Romeo and Juliet is not about the ability of love to transcend divisions and violence. However boundary-breaking the Montague-Capulet couple seems, the lovers cut a destructive path through everyone around them, claiming innocent lives and shattering family bonds. In the end, it isn’t love that brings the feuding houses together — love lies stabbed and poisoned between them — but rather tragedy, and the promise of its commemoration through art. The end of the play quickly turns metatheatrical, as characters foretell raising eternal monuments to the dead lovers and of perpetuating their legend through story. It is the play itself — not the force of love — that transcends division and violence.
At least this was the vision of Juliano Mer-Khamis, an artist who personified the socio-linguistic link between acting and activism. The son of a Jewish mother and an Arab father, he was the product of a real life Romeo-and-Juliet affair, in a country where more than half of Israeli Jews equate Arab-Jewish intermarriage with national treason. In 2006, after serving in the IDF and an international acting-directing career, Mer-Khamis established The Freedom Theater in the Jenin refugee camp, reinvigorating a project begun by his mother in the late 1980s.
The Freedom Theater teaches acting to youths and showcases their performances. But beyond its work, its mere existence represents a truly radical force in a region deeply scarred by traditional radicalism. In a strictly gender-segregated society, the theater represents a groundbreaking space of male-female interaction; in an anti-theatrical culture, it is a creative outlet; in a community where profound psychological traumas are repressed, it is a crucial chance for non-violent expression. Perhaps most astoundingly, Zakaria Zubeidi, chief of the Al-Aqsa Martyrs’ Brigades and long an unrepentant dispatcher of suicide bombers, laid down his proverbial sword and shield (under Israeli amnesty) to work with the theater. His transformation suggested that armed resistance had failed. The future of the Palestinian cause lay in a cultural renaissance.
Mer-Khamis was very specific about the type of freedom his Freedom Theater represented. “Art cannot free you from your chains,” he told Al-Jazeera in 2009. “But art can generate and mobilize discourse of freedom. Art can create debate, art can expose.” This is the same sentiment that closes Romeo and Juliet — “Go hence, to have more talk of these sad things,” commands the Prince. Theater cannot force us to join hands and declare our everlasting brotherhood, but it can force us to confront the tragedies of our society, and begin a dialogue that goes beyond accusation, recrimination and curse. That is the enduring hope of the artistic act. Yet theater draws breath from tragic unfulfillment: the gap between the imagined and the actual. On Monday, Juliano Mer-Khamis was shot five times by a masked gunman, while driving with his infant son on his knee.
It is hard to imagine a more bitterly ironic end for a man who had quit his nation’s army and compelled a prominent terrorist to abandon his guns. All his life he had crossed borders, and so it seems especially poignant that his funeral procession paused at the Jalameh crossing between Haifa and Jenin, so that mourners on either side of the boundary, in Hebrew and Arabic, could commemorate him before he was interred near his mother. Even a man who had declared himself “one hundred percent Palestinian and one hundred percent Jewish,” had to choose a side to be buried on.
Less than two days later, missiles, rockets and bullets tore the air between Gaza and southern Israel, killing and wounding many. With barely concealed despair, the BBC noted that “Despite recent calls for calm, neither side seems to be able to stop firing … Both say the other started it.” And so the tragedy of Mer-Khamis’ death was swallowed up by other deaths: another drop in an ocean of bloodshed.
Should the message of Mer-Khamis’ life be that those who renounce violence and seek to cross boundaries are as doomed as anyone else? That, in this conflict, it doesn’t matter if you live by the sword, you’ll die by it anyway? It can’t be, any more than Romeo and Juliet should be read as a condemnation of love itself as inherently destructive and dangerous. But Mer-Khamis understood, as Shakespeare’s play suggests, that love is not all you need. There are real grievances and struggles that even the union of two people cannot erase. What is needed is an escape from the cycle of retribution. The creative act — the re-enactment of tragedy, Guernica, the Freedom Theater — opens that narrow and oft-obscured door.
Sam Lasman is a junior in Berkeley College.