‘He represented beautiful, terrible things about country'

Hundreds bid farewell to actor and theater director Juliano Mer-Khamis, gunned to death in Jenin.

Mer-Khamis Funeral 311 (photo credit: Ben Hartman)
Mer-Khamis Funeral 311
(photo credit: Ben Hartman)
Hundreds gathered at the cemetery of Kibbutz Ramot Menashe on Wednesday to bid farewell to actor and theater director Juliano Mer-Khamis, 52, who was gunned down Monday in front of the theater he opened and operated in the West Bank city of Jenin.
The eulogies were given in Arabic, Hebrew and English, befitting the Nazarene son of a Jewish mother and an Arab Christian father who spent his life straddling two worlds at war with one another.
Mer-Khamis was buried next to his mother, Arna, after his coffin was brought from the Al- Midan theater in Haifa where a ceremony was held the day before in his memory. Before arriving in Ramot Menashe, the coffin was taken to the Jilma checkpoint in the West Bank, where Mer-Khamis’s friends and colleagues from Jenin came to pay their last respects.
Avi Nesher, who directed Mer- Khamis in a film where he played a fighter in the Lehi (Stern Group) pre-state Jewish militia, told The Jerusalem Post his longtime friend and colleague was a talent without peer, and a man whose life revealed everything terrible and beautiful in Israel.
“He was one of the greatest actors who ever lived here. He acted in my film Rage and Glory, where he played a fighter in the Lehi. In Israel it was a big failure but a big success in Hollywood, where they wanted to make him the new Antonio Banderas but he didn’t want that. He felt too much a part of this place, he didn’t want to leave.
“He felt very close to his Jewish part and very close to his Arab part. He represented everything beautiful and terrible about this country; he served in the IDF but was also friends with the toughest terrorist in Jenin (Al-Aksa Martyrs Brigade Jenin commander Zakariya Zubeida), he made the journey from side to side and didn’t belong to any one side alone. His story is the story of this place.”
Nesher said Mer-Khamis forced people to think hard about their preconceptions as well.
“His role was to be a provocateur, to cause people to think whether or not there really is that big a difference between the two peoples... His legacy is to show us that there isn’t that big a difference between the two peoples, and this is the most dangerous thing to say here.”
Late in the ceremony, Zakariya Zubeida eulogized his friend by cell phone from the Jenin refugee camp. He spoke in Arabic to a rapt crowd, sending his love to Mer-Khamis’s two children and his wife, who is nine months pregnant with twins. He also said he would find the murderers, and vowed that they would be shown no mercy.
Zubeida also spoke of the young men who and women who acted at the Freedom Theater and the opportunities it presented for them. He vowed to continue what Mer-Khamis taught him, “that children must carry only the guns of cultural change.”
Zubeida and Mer-Khamis opened the Freedom Theater in 2006 as a community theater that gave young people in the West Bank city a cultural and creative outlet.
Mer-Khamis was outspoken in his belief that culture and art could be powerful tools of popular struggle and empowerment.
The plays he produced at his theater were controversial in Jenin and he received no shortage of death threats from locals angry at his co-ed productions and the progressive themes in his plays.
Israeli filmmaker Udi Aloni, the head cinema coach at the Freedom Theater, eulogized his friend, choking back tears.
“I tried to write, but it was just a thousand words and tears all mixed together. So I’ll just speak from my heart.
“When you told me to come help you teach in Jenin, I said of course. I didn’t realize that you’re opening the best school for myself and you gave me the most positive time in my life.
“People in Israel used to talk about you as a little bit of a madman so they wouldn’t have to confront the reality that you are the only sane voice in the insanity of this place,” Aloni said.
“People said you were Israeli in Palestine and a Palestinian in Israel. This is not true, you were a Palestinian in Palestine, you were a Jew in Israel and most of all you were a human in every part of the world.”
At the end of the ceremony, the mourners erupted in a long, loud round of applause. It seemed a final curtain call of sorts for the famed actor, lasting until the applause faded into the wails of Mer-Khamis’s loved ones.