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Art is freedom without force: interview with the late Juliano Mer-Khamis

April 5, 2011

‘Art cannot free you from your chains, but art can generate and mobilize [a] discourse of freedom. Art can create debate, art can expose.’

The interview I conducted with Juliano Mer-Khamis five years ago has been published for the first time today, one day following his murder, on The Electronic Intifada. I am reposting it here with the editors’ permission. Since the original interview ran almost double what was excerpted today, I am posting the full version below. For added context, I should disclose some temporal particulars: Juliano and his colleagues had just enlivened the Freedom Theatre, he was touring with his film for the second time in the U.S., and a couple of short months prior, Hamas had massively won the January 2006 Palestinian parliamentary elections. I was in my second year of graduate school. Juliano and I did have variances of opinion: he was very optimistic about the election of Hamas (what he had called a ‘third Intifada’), but I would later learn that it came from a deeply imbedded and defined relationship to the politics of solidarity, one more blunt in its insistence (but ultimately, extremely concerned) than anyone I had ever met.

By August of that same year, I was living in Dubai (and still sitting on this interview) when several friends and I decided to approach Third Line Gallery to host a screening of Arna’s Children with Juliano present. This latter proposition would prove impossible, as Israeli citizens are officially barred from entering the UAE. Our repeated requests for an artistic exception went unheeded. Telephone calls to Israeli phones were also blocked, as were VoIP services like Skype, so the public would not even have an opportunity for a telephoned Q&A session with the director. Instead, I was tasked with the awkward and dubious task of attempting to answer questions as Juliano himself would have, based on what had been recorded in this interview. Outward expressions of solidarity with Palestinians and strongly worded critiques of Israel being generally unwelcome, we expected just a handful of people to turn out. Instead, the gallery was maximally packed. Many in the audience were Palestinian refugees whose scars of forced removal had been salted by the film; a few Europeans and Americans angrily wondered why the film was not shown widely and on public channels.

But Arna’s Children eventually amassed a wide following thanks to the efforts of both Juliano and his crew, not to mention the successes of the Freedom Theatre itself. Hopefully the film will gain critical viewership in the wake of Juliano’s incomprehensible killing.

My last conversation with him was about taking Capoeira Angola to the Jenin refugee camp. He never stopped thinking about small acts that could have big local effect, and never took his eyes off the relentless hardship endured by the youth and communities of Jenin.

Juliano will be tremendously missed and mourned.


Actor-director Juliano Mer-Khamis was shot dead by a masked gunman yesterday outside the Freedom Theatre that he co-founded in the Israeli-occupied West Bank city of Jenin in 2006. Born in Nazareth in 1958 to Saliba Khamis, a Palestinian Christian leader of the Israeli Communist Party, and Arna Mer, an Israeli Jewish dramatist, Juliano memorably described himself as ‘100 percent Palestinian, and 100 percent Jewish.’

Julian had tried to get his film Arna’s Children, which documents his mother’s extraordinary transformation from a young settler in 1948 to a drama teacher in the Jenin refugee camp, shown widely. As he discusses in the previously unpublished interview which follows, the film was met with little success the first time. In 2006, he returned as indefatigably as ever, and I met him for the first time at a screening of his film at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

Despite the scarce number of people in attendance that night (which Juliano loudly called attention to), one grasped the general astonishment that accompanied viewing this rare and unforgettable work. Juliano paced the room after the film, a passionate cadence rising in his voice as he described the devastations of occupation and the hazards of filmmaking.

Though Arna’s Children is a documentary, the time markers of the film relegate it closer to a work of fiction. Like other works of art centered on the loss of historic Palestine, most notably the characters who return to their pre-1948 homes in Ghassan Kanafani’s Returning to Haifa, Juliano constructed a narrative that is almost impossible to recreate or imagine from any other point of view.

In one shot of the film, the sequencing of events binds a shot of Juliano alongside his mother’s wrapped body at a hospital with a subsequent shot of the Israeli army bulldozing Arna’s Stone Theatre in April 2002. The Stone Theatre was part of Arna’s larger cultural project, Care and Learning, founded to allow the children of Jenin—faced with a crushing and seemingly inescapable military occupation—a creative outlet for their chronic trauma. The theater was leveled by the Israeli incursion, which Juliano captured on film. The historical date of both these events align almost miraculously, but the montages of destruction—his mother’s corpse and the ruins of the beloved theater—are superimposed as mutually ravaged bodies.

I interviewed Juliano at Boston’s South Station on 4 April 2006 just before he caught a train to the New York screening—exactly five years before he was killed just outside the Freedom Theatre in Jenin, the locus of his life’s most notable work.

Juliano’s resume as an actor is well-documented, and the details of his biography are sure to be revisited in the aftermath of his murder. It was his cinematic and personal relationship to the refugee camp in Jenin and his complex relationship to Israel that most concerned us in this conversation.

Juliano’s tone in this interview will be familiar to all who knew him: brutally honest, sardonic and always with an unflinching eye toward the original historic pitfalls of Israel and the Palestinians. He candidly discusses the social engineering of Israeli society, his mother’s visionary work in Jenin and his own path from paratrooper to filmmaker/activist. My hope is that it is read as a fragment of discourse alongside the rest of his film and activism work, which together formed the unlikely and uncompromising triumph of art, what artist Paul Chan has called ‘freedom without force.’

The following is an excerpt from my 2006 interview with Juliano Mer-Khamis.

Maryam Monalist Gharavi: How long was Arna’s Children banned in Israel?

Juliano Mer-Khamis: It was not really banned. It was silenced. Journalists who wanted to write about the film could not get through the editorial decisions. There were two TV programs made about the film and cancelled at the last moment. We could not find a distributor in Israel for the film or cinemas to screen it. There were certain moments when some critics and journalists used the film as an outlet for their own frustrations, which were imposed on them by censorship and by directing or imposing a very certain discourse on the media by the government. I’m talking about issuing papers, in which were written ‘words you can use and cannot use,’ ‘certain questions you are not allowed to ask’ and the way you [are allowed to] ask those questions. If you speak to a Palestinian or to the military you have to change your expressions and the terms you use. So this outlet gave them the courage, I believe, to write, and since then they legitimized the film in Israel and it was screened all over the country.

MMG: Arna gave a poignant speech upon accepting the Right Livelihood Award at the Swedish parliament. She said that as Rosh Pina [the Israeli settlement where she lived following the Palestinian Nakba of 1948] grew and developed, the nearby Arab village al-Jauna was ‘erased from the face of the earth,’ its Palestinian inhabitants becoming refugees, along with 700,000 others, ‘through sheer robbery and forced displacement.’ What do you think stops other Israelis from coming to the same conclusion as your mother?

JMK: That’s a very interesting question. I’ll give you just the framework in which I can analyze this process of history that enabled Israel to confiscate, to settle and to colonize Palestine and not go through the path my mother chose. The reasons are many but the main reason you must understand is that since the Zionist movement was created, it manipulated the history of the Jews, especially the Holocaust period, and used forces around it to create one of the most successful colonies in Palestine. And since then, the victim philosophy or victim theory or victim policy of Jews and Israelis used all means and all aspects in their history since the pogroms—what they call the persecutions in Russia during the Czar period—till the announcement of hundreds of suicide warnings coming to Israel. From that to here, we see a policy of fear, a ghetto mentality, a policy that distracts the average Israeli from the truth. Frightened and victimized people can justify any crime they do and it enables them to live with their conscience in a very comfortable way like most of the Israelis. Once you are a victim, it’s very easy to create dehumanization and demonization of the other, and this is the success of the first Israeli propaganda in the Zionist movement.

MMG: In the scene of your mother’s body at the mortuary, you comment somewhat half-heartedly that the only place that would bury her was the kibbutz. What happened after she died?

JMK: My mother could not be buried because she refused to be buried in a religious ceremony or funeral. Israel is not a democracy; it’s a theocracy. The religion is not separated from the state so all issues concerning the privacy of life—marriage, burial and many other aspects—are controlled by the religious authorities, so you cannot be buried in a civilian funeral. The only way to do it is buy a piece of land in some kibbutzim, which refused to sell us a piece of land because of the politics of my mother. It’s not a very popular thing in a civilian, non-religious way. And then I had to take the coffin home. And it stayed in my house for three days and I could not find a place to bury her. So I announced in a press conference that she was going to be buried in the garden of my house. There was a big scandal, police came, a lot of TV and media [came], violent warnings were issued against me. There were big demonstrations around the house, till I got a phone call from friends from a kibbutz, Ramot Menashe, who are from the left side of the map, and they came from Argentina. Nice Zionist Israelis, maybe post-Zionist. They offered a piece of land there. And the funny thing is that while we were looking for a place to bury my mother, there were discussions in Jenin to offer me to bring her for burial there, in the shahid’s [martyr’s] graveyard. They told me there was one Fatah leader, who was humorously saying, ‘Well, guys, look, it’s an honor to have Arna with us here, a great honor, the only thing is maybe in about fifty years’ time some Jewish archaeologists will come here and say there are some Jewish bones here and they’re going to confiscate the land of Jenin.’ [Laughs] They do it. Even if they find the Jewish bones of a dog, they take the place. That’s the place they do it. Every place they confiscate they find the bones of a Jew and that’s how they justify the ownership of the land, by finding bones.

MMG: There was a recent, widely-publicized Haaretz poll that 68 percent of Israelis would not live in the same building as an Arab.

JMK: I have it here.

MMG: So the logic runs that if you don’t want to live next to a Palestinian, why be buried next to one?

JMK: Yeah. And almost 50 percent of Israelis think the Arabs inside the ’48 [boundary], inside Israel, are a [demographic] and security threat. These are their neighbors, so imagine what kind of relationships, imagine what kind of democracy this is.

MMG: I thought one of the most important scenes in the film occurred when Alaa’s house, as well as Ashraf’s [two of Arna’s theatre students in the film], had been destroyed in Jenin, and your mother asks them to express their anger, even to hit her. You end up with this tension, as elsewhere in the film, of a tragicomedy. You find the audience laughing through their teeth.

JMK: [Arna] was trained as a psychodramatist. She was successful at it.

MMG: How would you respond to pro-Zionists watching your film, that despite your mother’s ‘rehabilitation of the Arab mind,’ the child actors become ‘terrorists?’

JMK: It’s a very sick question, not yours, but the pro-Zionist attitude that thinks the problem of violence is the violence of children and not the violence of the Israeli occupation and it’s exactly to turn the pyramid upside down again, and I mean to use the propaganda to turn the question [upside down]. The question is not about the Israeli soldiers’ violence. You don’t have to heal the children in Jenin. We didn’t try to heal their violence.

We tried to challenge it into more productive ways. And more productive ways are not an alternative to resistance. What we were doing in the theatre is not trying to be a replacement or an alternative to the resistance of the Palestinians in the struggle for liberation. Just the opposite. This must be clear. I know it’s not good for fundraising, because I’m not a social worker, I’m not a good Jew going to help the Arabs, and I’m not a philanthropic Palestinian who comes to feed the poor. We are joining, by all means, the struggle for liberation of the Palestinian people, which is our liberation struggle. Everybody who is connected to this project says that he feels that he is also occupied by the Zionist movement, by the military regime of Israel, and by its policy. Either he lives in Jenin, or in Haifa, or in Tel Aviv. Nobody joined this project to heal. We’re not healers. We’re not good Christians. We are freedom fighters.

MMG: The film was cancelled in many cities?

JMK: Yeah, the screenings of it. It was sold, but not broadcast and also in Israel in many places. I don’t know, this is for you to judge, but I believe that people will try to boycott or create difficulties to screen this film. Of course, that’s why we’re pushing it so hard, trying to do it by ourselves. But just to clarify the theatre , joining the Palestinian intifada, by our definition: 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.

MMG: Israeli director Yehuda ‘Judd’ Ne’eman says he came to filmmaking ‘through the slaughterhouse of modern warfare.’ He says he was disillusioned by art in the face of war atrocities, but, I’m quoting, ‘When the situation in my country deteriorates politically, when my body deteriorates physically, it’s high time to believe in art.’ Is that different or similar to your own mission across political and artistic fault lines?

JMK: The same aspects and same starting points apply for me. Art, in our case, can combine and generate and mobilize other aspects of resistance. All I care about is resistance. I’m not doing art for the sake of art. I don’t believe in art for the sake of art. I think art can generate and motivate and combine and create a universal, liberated discourse. This is my concern about art. On the other side there is the therapeutic level, and the therapeutic level is not to heal. This is very important if you can point it out—it’s not to heal anybody from his violence. It’s to create an awareness they can use in the right way. Not against themselves.

MMG: You served in the Israeli army but quit after you were asked to stop your father’s Palestinian relatives at a military checkpoint. How significant was that event as a turning point in your political and even artistic formation?

JMK: It was the straw that broke the camel’s back. But I was boiling since I tried to disguise myself. The outfit could not fit, you see? I could not fit the outfit. And it blew up in my face that certain day in the checkpoint, but I was boiling for years.

MMG: How long did you serve?

JMK: I served for one and a half years, but in a very intensive special forces unit [the Paratroopers Brigade]. I don’t regret it, I must be honest. First of all, from the practical side, it saved my life many times during this theatre-making and the film. I know all aspects of the Israeli army, I speak Hebrew, I know the language, I know how to deal with them. It’s like combat training for life. And on the other hand, I penetrated the deepest sources of the Israeli propaganda, the smallest cells of Israeli society, which is fertilized in the army. The army in Israel is the essence of life, the army in Israel is the discourse of life, the army in Israeli is the foundation of the society. Once you penetrate this and you understand the dynamics, you can oppose and create and use it for yourself.

MMG: I lived for a very brief time with a former Israeli soldier in Latin America who was on his, you know, yearlong vacation.

MER-KHAMIS: To conquer the world. [laughs]

MMG: It was right around the time when Rachel Corrie had been bulldozed in Rafah as she defended a Palestinian home from being demolished. The ex-soldier wanted to engage me in an argument over whether or not the soldier that was driving the bulldozer intended to kill her. For him it was about defending a fellow brother, or the moral superiority of the foundation of the society as you call it, despite the overwhelming evidence that she was intentionally killed. The army bulldozer rolled back and forth over her body several times. At the core of this, was the unwillingness to believe that an Israeli would intentionally do that. Only an Arab or Palestinian, according to this view, could harbor violence. It was an acculturated force that could not be pierced, even though this particular Israeli was from Haifa and of the ‘left’ persuasion. How common is this?

JMK: This is the monolithic Israeli Jewish thinking. They believe in the image they created for themselves and they do not see the reality of themselves. Those people who are deceived since they were kids, those are people who are indoctrinated since they were in kindergarten, that they are the ultimate victims, they are the moral judges of the world, they are the pure nation victimized across all history, and they grow up with this. Up to the point that he can step on a pregnant woman, on her baby in her stomach, and still feel moral, to justify his actions. That’s why it’s a very frightening society, almost pathological, I believe, at a certain point, and I’m not exaggerating. The example you brought is pathological—in our framework of psychodrama analysis—this is a pathological stance. People get hospitalized for this. If somebody comes to a doctor having stepped on the tail of a dog and he says that the dog is bad, they hospitalize him, no? When it happens to a nation, nobody treats it that way. That’s why the situation is very dangerous because the Israeli society believes in its lies, spreads it all over, wants others to believe it. We had an expression in the election campaigns: once you repeat something nine times, it becomes [the] truth. This is the motto in election campaigns. This is the domination and dehumanization of the other and the idealization of yourself.

MMG: 1987: The first Intifada. 2000: The second Intifada. Last night at the film screening you said—

JMK: —the third Intifada.

MMG: What is the significance of that? Why the third Intifada?

JMK: Because—look, a liberation struggle, as all struggles, is a process of learning. You make a mistake, you learn. It’s a learning process. You try tactics, you change strategies, you use all your means. It’s an endless process until liberation. But there are stages. People get tired, people have to heal themselves from their wounds, people have to mobilize to get through another round, and it’s very normal. I believe what happened after the Oslo agreements, people were disillusioned, people were manipulated, then it was exposed in 2000, then they went into the second Intifada, which as I’m sure you know, 50 percent of it was against the PA [Palestinian Authority]. The PA was clever enough to hide itself so most of it went toward the Israelis because the Israelis were clever enough to react in a way that they pushed this Intifada into what’s happened today. This was a very clever move from the Israeli side. The Israeli side knew that 50 percent of the Intifada is against Arafat and the Authority, which was the second-head constructor of Israel, but they needed to put this Intifada into armed Intifada, to have the pretext to destroy the Oslo agreements or any valuable future in a Palestinian state. And the Palestinians fell in this trap.

MMG: What about the recent election of Hamas? Many on the left in the U.S., Europe, and Palestine even, don’t harbor warm feelings for the ideology or religious declarations of Hamas, yet the U.S. and Canada have announced that Hamas must renounce violence, recognize Israel and accept previous agreements, including the so-called ‘Road Map,’ Yet the US never asked Israel to recognize Palestine, never asked Israel to denounce violence and never ensured that Israel respect signed agreements. What is the significance of the election in this light?

JMK: OK, I’ll start with short bullet points. The first Intifada was an understanding that the salvation would not come from the Arab world, neither from the Fatah organization, or the PLO organization in Tunis. So the Palestinian people took their destiny into their own hands. Then in a clever move, Arafat and his friends, with the collaboration of Israel and the United States, took over and became the most beneficial ones after taking over the government. And again the Palestinian people went into the hands of others. The Palestinian Authority deteriorated all aspects of popular resistance. That took control from the people again, and it took the notion of spirit of revolution out of popular resistance and they made it a very professional one under the PA. And once again we went into five, six, seven, eight years when the Palestinians were controlled by the middle class, bourgeois, corrupted authority, with the help of the CIA and Israeli intelligence. We see again that the Palestinian people are gaining control of their own destiny through Hamas. Now we all oppose—I mean I joined my rejection to the religious aspects in the Hamas declaration—but this is not the issue at this time. This issue is pointed out as American-Israeli propaganda, but the vote of the Palestinian people was not to have more mosques, was not to manufacture more hijab fabric. The vote was, first of all, they took back their own popular struggle for liberation. They threw out the leaders who took from them their own tools and means for struggle against the occupation. They gained back in this election their own trust in themselves by overthrowing the Palestinian authority. They’re all going home very soon. There’s not going to be a PA in two years. Hamas will take over and leave an empty space. Hamas is not going to replace Abu Mazen. Hamas is going to force Abu Mazen and his instruments to go home.

MMG: Well, you don’t take the position of a pathological response to the Hamas election. Instead you’re demonstrating non-cooperation toward a certain kind of dominant structure. But what about the lesson of those on the left who sided with, say, a religious figure like Khomeini, only to pay enormously for it later?

JMK: There’s nothing—you cannot compare with what happened to Khomeini whatsoever with Palestine, except Islam under a general title. I cannot blame Hamas for my failure. This is our failure. The struggle is not going to end up—the struggle of the left groups—should be a struggle with Hamas and at the same time having free democratic debate with them. And I believe Hamas in the Palestinian society is mature enough and aware enough of its own moves. They are very aware why they were elected. Hamas for many, many years was not pushed, neither against Fatah. Hamas was very careful and very cautious, with an open eye and ear to the sounds of its own people. I would be very, very, very surprised if they betray [the people]. I would be very surprised. I don’t believe in it. I live with those people. I hear them, I see their actions, I would feel very surprised and disappointed with any manipulated moves. Hamas knows that the majority of the Palestinians voted for them as a political statement, not as a religious choice. It’s clear why the Palestinians voted for Hamas. First, it shows the failure of the left organizations, which is very obvious why, it’s about time they were shocked.

MMG: Obvious?

JMK: It’s obvious why because of some strong points. First of all, Israel did everything she could to eliminate physically, mentally and politically any kind of new movement growing which might create anything new. They killed all political leaders. They killed anybody who could mobilize, any kind of new resistance. They destroyed attempts at organization, of people trying to organize for non-violent resistance, for example in Rafah, where after a non-violent demonstration there were house demolitions, tank shells, forty people were killed. So Israel systematically and in a very clever way created a chaotic situation by disconnecting villages from towns, towns from towns, by eliminating physically left leaders and intellectuals. They left the field for the most fundamental things in life, food and God. So this is the main reason. Second, as you know, we have the PA. And the left organizations were mostly corroborating with the PA than with Hamas. This was a big mistake by the left and center-left organizations, who were rubbing shoulders with the PA. They were contained by the diseases of the PA and they were spotted as part of this corrupted system that was imposed on the Palestinian people.

MMG: They saw through that.

JMK: Of course, of course! But I’m telling you—I was in Jenin at the beginning of the Intifada. The first thing they did was to announce that the refugee camp was a free zone from the PA. That was the first thing. One stone was thrown at the Israeli checkpoints. You understand what I’m saying? A free zone from the PA. Not from Israel. And then they went to throw stones at the checkpoints. So of course they didn’t buy it. One more thing: we cannot blame everything on the occupation. There is an ideological failure among left groups—and organizational failure—and a failure in motivation. Most of these organizations want things just for themselves.

MMG: You and your mother have both worked extensively with kids. I saw an interesting quote by Ariel Sharon. He said the killing of Salah Shehada, the Hamas leader, was a crowning victory, ‘a great success.’

JMK: Ariel Sharon? He didn’t kill him.

MMG: He praised it.

JMK: Ah, he praised it.

MMG: If you remember that was the same attack where a one-ton bomb was dropped on Gaza.

JMK: Oh, this is the big one.

MMG: This is the one that did reverberate with many Americans and liberal Zionists. But if you look at who was actually killed in the attack, their names are telling: 18-month old Ayman Matar, three-year old Mohamed Matar, five-year old Diana Matar, four-year old Sobhi Hweiti, six-year old Mohamed Hweiti, 10-year old Ala Matar, 15-year old Iman Shehada, 17-year old Maryam Matar, two-month old Dina Matar. Nine children, eight adults, killed in their homes by an F-16. I thought that one of the more dramatic elements of your film was on the focus on vulnerability and childhood, compared to the exposure to militancy and constant attack. What do you think about the fact that in the Western and European media, we will most likely hear only that a ‘militant’ was killed, we will never read or hear of these names, only that Sharon has declared the mission a great success?

JMK: I think that first of all we should attack the impotency of the Palestinian community, all over the world. The corrupted Palestinian societies in Europe and the United States, the lack of motivation, they sold their souls. This should be attacked. We should leave. I as a Palestinian am saying stop dealing with and accusing only the United States in the occupation. You are sleeping and corrupted by the attentions of life. Stop waiting for the messiah. Don’t stop talking about propaganda, start to oppose it. I think it’s about time to say stop dealing with Israel or America. The problem is within our society first of all, especially the Palestinian diaspora, and especially the Arabs. You can all impose upon us an apartheid system, blame us for the violence while ignoring Israeli state terror, pursue your programs of American empire or your notions of a ‘clash of civilizations,’ we the Palestinians will not submit.

(Photo by Anne Paq/ActiveStills. A portrait of Juliano Mer-Khamis outside the Freedom Theatre where he was killed the previous day.)

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