Juliano Mer-Khamis was murdered yesterday in Jenin, in the West Bank. The most surprising thing I felt was how unsurprised I was to hear the news. Mer-Khamis—an actor, director, and political activist—was always too good to be true.
In a part of the world where identities are often dyed in the wool and then waved as political banners, Mer-Khamis refused to choose. If you asked him about his background, he would most likely tell you that he was 100 percent Jewish, like his mother, Arna Mer, the scion of a prominent Zionist family, and also 100 percent Palestinian, like his Israeli Arab father, Saliba Khamis, a prominent Communist politician. Mer-Khamis had served as a combat soldier in the IDF’s paratrooper brigade before becoming an actor. Half of the time, he played a tough Israeli soldier; the other half, a Palestinian extremist. (His most recent film role is as a benevolent sheikh in Julian Schnabel’s Miral.)
I met Mer-Khamis at a few political demonstrations in Tel Aviv and Jerusalem and the West Bank in the 1990s. I never saw him on stage, but it was clear to me from those personal encounters that he was a great actor. He embodied the role of activist perfectly, which is not to say he was in the least insincere in his beliefs. On the contrary: With his self torn between two lands and two cultures, he let the gaping void be filled with equal measures of rage and compassion, the twin engines that drive every pure activist to persevere.
In 2003, he won international acclaim with his documentary film, Arna’s Children. Arna was his mother, and her children were the graduates of a theater group she had founded in the refugee camp in Jenin. Mer-Khamis returned to these children, now adults, in the wake of the second Intifada, and he found some in despair, others enraged, a handful still optimistic. That wasn’t good enough for Mer-Khamis; in 2006, he founded the Freedom Theatre in Jenin, which he imagined would be a place where children and adults alike could escape trauma and tragedy and take solace on the stage.
But Mer-Khamis was always on a collision course with reality. In Israel, the increasingly arid political climate could no longer tolerate his statements about the inherently racist nature of Israeli society. In Palestine, the Islamic fundamentalists were displeased with this half-Jew who presided over a co-ed theater that put on subversive productions like a stage adaptation of George Orwell’s Animal Farm. Mer-Khamis’ life was threatened, but he wouldn’t budge. He teamed up with Zacharia Zbeidi, the former leader of the Fatah’s military wing, who turned in his gun in a 2007 amnesty deal with Israel and devoted his life since to co-running the theater with Mer-Khamis. But even the former militant couldn’t keep the fanatics at bay: In 2009, someone set the theater’s doors on fire, nearly burning it down.
Yesterday, as Mer-Khamis was about to drive from Jenin back to Israel—to his wife, pregnant with twins—a masked gunman fired seven bullets into him. He was rushed to the hospital and pronounced dead upon arrival. Palestinian policemen transferred his body across the checkpoint and onto the western side of the Green Line. It was the last time Juliano Mer-Khamis would cross the border he had devoted his life to eradicating.
Now that Mer-Khamis is dead, nothing would be easier than to turn him into what he’d fiercely resisted being in life: a political fable. Some Israeli pundits are already busy telling the story of the kindhearted but misguided humanitarian who wanted to improve the lives of the Palestinians and was rewarded with a bullet to the head. That mustn’t be what we take away from Mer-Khamis’ life or from his death. No matter what one might think of his political persuasions, Mer-Khamis’ legacy speaks for itself. It speaks every time a small child in Jenin takes the stage and plays one of the pigs in Orwell’s famous story, even though local zealots scream that the pig is unholy and that the story is too subversive and critical of Islam. It speaks because the lines of Alice in Wonderland, the theater’s most recent production, drown out the petty politics and the mutual fear. It speaks because Mer-Khamis might be dead, but the idea for which he had died lives on. Plays, he knew, were more potent than politics; they lasted long after the narrow-minded men and the murderous ideologies they served were both long gone.
Night after night, in a cramped space that looked more like a warehouse than a theater, Mer-Khamis and his actors insisted that art can always overcome atrocities and that hope and beauty can trump hate every time. That idea will never die as long as there are decent people who are willing to fight for grace and believe in a better future. One way to support Mer’s legacy would be to make a contribution in support of the Freedom Theatre. If we’re lucky, it will thrive and give us many more human beings as beautiful as Juliano Mer-Khamis.
Liel Leibovitz is a senior writer for Tablet Magazine and a host of the Unorthodox podcast.