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Tuesday, April 5, 2011

Palestinians and Israelis share a martyr

On Monday, Juliano Mer Khamis was murdered by a terrorist in the West Bank town of Jenin. He was 53 years old. It happened outside the new incarnation of the theatre founded by Juliano and his mother, Arna Mer, where they taught Palestinian children theatre arts, and that there were ways other than violence to express themselves. After Arna's death, Juilano continued his mother's work with children in Jenin.

Juliano was the son of an Israeli Jewish mother and a Palestinian Arab father. He identified mostly with his father's culture, in large part due to his Jewish mother's activism on behalf of Palestinians within Israel and in the West Bank.

His own sympathies and activism always were on behalf of the Palestinian side. His goal was to teach them that resistance didn't need to take the form of murder and terrorism. The people of Jenin who knew him loved him. But to Hamas, he was a threat. They labeled him a "Zionist Jew whose hands should be cut off." The reward for his struggle to teach a way other than violence was his murder at the hands of people who see violence as a virtue.

An accomplished actor in Israel, Juliano was not well known outside the Middle East. I met him when he was the star of a micro-budget movie shot in Toronto called Nothing To Lose, which was produced by my friend Julian Grant, who hired me to be the movie's Prop Master. The movie itself was the type that gets parodied in movies about making low-budget movies. It was financed with "felafel dollars," which is to say that the main investors were Palestinian-Canadians who owned some felafel joints.

It starred Juliano, a half-Israeli, half-Palestinian in real-life, as a Hispanic street tough trying to go straight, with Toronto doubled for Chicago. Other actors in it were Baywatch's Alexandra Paul, Michael Gazzo, in his last role before he died, and Paul Gleason, who fans of the Breakfast Club will remember as the principal. One of the financiers, a swarthy, boisterous fellow with a stereotypical Middle-Eastern bushy moustache, appeared in the film as a villain, and he would show up every day with felafels for the whole cast and crew. Yes, every day. I don't think anyone involved in the production ate a felafel for a year after the movie wrapped.

Juliano and I had a number of conversations on the set. He was a sweetheart who recreated his performance in Canadian director Simcha Jacobovici's movie about the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, Deadly Currents, for me over lunch when I told him I'd enjoyed it. He was also a wild character, full of life, passionate, compassionate and with the outsized ego of a good-looking lead actor. There was one occasion when I had to restrain a stunt man from pounding out Juliano who, taking a boxing scene too seriously, didn't pull his punches.

That was his style.

Years later, our paths again crossed, indirectly in an odd sense. I was one of the first group of executives at Participant Productions in Beverly Hills. At that point, Participant wanted movies to distribute to get its feet wet as a new, but powerful player on the Hollywood circuit.

Arna's Children was a documentary Juliano made about his mother's theatre group in Jenin.

I had reservations about the movie. It was one-sided in its portrayal as Israel as the villain in its conflict with the Palestinians. It showed Palestinian suffering and Israeli actions that caused it, but like most pro-Palestinian propaganda, never showed the context of Israel's actions being in response to Palestinian violence. However, it did give a rare glimpse into the culture of Palestinian youth in the West Bank -- the hate that they grow up with toward not only Israelis, but Jews more generally. It was Juliano's Arab side that bought him his street cred in such a milieu, just as his mother's marriage to an Arab bought hers.

Jeff Skoll, my friend who founded Participant, was moved by Juliano's movie and was one of the judges who helped award it the Best Documentary prize at the Tribeca festival in 2004. Jeff, whose passion as a philanthropist is to celebrate the work of great social entrepreneurs, decided Arna's Children would be the first movie to have Participant's name on it.

Though filled with a spirit of hope, Juliano's documentary also showed how efforts at peace usually fail in a Palestinian society that treasures martyrdom above life. Many of the kids in his theatre group eventually became armed fighters, and some became suicide bombing terrorists.

There's a secret to peace in the Middle East that Juliano's murderers -- who at this point appear to be from Hamas -- don't want the rest of Palestinian society to learn. The first step is simple: stop trying to kill each other and stop teaching others to hate and to kill.

Actors are grown-ups who play make believe for a living. Juliano was an actor who believed that hope and reason could overcome hate. His murderers created a martyr out of Juliano for both sides in the Israel/Palestine conflict. If his goals succeed, then Israel would have a Palestinian neighbour who understands that violence is not the first resort to conflict settlement, and Palestinians would have a culture built on hope and love instead of the worship of death.

(You can see all of Juliano's film, Arna's Children, online at Google Video.)

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