Two and a half weeks ago, on the 43rd anniversary of the assassination of Martin Luther King, another political activist was assassinated: the founder of the Jenin Freedom Theatre in Palestine, Juliano Mer-Khamis.
Juliano was the son of a Jewish mother and an Arab Israeli father and always declared that he was both 100% Jewish and 100% Palestinian.
His mother, Arna, fought in the Palmach during the first Arab-Israeli war, but turned her back on Zionism and became a peace activist. Juliano himself enlisted as a paratrooper in the IDF, but was thrown out for refusing an order to force a Palestinian man from his car.
In Israel, Juliano identified himself as a Palestinian; in Palestine, as a Jew. This was typical of his brave and confrontational character.
He was a “beautiful and energetic man” who, according to his friend and colleague Stephan, was dancing on the tables the night before his assassination to celebrate the première of his latest project. Juliano had intense passions, exemplified by his love of food: a cup of olive oil for breakfast and a glass of Black Label at night.
The Freedom Theatre
Edward Said urged upon us the importance of narrating the Palestinian story, and that’s exactly what Juliano did through his films, his plays and the Freedom Theatre in Jenin.
Juliano’s ambition for the Freedom Theatre was to “give these children a piece of normality.” The theatre didn’t only tackle political inequality, but also women’s rights and religious intolerance and the theatre quickly became a centre for liberal thought in Jenin. The theatre works on three levels: theory, art and (political) action.
As an example, Juliano’s recent production of Alice in Wonderland managed to tackle women’s liberation, free will and resistance as well as putting on a great show. Juliano made Alice a Palestinian girl who is forced to marry by her family and seeks refuge in Wonderland.
According to Juliano, “art and politics are one,” and his attitude was: “you can’t free the land without freeing the mind.” That made Juliano himself a cultural freedom fighter.
The tragedy of Juliano’s life is that he was well aware of his vulnerability, but naïve “to the point of fantasy,” according to his friend Ala. He confided to him: “I will only leave Jenin with a bullet in my head…”
Juliano wouldn’t have wanted to be called a martyr of freedom, but that is what he was.
Juliano was shot down by a Palestinian from Jenin, the very people he was struggling for. Juliano’s colleague at the theatre, Ala, talked about how this betrayal had damaged his unconditional affection for the camp. He said he was like a father who is angry at his eldest son for fighting with his youngest. Nevertheless, he will cover them both with the same blanket at night and give them the same kiss. “I kiss you Juli,” Ala said before breaking down in tears at the memory of his friend.
The ongoing threat
Juliano was shot not because of his failure, but because of his success. The Israeli press might be wallowing in schadenfreude, celebrating the fact that a Palestinian peace activist was killed by a fellow Palestinian, but Juliano’s Israeli friend Uli doesn’t remember that discourse in the press after former Israeli prime minister Yitzhak Rabin was killed by a Jew.
However, the Freedom Theatre today is very weak. They have some support in Israel, some support in Palestine and some support abroad, but it is fragmented and threatened on all sides. When Juliano’s body was carried away, students from the theatre lined the streets and applauded – but Jenin refugee camp wasn’t with them. The threat to the theatre remains.
This is a review of An Evening in Honour of Juliano Mer-Khamis at Amnesty International Human Rights Action Centre in London on Wednesday April 20th.
The speakers were:
Stephan Wolf-Schoenburg, an actor and teacher at the Freedom Theatre. He was a close friend of Juliano’s and a witness to his assassination.
Ala Hlehel, an author, translator, and filmmaker. He is the editor-in-chief of Qadita.net
Udi Aloni, a filmmaker. He was a friend of Juliano and was working on two films with him at the time of his death.
Osnat Trabelsi, a filmmaker and founder of Trabelsi Productions. She was a colleague and friend of Juliano’s.