The Murder of Juliano Mer-Khamis, an Artist Caught Between Two Worlds

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As cosmopolitan as his name, Juliano Mer-Khamis was the son of a Jewish mother who had fought with the elite Palmach force during the 1948 war that created Israel, and a Christian Arab prominent in the Israeli Communist Party. When he was  shot and killed by masked men on Monday, he was sitting in his car outside the theater he had started in Jenin, the West Bank city that entered the millenium with a reputation as the most dangerous on the West Bank, and by decade’s end was becoming known for its cultural life. One reason was the Freedom Theater, begun by Mer-Khamis in 2006 in a refugee camp on the wave of support that followed “Arna’s Children,” a documentary he made about his activist mother’s theater project of the same name, and the fates of the children who passed through it.

His partner in the revival was the former military leader of the Al-Aqsa Martyr Brigades, but that credential offered so liberal an enterprise only a certain level of insurance against the vigilantes who once ruled Jenin.  The actor received death threats and the theater fire bombs.  “If words don’t help we will have to speak in bullets,” read the warning flier passed around  in 2009, the year Mer-Khamis gave an interview to the Israeli news website Y-net that might have been headlined “Chronicle of a Death Foretold.”

“It makes them crazy that a man who is half-Jewish is at the head of one of the most important projects in the Palestinian West Bank,” he said, “and it is just hypocritical racism. I have never been as Jewish as I am right now in Jenin. After all this work at the camp it would be extremely unfortunate to die of a Palestinian bullet.”

Mer-Khamis, born 53 years ago in Nazareth, appeared as an actor in 28 films.  The first was George Roy Hill’s 1984 version of the John LeCarre thriller, “The Little Drummer Girl.” Diane Keaton played the woman forced by the Mossad to penetrate a terror cell by pretending to be the girlfriend of a dead militant. In Jenin, Mer Khamis had planned to stage Martin McDonagh’s “The Lieutenant of Inishmore,” an over-the-top satire of armed resistance that seeks belly laughs in gouts of blood. Haaretz reports he gave it up after someone smashed the window of his car. But he went ahead with “Animal Farm” even though Muslim fundamentalists expressed outrage that it featured a talking pig, pork being unclean.

“But what choice do I have?” he asked the reporter for Y-net. ” To run? I am not a fleeing man. I am an elite force man, formerly of the paratroopers. The only two things I gained from Israeli culture are Shlonsky’s translations of Shakespeare and adequate field training. Now I need it.”