By: Victoria Yates
Juliano Mer-Khamis was born in Nazareth, Israel, on the 29th of May 1958. His mother, Arna Mer-Khamis, was an Israeli Jewish activist from a well-to-do Zionist family, and his father, Saliba Khamis, a Christian Palestinian.
At 18 Arna had joined the Palmach, the Zionist resistance movement operating before Israel’s creation in 1948, and drove jeeps during the Arab-Israeli war. In the 1950s she grew disillusioned after taking part in driving the Bedouin out of Southern Palestine and joined the Israeli Communist Party. The group argued for bi-national democracy, and it was there that she met Saliba at a party conference. Saliba was a budding leader in the party and the couple married in 1953. Although the move was embraced by other members of the Communist party, a mixed marriage was a source of severe shame and Arna was shunned by her family.
Juliano was the second of three boys and politics was never far from their minds. Throughout their childhood Saliba wrote pieces in the party paper and Arna, fired from her teaching position for marrying an Arab, remained active in politics. The couple’s fierce ideologies often clashed, especially when it came to their sons. Saliba planned to raise their boys as good Communists but Arna allowed them greater freedoms. Saliba, a sometimes violent man, moved out when Juliano was 10.
As he grew up, Juliano, who attended Jewish schools, began to associate himself as a Jew, even giving up Arabic for a period. When he turned 18 he joined the paratroopers, a move that horrified both parents who had spent their lives fighting the occupation.
Stationed in Jenin, he didn’t last long. At a checkpoint he was told to search an elderly Palestinian man. He refused, punching his commanding officer instead. He spent several months in prison. He was released after Arna called in family favours to have him released to a mental hospital.
Despite this, Juliano was still interested in being a soldier, but he eventually entered the Beit-Zvi School for the Performing Arts in Tel Aviv instead.
In 1985 Juliano dropped the ‘Khamis’ from his surname and starred in his first film, Bar 51. He was heralded as a new star for independent Israeli cinema. Two years later, he moved to the Philippines, essentially spending a year high on mushrooms, talking to wildlife, and speaking about himself as a son of God until his parents came to bring him home. It proved to be an important moment for him, a time when he felt he had shed his difficult dual identities.
He came back to Israel re-energised in the political fight. He would stand in the street in downtown Tel Aviv covered in fake blood or paint or even olive oil and denounce Israel’s response to the First Intifada. Juliano could also be seen performing provocatively in Palestinian refugee camps.
He was however still lost, living an itinerant life sleeping on the beach. One night, Mishmish Or, an Israeli Jew and costume designer, found him in a bar wearing only his underwear. He soon moved in with her and became a stepfather to her two-year old daughter.
His mother moved to Jenin, called by a new project. After the Israeli army shutdown schools in areas of Palestine, Arna moved to Jenin to work with other activists in establishing an alternative education system. Despite her heritage, her history in the Palmach, and her atheism, she was beloved by the parents in the community.
More than 1,500 students attended her children’s centres and Arna asked Juliano to join her and teach drama therapy. He gladly accepted. When Arna won the Right Livelihood Prize she used the money to build the Stone Theater, so called because of the stones children would throw at Israeli tanks. Juliano spent a great deal of time there, teaching, directing, and filming a documentary on his mother that would become “Arna’s Children”.
When his mother died in 1995 after battling cancer, no one would bury her for her traitorous work in Jenin. Juliano held a press conference, promising to bury her in her garden if no one would have her. Eventually a Zionist kibbutz offered to take her.
Juliano returned to acting in Tel Aviv, taking on daring roles and earning a reputation as a physical and passionate performer. In 2000, Or gave birth to their daughter, Milay, and the family moved to Arna’s old house.
When the Second Intifada began, Juliano used their home to organise. Jenin became a centre in the fight, sending more than 30 suicide bombers into Israel over the next three years. In 2001, two of Juliano’s former students carried out an attack, opening fire on a bus station before they were shot dead by police.
The news hit close to home for Juliano who resolved to return to Jenin and complete his film. He made the first trip back in May 2002 bringing along two generators; at that point there had been no electricity for a month. Conditions were dire. He stayed with a former student, accompanying him on patrols at night, and spent months in the company of men at the top of Israel’s hit list. Despite his rapport and history with the group, many were wary of him and his Israeli citizenship.
The documentary was released in 2004, a raw film about the conflict and a love letter to his mother and her legacy. He received international acclaim, winning the Tribeca Film Festival prize for best documentary, and was catapulted into the spotlight as a poster child for the radical left. He started to have trouble finding work on stage. He took his four-year-old daughter on a trip around India, travelling by motorbike for four months. When he returned, Or moved with the girls to Tel Aviv, and Juliano stayed in Haifa.
Not long after “Arna’s Children”, Juliano began to consider restarting his mother’s project in Jenin. Along with Zacharia Zubeidi and Jonatan Stanczyk he opened the Freedom Theatre in February 2006. Zubeidi, a powerful militant, gave the others, both Jews, both outsiders, the ability to work in the camp, but it was Juliano who often disarmed Jewish soldiers by addressing them in Hebrew or leveraging his fame.
Juliano worked tirelessly, shocked at the deterioration of the children and quality of life in the camps. Many of the young had PTSD, and Islamic repression was on the rise. He used his citizenship to bring food and medicine into the area, and driving pregnant women to hospitals past Israeli checkpoints.
Although he was known to widely discuss his conversion story of losing faith in Israel and giving it up for Palestine it was mainly a narrative for the crowds, he often spent weekends in Haifa or Tel Aviv.
He recruited his actors from the camp - his first six (four boys, two girls) faced serious opposition from their communities who saw the theatre as a shameful, immoral place. Those that joined him wanted to find a way to live resistance instead of dying as martyrs, he called them ‘freedom fighters.’ At night, Juliano would take part in parties at the home he shared with Zubeidi, those in attendance would drink, smoke, and meet with radicals or foreigners. A rumour started spreading that Juliano was there to stir the youth into rebellion.
The Freedom Theatre relied on foreign investment but maintained a radical position for an NGO, refusing to bow to party positions or parrot rhetoric. He travelled internationally to woo supporters. Some of his most ardent donors were a group of New York radicals with strong ties to the American civil rights era. He met and charmed the likes of Tony Kushner, Vanessa Redgrave, and Maya Angelou. Western supporters were encouraged to visit, staying with Juliano in his house.
In 2007, Zubeidi, as part of an agreement between the Palestinian Authority and Israel, left the armed resistance, accepting amnesty and continuing to work for the theatre. The PA had been largely disconnected from Jenin after 2002 and the move was part of a new approach to regain control. The following year the PA sent in hundreds of soldiers to round up militants. Jenin became a battleground for influence.
In Spring 2009, Juliano again courted controversy when the theatre put on a shocking production of Animal Farm. Someone tried to set the theatre on fire, while another Western-supported cultural centre in the town was burned. Anonymous leaflets started circulating about what the ‘Jews and foreigners’ were trying to do. Juliano’s response was to share his side with the community, welcoming Imams to the theatre to explain their intentions.
The theatre’s international popularity started to prove a problem for the PA who were angered when David Miliband visited in 2009 without their permission. People started to believe the organisation was rich. Although Juliano continued to help people where he could, turning anyone down started to stir up intense resentment.
Growing concern for the safety of the theatre led Juliano to start planning a move to the city. He hoped that in the move he could build a national theatre of great influence. The old site would become a TV studio open to Palestinian artists and free from political supervision.
At the same time, Juliano began to tire of his work with children, wanting instead to focus on creating a space for real art. The shift caused rifts and Stanczyk moved home to Sweden. Several groups and individuals withdrew their support and board members resigned.
For the premiere of his production of Alice in Wonderland in early 2011, Juliano drove the actress, Maryam Abu Khaled, around the camps in her costume as the Red Queen with a megaphone. Men told her never to show her face in their neighbourhoods again and she started to fear for her safety. Despite this, 10,000 people attended the play, many from the camp.
Life continued to be rocky for Juliano, who was not granted his permit for the new theatre. He persevered and in March agreed to stage Spring Awakening, a celebratory story of sexual revolt that was banned at the time. It proved hard to do, when rehearsals began actors pulled out and talked about the play’s content in the camp. The local council took umbrage, and leaflets appeared denouncing Juliano and threatening that if the play wasn’t stopped it would come to bullets.
On the 28th of March Juliano cancelled the play from Ramallah where he was directing a play. A week later he returned to Jenin. It was there, sitting in a car with his infant son and his nanny that he was shot to death by a masked gunman.
It is still not clear who was involved in the assassination. Authorities couldn’t decide who was in charge of the investigation given his joint citizenship and residence in Jenin. The investigation faltered quickly.
For a time, the theatre became an increasing target; staff were frequently taken in for questioning and interrogations. Stanczyk returned the day Juliano was killed, retaking his post as general manager. He has since grown the theatre’s international presence, sending troupes abroad on tours and expanding activities in the West Bank. Quietly, the theatre has moved away from the more radical leanings of Juliano, a move that some see as a betrayal to his vision.
Juliano remains a controversial and provocative figure, a leader of cultural resistance and fearless revolt against everyday, religious, and political norms.