Shock is the first word that comes to mind. When I first read about the murder of Juliano Mer-Khamis just hours after he was killed on April 4, like so many others, I reeled in shock. Then I burst into tears for a man I had never met. I cried for him, for his family and for the Palestinian people.
Like many Palestine solidarity activists, even though I had never met him, I knew of Juliano and the amazing work he was doing in the Jenin refugee camp. The son of a Jewish mother and a Palestinian father, both of whom were members of the Communist Party, Juliano Mer-Khamis believed that culture and art would help bring about his people’s liberation.
Speaking in a video, promoting the work of the Freedom Theatre, which he co-established in 2006 in the Jenin camp, Juliano told the world: “The Freedom Theatre is a venue to join the Palestinian people in their struggle for liberation. We believe that the third intifada, the coming intifada, should be cultural, with poetry, music, theatre, with cameras and magazines”. The theatre, as Juliano noted in many interviews, was a space where people, both young and old, could think freely, be equal and dream. For Juliano, the ability to dream was important. Forty-three years of Israeli occupation had robbed the Palestinian people in the Occupied Territories, particularly the children, of the ability to dream. With the Freedom Theatre, Juliano hoped to reignite the ability to dream and to be free.
Juliano was born in Nazareth in 1958, after his mother, Arna Mer-Khamis, went into labour while taking part in a demonstration against Israel’s military regime, which was imposed from 1948 until 1966 on Palestinians living inside the Israeli state. Arna’s activism was to have a major impact on her son.
As a teenager, Arna had fought with the Palmach, the Zionist underground army, but soon after the establishment of the Zionist state, she became active in campaigning for Palestinian human rights and became an anti-Zionist. She joined the Israeli Communist Party and married Saliba Mer, the secretary of the party. After 1967, Arna was arrested many times for participating in protests and demonstrations against Israel’s seizure of the West Bank, Gaza, East Jerusalem and the Golan Heights.
With the advent of the first intifada, Arna set up “Care and Learning”, an organisation that sought to help Palestinian children imprisoned in Israel’s jails by organising lawyers to represent them and organising volunteers to visit the children. During the intifada, Arna’s organisation also sent volunteers to Jenin to work with Palestinian children prevented by Israel’s occupation forces from attending school. In Jenin, she established a children’s theatre and in 1993 she was awarded the Right Livelihood Award for her human rights work. Two years later, she lost her battle against cancer.
Children of Arna
Seven years after his mother’s death, Juliano returned to Jenin to interview many of the children who had participated in Arna’s theatre group. His visit to the camp came in the wake of Israel’s 2002 invasion of the camp, which resulted is widespread destruction and many Palestinians being killed. He called his documentary about his mother and the children of Jenin, Arna’s Children. It won “Best Documentary Feature” at the 2004 Tribeca Film Festival.
Juliano’s film came after a long journey of self-discovery. Like his mother, Juliano also served in the military, despite his father’s disapproval. However, witnessing the human rights abuses taking place in the Occupied Palestinian Territories, he soon joined the ranks of the refuseniks (conscientious objectors). In a 2009 interview with the Israeli Army Radio, Juliano explained to listeners, “I am 100 percent Palestinian and 100 percent Jewish”.
Inspired by his mother’s work and the children of Jenin, Juliano re-established the Freedom Theatre in 2006, along with Swedish-Israeli activists Jonatan Stanczak and Dror Feiler, and Zakaria Zubeidi, the former leader of the Al-Aqsa Martyr’s Brigade in Jenin camp. The primary aim of the theatre was to provide opportunity for the more than 3000 children under the age of 15 in the camp to develop confidence and self-knowledge and to utilise creativity as a model for social change. Since 2006, the Freedom Theatre has produced numerous plays, some based on the work of Palestinian writers, such as Men in the Sun by Ghassan Kanafani, as well as other controversial works that carried subversive undertones, such as Animal Farm and Alice in Wonderland.
After Juliano’s death, the Freedom Theatre issued a statement saying: “Jenin, the world of Palestinian culture and the children of freedom have lost the slain Juliano Khamis, who was cut down by black bullets. He was the model of a freedom fighter to the children of the camp, a symbol of our culture and our struggle ... The Freedom Theater will remain a symbol of freedom. Had the bullets that hit his back seen his eyes, they would have begged forgiveness.” H