‘The assassins left us poorer’

Few events can bring Israeli Jews and Israeli Arabs together. The murder of artist, actor and activist Juliano Mer-Khamis brought them together.

Juliano Mer Khamis_521 (photo credit: NIR ELIAS / REUTERS)
Juliano Mer Khamis_521
(photo credit: NIR ELIAS / REUTERS)
DOZENS OF PEOPLE GATHERED TOGETHER ON A Friday afternoon in early April in the Jewish-Arab theater in Jaffa. Few events can bring Israeli Jews and Israeli Arabs together. The murder of artist, actor and activist Juliano Mer-Khamis brought them together.
On Monday, April 4, in broad daylight, masked gunmen, still unidentified, fatally shot Mer-Khamis as he drove in his car through the Jenin refugee camp, in the northern West Bank, on his way to the drama school and children’s theater that he had established and ran.
Mer-Khamis’s life story was a story about the need to dream, the courage to break down divisions, the will to redefine the identities that divide people and cultures. In his life and death were intertwined all of the elements of the reality of the life that we must all live here. No one could have made up the story of Mer-Khamis’s life and death – it would have sounded too complicated and too dramatic.
He was born in Israel in May 1958. His mother, Arna Mer, was a Jewish Israeli from the venerable town of Rosh Pina, in the Galilee. Born in 1929, she was the daughter of Professor Gideon Mer, a revered Jewish physician who had researched treatment for malaria and helped found the Dead Sea Works. Mer joined the Palmach, the nascent state’s military strike force, in 1948, in order to take part in the Jewish struggle for independence. It was then that she began to wear a kaffiyeh, an Arab headdress. In those days, a kaffiyeh was a popular fashion statement among the young Palmach soldiers. But for Mer, the kaffiyeh became a symbol, its meaning changing as her political consciousness developed; ultimately that kaffiyeh became the expression of her identification with the Palestinian people’s struggle for independence.
Shortly after the establishment of the State of Israel, Mer joined the ranks of the Communist Party, and it was there that she met Saliba Khamis, Juliano’s father. Born in 1920, Khamis was an Arab Christian from a small village near Nazareth, a journalist, and a prominent member of the Communist Party.
The love story between Saliba and Arna flourished against the background of the difficult relationships between Arabs and Jews. From 1948 until 1967, Arab citizens of Israel lived under a military administration that controlled their villages and cities and limited their freedom of movement; Arabs were also involved in struggles against the government’s confiscation of their lands. Saliba and Arna combined their personal and political lives, attempting to apply their universalist ideas and values to their everyday lives. They fully believed that their family could serve as a model for the creation of a democratic, secular and egalitarian society. They gave each of their children names with universal meanings: Spartacus, Juliano, and Abir.
Juliano Mer-Khamis was born as the State of Israel celebrated its first decade. He grew up in Haifa, known then as “Red Haifa, the workers’ city.” Haifa in those days was strongly secular, composed largely of blue collar, working people who made their livings in the port and nearby factories.
That same year., the Hebrew University dedicated its new campus in Jerusalem, the first supermarket was opened and the Habima Theater became the national theater. Israel was still a fledgling state, coping with economic crises and the mass immigration of Jews from Arab states and feverishly building its social institutions. It was a society with a high degree of commitment and patriotism, and most of its Jewish citizens identified almost totally with the state.
But Mer-Khamis’s own identity was unclear. When he reached the age of 18, he chose to enlist in the IDF, an important stepping stone into mainstream Israeli-Jewish society, and he volunteered for the elite paratroopers’ unit. By the early 1980s, Mer-Khamis had already become an actor. He moved to Tel Aviv, studied in the Beit Zvi drama school and took his first steps in theater and cinema. His first movie wasn’t an Israeli film; American director George Roy Hill cast him in “The Little Drummer Girl,” based on the book by John Le Carre, which deals with the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
“Juliano was a total actor,” says director Amos Gitai, who began working with Mer-Khamis in 1985 and cast him in many of his films, often as a patriotic Israeli army officer. “He believed that cinema has to say something about reality, and not be merely an emotional or aesthetic experience… He was a precise, sharp actor. He didn’t need a lot of verbal direction, only to be given space for his interpretations. He made no compromises, not even with himself. He was one of those actors who would sacrifice himself in a role.”
I first met Mer-Khamis in the 1980s, when I was a young writer and photographer working for the “Olam Hazeh” magazine and he was a beginning actor. Given the plot of “The Little Drummer Girl,” and especially given his unique biography, I felt compelled to ask him questions about his identity. Mer-Khamis had tremendous personal power, but was able to easily and naturally deal with the ostensible contradictions in his identity. “I’m 100 percent Jewish and 100 percent Palestinian,” he told me.
I might not have believed anyone else. I believed him implicitly.
THE FIRST INTIFADA, WHICH BROKE OUT IN December 1987, took its toll on the Mer-Khamis family. By then, Saliba and Arna were no longer members of the Communist Party, but Arna, strong, charismatic, intelligent and always the activist, had continued to struggle to promote universalist values of human civil rights. In 1989, as the violence continued, she decided she needed to do more than merely protest and demonstrate.
So she established a children’s home in the refugee camp of Jenin, providing the children with theater and art lessons. She utterly believed that given the opportunity to enjoy culture and aesthetics, children could experience the spirit of freedom. Awarded the Right Livelihood Award in Stockholm in 1993, she contributed the $50,000 award to the children’s theater in Jenin.
Mer-Khamis would accompany his mother to Jenin and he began to give drama lessons there. He also filmed the children and his mother. The filming would become the basis of his documentary about his mothers work, “Arna’s Children.”
Arna Mer was diagnosed with cancer in 1994. She continued to travel to Jenin to her precious children. Filmed by Mer-Khamis on her last visit, in 1995, Arna stands on a stage, bald from the treatments and weak from the illness, wearing, as always, her black and white kaffiyeh. Powerfully, she tells the children and adults who came to say goodbye to her, “There is no freedom without knowledge. There is no peace without freedom and peace and freedom are inseparable.”
She died within a few days. Saliba died suddenly, of a heart attack, a few months later.
Mer-Khamis stopped working on the film. “My mother would not have wanted this to turn into a cult film,” he explained to the media. “She wanted it to serve as a means for discussion about her ideas, and not about her or her illness.” He resumed filming in 2002, during the IDF “Defensive Shield” operation in the West Bank, when the camp was the site of fierce fighting.
In its final version, the film is not really about Arna or about Juliano – it is about the children of the refugee camp. They were children who had dreams, who drew pictures of angels and played the roles of princes in imaginary performances. But the violence in their lives took them to different places. Many of Arna’s children joined the armed struggle against Israel. Some were killed in skirmishes with the IDF. One even became a suicide bomber who blew himself up at a mall in Netanya, killing four Israeli women.
In the movie, when they worked with Arna, they are still sweet children. “I wanted to show that behind every suicide bomber there is a story, a person who was once a child. I purposely wanted the audience to fall in love with the children before knowing what they became, so that their deaths would not be just one more statistic,” Mer-Khamis told the Hebrew press.
IN 2006, HE REESTABLISHED THE THEATER IN THE refugee camp, using monies he earned from screenings of the film. The festive opening of the theater, attended by Palestinian and international dignitaries, seemed a model for the impossible – and a tribute to Mer-Khamis’s incredible personal power.
He moved to Jenin and lived there with his partner and his children. He was well-known and well-liked in the camp. But not everyone was pleased with his activities. In 2009, a Molotov cocktail was thrown at the theater while broadsheets denounced the irreverence towards religious values. Palestinians extremists focused on Mer-Khamis’s Israeli identity to attack him.
But he persisted – fervently, passionately, and, some might say, naively. He believed that learning meaningful texts would expose the children to new ideas, enabling them to encounter other worlds, helping them become thoughtful, and, most importantly, free, people.
It is unlikely that the theater will continue. It will be impossible to find another individual whose life was such a perfect reflection of the two peoples who have been fighting each other for more than a century.
In the refugee camp and to the Israeli peace camp, Mer-Khamis symbolized hope itself. He was a Jewish-Israeli who spoke Hebrew as his mother tongue, an actor and mentor who had served in the army as a paratrooper. And he was a Palestinian-Arab who spoke Arabic as his father tongue, a political activist and resident of a refugee camp who worked with our most ferocious enemies.
But on both sides of the conflict, while some viewed him as an inspiration, others viewed him as a traitor. And the shots that brought him down destroyed the freedom that the theater brought to the children who dared to dream. They destroyed the hope that could be heard backstage of the performances, had become part of the scenery and the costumes, and had penetrated the lives of the young actors. The assassins gave support to the voices within Israel that claim that we have no one to talk to, that the Palestinians do not want peace.
And on both sides, the assassins left us poorer, more discouraged, and even more doubtful that peace will ever be possible.

Journalist Anat Saragusti is executive director of Agenda, the Israeli Center for Strategic Communication.