Remembering Juliano Mer-Khamis and His Theater of Hope and Resistance in Jenin
by Nancy Rosenbaum, producer
Young Palestinian men mourn the death of Juliano Mer-Khamis (poster) outside The Freedom Theatre in Jenin refugee camp in the West Bank a day after unknown gunmen killed the actor and director in his car. (photo: Saif Dahlah/AFP/Getty Images)
"I have no hope for the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, at least not in my lifetime. You ask for political, practical, local hope. Like it’s going to be solved. Jews and Arabs are going to kiss each other and hold hands and go to the beach. This is not going to happen. I have hope as a human being, yes. Oh I have big hope as a human being. I believe in humans. I believe that people are good.”
In a land splintered by contested physical borders and deep wells of distrust, Juliano Mer-Khamis described himself as “100 percent Palestinian and 100 percent Jewish.” The 52-year-old actor and activist was slain last week in Jenin, where he ran The Freedom Theatre, an arts program and cultural center for local youth in Jenin Refugee Camp.
The son of an Israeli-Jewish mother and a Palestinian-Christian father, Juliano Mer-Khamis refused to choose one identity over the other. As an adult, he kept a residence in Haifa, on the Israeli side, as well as in Jenin. Even his funeral transcended borders; pallbearers carried his casket across the Jalama checkpoint from Israel into the West Bank so that Palestinian mourners could participate.
In 2006, Juliano Mer-Khamis described his work with The Freedom Theater as a kind of artistic intifada:
"…we believe that the strongest struggle today should be cultural, moral. This must be clear. We are not teaching the boys and the girls how to use arms or how to create explosives, but we expose them to discourse of liberation, of liberty. We expose them to art, culture, music — which I believe can create better people for the future, and I hope that some of them, some of our friends in Jenin, will lead … and continue the resistance against the occupation through this project, through this theatre."
Mer-Khamis was a controversial figure who seemed to be a clear-eyed realist about his life and work. In fact, he embraced this. “Lucky me,” he told PBS’ Need to Know.
"To be a theater and not controversial, then you should go open a clinic. Or be a dentist. We are a factory for controversy. We are the factory of ideas, of arguments of disputes. We are the factory where people should not like it. Otherwise, what are we doing here?"