Could it happen in Israel? It already has

If Juliano Mer-Khamis had tried to open a childrens' theater in, say, Safed, it’s likely that the same forces trying to keep Arabs from living in the city, would have done everything in their power to chase him away.

By SUSAN H. ROLEF
April 13, 2011 22:46
4 minute read.
Juliano Mer-Khamis

Mer-Khamis 311. (photo credit: Wikimedia commons)

 
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Being an Israeli isn’t easy. Being a Palestinian is even more difficult.

For someone to feel 100 percent Israeli and 100% Palestinian simultaneously seems impossible. However, that is exactly how Juliano Mer-Khamis, who was murdered last week in cold blood in the Jenin refugee camp, defined himself.

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As a youngster, Mer-Khamis (whose father was a Christian Arab Israeli communist and whose mother was an Israeli radical Jewess) served as a paratrooper in the IDF. At the end of his life he brought his mother’s dream of a children’s theater in Jenin (physically destroyed during the second intifada) back to life. The theater he ran advocated freedom in the broadest sense of the term – not just within the context of the Palestinian- Israeli conflict, but within the context of life in Palestinian society.

Mer-Khamis was an extremely handsome and charismatic man, a talented theater and film actor and producer, an enfant terrible and daredevil. However, he was apparently murdered not because of his binationalism or his personality, but because of what he sought to do. What he sought to do was a function of that binationalism and personality, but in Palestinian society, there are still those who sought to get rid of him, even soft-spoken and mild-tempered Palestinian Muslims.

His advocacy of personal freedom was anathema to radical Islamists, to whom his murder has reportedly been attributed.

COULD SOMETHING like this happen inside Israel? We, too, have intolerant religious radicals. What would have happened if Mer-Khamis had tried to open a children’s theater such as the one he ran in Jenin, in Safed? Though he most probably would not have been murdered, there is little doubt that the same forces that are fighting to keep Safed Araberrein would have attacked him as a traitor, burned his car and done everything in their power to chase him out of town.

However, let us not take comfort in the thought that what happened to Mer- Khamis in Jenin could not happen in Israel. Perhaps our society is less violent than Palestinian society, but men have lost their lives because individuals and institutions felt that what these men did posed a threat to what they themselves stood for. Back in 1924, Jacob Israel de Haan – a Dutch-born homosexual haredi wheeler-dealer – was murdered by the Hagana because it was felt that in his activities on behalf of the haredi community, he was undermining the Zionist effort. Seventy-one years later, prime minister Yitzhak Rabin was assassinated by Yigal Amir because the latter believed that Rabin was bringing a catastrophe on the people of Israel, and he had thousands of supporters. From moral and practical points of view, neither of these murders differs from Mer-Khamis’s.

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But back to Mer-Khamis the man. He was not the only person who was half Jewish-Israeli and half Arab-Palestinian.

There are thousands of offspring of mixed Jewish Israeli-Palestinian liaisons, and for better or worse they all confront the need to square the resultant circle.

Some might decide to identify completely with one side or the other, some might try to balance their identities, while others might try to live their lives – in the Middle East or elsewhere – as neutral human beings, disregarding their national origins.

The option chosen by Mer-Khamis was the most difficult, but his friends say that at least in the last stage of his life, he appeared to have attained a certain inner peace. Though neither he nor his mother, Arna, before him ever stood a chance of making a major impact on Palestinian society, they were certainly able to leave a mark on the lives of the Palestinian children with whom they worked. This did not prevent some of them from losing their lives in the conflict with Israel, and did not make the lives of the rest any simpler. But at least for a while, these children were given a taste of something different and – so one is convinced when one views the documentaries made on the children’s theater (including Mer- Khamis’s Arna’s Children) – a certain joie de vivre that lasted for as long as they were involved in the theater.

Mer-Khamis can nevertheless be accused of one thing: a lack of responsibility regarding his Finnish wife, baby son and unborn twins. In interviews with him not long before his death, Mer- Khamis described three different scenarios regarding his future. One of the three was that he would be murdered. Though deep down he might have felt that his was a charmed life, he owed it to his loved ones to take greater precautions.

Though many will feel his absence, no one will feel it more than they.

The writer is a former Knesset employee.

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