a permanent and unconcealed fixture of the Israel army, and bothersome individuals are regularly “taken out”. What is unusual in this case is that Juliano was a well-known personality. His acting career was substantial. Beginning in the 1980s, he acted in many films in and out of Israel, notably, but not only, in some of Amos Gitaï’s films, such as Esther (1986), Yom Yom (1998), Kippur (2000) and Kedma (2002). His murder will be controversial in Israel, as was that of Rachel Corrie. But in this case the assassination will be attributed to Palestinians.
Whether the Israeli state, Jewish fundamentalist nationalists or their mirror image—theocratic Muslim fanatics—killed Juliano makes no difference in the end. In the Palestinian context, the latter are creations of the former.
The future of Palestine and the whole Middle East depends on people like Arna and Juliano, those who reject intolerance in the struggle for justice. And their time is coming, as revealed by the Intifadas breaking out everywhere in North Africa and the Eastern Mediterranean.
As for Israel and Zionism, their time is running out. Zionism is now on the ropes. More settlements will be built, but facts on the ground can also be uprooted. The wall can be torn down. The economic and ideological foundations of this pariah state are cracked and breaking apart. The day can be foreseen when a re-structuring of power in the whole area will occur. The US Empire must recede, and along with it will go the fatally flawed Zionist project, no longer buoyed by the atavistic nationalist trends of the early twentieth century. The building of theocratic political entities and “ethnically pure nation states” is not the future of humanity.
LARRY PORTIS has recently published American Dreaming: A Novel. He can be reached at email@example.com