Remembering Juliano Mer Khamis, an Artist and Activist Who Refused to Choose Sides

Exec. Prod. of Franchises & Series. He previously reported for HuffPost, L.A. Daily Journal, and Biloxi Sun-Herald.
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Milay, daughter of Arab-Israeli actor and director Juliano Mer Khamis holds a flower next to her father's coffin near the Jalameh checkpoint. (Photo: Reuters)

Thousands have gathered across the West Bank and throughout Israel in the past two days to mourn the loss of Juliano Mer Khamis, an actor and director who was shot dead by masked assailants on Monday outside the children's theater he founded in Jenin.

The acclaimed artist was laid to rest Wednesday at a kibbutz near the northern Israeli city of Haifa. His funeral procession passed through the Jalameh checkpoint into the West Bank so that Palestinian friends and admirers could pay their respects.

It may seem odd that an Israeli funeral procession would approach the West Bank. But in a region beset by hatred and violence between Jews and Arabs, Mer Khamis refused to be pigeonholed or choose sides.

The actor told Israel Army Radio in 2009, "I am 100 percent Palestinian; I am 100 percent Jewish."

Having been born in Nazareth to a Jewish mother and a Palestinian father, the claim of dual allegiance was perhaps easier for Mer Khamis to make than it would be for most residents of the region. A passion for integrity and unity guided his daily work, and probably cost him his life. 

Mer Khamis did pick a side: the side of peace, democracy and opposition to oppression and occupation. 

His human-rights fervor could be traced to his mother, Arna, a legendary peace activist in her own right. Arna founded a children's theater in the Jenin refugee camp in 1988, in the middle of the first Palestinian Intifada. She wanted to give the children of the camp an outlet to express their anger, bitterness, rage and fear through acting and art. 

After Arna's passing, the theater struggled to survive, and ultimately closed.

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Mer Khamis's wife (right) accepts condolences from Palestinian admirers. (Photo: Reuters)

But in 2000, Juliano—who had become famous in the region as an actor—returned to Jenin to see what had become of the children his mother worked with. Their stories, and his return to the camp, formed the backbone of his 2004 documentary Arna's Children, which has been called "the best documentary ever done about the Occupation." (Participant Media, TakePart's parent company, distributed the film in the U.S.)

In 2006, Juliano resurrected his mother's vision for Jenin, and founded the Freedom Theater, one of the most important cultural institutions in the West Bank. As the only professional theater and cultural center in the Northern West Bank, the Freedom Theater revived an outlet for an entire generation of Jenin youth to express the fears, trauma and depression of growing up under the Occupation. (To put those fears and traumas in perspective, consider that Jenin's biggest impact on American TV screens was as the site of a violent battle between Israelis and Palestinians in 2002.)

Nabil Al-Raee, the acting instructor and director at the Freedom Theater, tells TakePart that Mer Khamis had a profound impact on each of the children who passed through the theater; he showed them a way to forge their own direction in life, and brushed aside messages of hate and propaganda coming from traditional institutions.

"Juliano left with each of them a very important message: to help them find direction for themselves, so that they would not be guided by the bad ways [they might learn] in the schools or the universities," Al-Raee said. He taught them "how to fight against the oppression and the Occupation. He was full of inspiration. He is a man that you will never meet again in your life."

Al-Raee had worked with Mer Khamis for five years; two attempts had been made to burn down the theater in that time. But Al-Raee tells TakePart no one ever thought Mer Khamis's life would end in assassination.

In past seasons, the Freedom Theater scrapped a satire of armed resistance, but a production of Animal Farm went forward, despite fundamentalists objecting to the presence of a talking pig (pork is considered unclean by devout Muslims).

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Mourners are shown in front of Mer Khamis's funeral procession in Haifa. (Photo: Reuters)

But Al-Raee said it was unthinkable that a man whose life was dedicated to the Palestinian cause—regardless of his Jewish heritage—would be killed.

"He was full of inspiration for other people. He was a fighter, he was a thinker," Al-Raee says. "He was someone who was fighting to create freedom for everyone. Not only in terms of the word 'freedom,' but really the concept of freedom and the meaning of freedom."

Late Wednesday, Palestinian police announced they had arrested a man suspected of participating in Mer Khamis's murder. 

Director Al-Raee says the entire Freedom Theater community will press Palestinian authorities to bring everyone responsible for Mer Khamis's killing to justice. They're also planning a protest march from the theater to the center of Jenin.

He vowed that despite ongoing threats, and Mer Khamis's murder, he and his colleagues will not be intimidated. The shows will go on.

"Absolutely, 100 percent. If we close down, if we are afraid, then it will shut down, and Juliano will die forever."

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