Thursday, April 7, 2011

The Peacemaker Who Wasn't

I read recently of the assassination (I presume that is the correct term) of Juliano Mer Khamis, described by the AP’s Mohammed Ballas as an “Israeli-Arab actor” who “ran a drama school and a community theater” in the West Bank.

To hear Ballas tell it, Mr. Mer Khamis was quite a guy. The article makes a big deal out of his Israeli Jewish mother and Arab father, and describes his vision of his company, the Freedom Theatre in Jenin, as “a way of restoring normalcy to the town's youth and opening their minds to the world beyond the harshness of their immediate surroundings.” He also must have been courageous, as “[The] theater drew criticism and vandalism from some Palestinians who were suspicious of Mer Khamis, an Israeli citizen, and saw the theater as a threat to their traditions.” Did we mention his Mom was Jewish? And Israeli?

Trouble is, I remembered the name, and I remembered, too, what my investigation of another puff piece on Mer Khamis and the Freedom Theatre revealed a few years ago. The article in question was on on Aljazeera’s website. I link here to a blog piece I wrote on the subject nearly five years ago (N.B., the internal links from that post no longer work). Turns out that the Freedom Theatre was pretty damned proud of having turned out alumni who engaged in armed insurrection, and at least one of whom, a suicide bomber, richly merited description as a terrorist.

Importantly, what I’m talking about here isn’t what the company’s detractors said, or what the theatre admitted sometimes happens. It’s what they included—and still include—on their own website and in their publicity campaigns. The Freedom Theatre, says Mer Khamis on a slickly produced video promotion from last fall, “is a venue to join the Palestinian people in their struggle for liberation.” We see a young boy declare that “freedom to me is the occupation ending and the army leaving.” Shortly thereafter, Mer Khamis quotes a former student, a leader of the Al Aksa Brigade, as not wanting to fight any more in the absence of “real, honest leadership: liberation leadership. We have to build up this leadership from scratch. And to do this, the best way is to start an artistic venue.”

The Freedom Theatre, in other words, is a propaganda outlet, nothing more and nothing less. Their cause may be good—I’ve certainly been critical of some of the Israeli government’s activities with respect to the Palestinians—but Juliano Mer Khamis and his mother alike were political activists first and theatre artists second.

Of course, some of the most significant plays ever produced—from Uncle Tom’s Cabin to the works of Václav Havel and Athol Fugard—were important as much for their political message as for their artistic merit per se. But if the balance tips too far towards efficacy over aesthetics, we find ourselves at socialist realism or the Cultural Revolution. Remember, too, that the Velvet Revolution in Czechoslovakia which ultimately brought Havel himself to the presidency earned that sobriquet in part because of its non-violence. That, to be polite, does not seem to be the goal of the Freedom Theatre. There is a difference between speaking truth to power and throwing bombs at it.

Juliano Mer Khamis should be mourned. He will be missed by many, apparently, including a pregnant wife and two children. But if his murder was politically motivated, as seems to be the current thinking, he was neither an innocent bystander caught in the crossfire nor a pacifist ultimately overwhelmed by the maelstrom of violence swirling around him. He was a combatant as surely as if he were manning a submachine gun himself. Those who agree with his politics and his tactics should be honest about the source of their admiration. He was what he was, and it wasn’t a peace-maker.

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