The pen, they say, is mightier than the sword. Except when it isn’t. We like to assure ourselves that the subtle power of creative expression is greater, in the long run, than the more overt force of physical, mortal violence. But two tragedies in the last month—each with a slight kibbutz connection—make one wonder about the truth of that saying. Perhaps only history can say for sure.
The first news item: the death of British photojournalist Tim Hetherington in Libya on April 20 from mortar fire. Hetherington (who co-directed, with Sebastian Junger, the Afghanistan doc Restrepo) was part of that clan of fearless photographers who risk their lives (and too often lose them) to bring the world the stark images of what war zones are really like.
The kibbutz connection? When not on assignment, Hetherington had been living in an semi-anarchistic apartment in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, nicknamed for its communal nature:
His apartment building in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, is a hive of energy known by its occupants as the Kibbutz. “I stayed on his couch,” [his friend] Mr. Kamber said on Wednesday. “Other people stayed on his couch. It was the kind of place where we would come together and look at photos and talk about photos and look at films and edit. It was a creative hub. He was a creative center for so many photographers in New York.”
The second news item: the murder of theatre director Juliano Mer-Khamis in the Palestinian refugee camp in Jenin on April 4. Juliano was the the son of Arna Mer, a Jewish woman, born in Rosh Pina, who served in the Palmach (the pre-state version of the Israeli army) during the War of Independence and later married Saliba Khamis, a Christian Arab and the leader of the Communist Party in Nazareth. Arna was an ardent peace activist who established educational programs in the refugee camp in Jenin, in the occupied West Bank, and used money awarded to her for the Alternative Nobel Peace Peace to establish there the Freedom Theatre school for young Arab boys and girls.
Juliano shared his mother’s contempt for the borders and violence that divided his homeland. “I’m 100 per cent Jewish,” he would tell people who asked about his ethnic heritage, ”and 100 percent Palestinian.” He refused to choose sides. He became an actor himself, and played bit parts and leading roles in Hollywood, European and Israeli films. He also produced a moving film, called Arna’s Children (which you can watch below in its entirety on Google Video), that followed up on interviews he did with his mother’s young protegés between 1989 and 1996.
In the documentary he returns to Jenin in 2001—after his mother’s death, after the theatre has been closed, and after the outbreak of the brutal Al-Aqsa Intifada—to find that the hope and joy he witnessed among the young boys has dissipated into violence, despair and death. One has been killed in the Battle of Jenin, another died in a suicide attack in the Israeli city of Hadera (after first killing four women and wounding many others), and others are involved in guerrilla operations against the Israeli army. (One more dies during the filming.) The footage and interviews reminded me of the inner-city kids in the fourth season of The Wire, and how their youthful dreams and optimism become damaged and corrupted by the inescapable gravity of their environment.
Juliano later returned to Jenin and re-opened the Freedom Theatre to restore some sense of hope to their lives. But even this gesture has been cut short. Despite his (and his mother’s) long philanthropic connection to the community, Juliano—a secular critic of both sides of the conflict, half-Jewish, who had served in the IDF—was still viewed with suspicion, even contempt, by elements in the camp, especially fundamentalist militants, who disliked the freedom he preached, especially to young women, and some of the productions he staged. He was shot at close range, not far from the theatre, while driving with his infant son and babysitter; he left behind his wife, six months pregnant with twins, and an older daughter—and thousands of grieving friends and admirers. He was in the middle of staging a production of Alice in Wonderland.
After a public ceremony at a theatre in Haifa, his body was driven in a procession—with a special permit—into the West Bank, so that his Palestinian friends and students could say farewell, before it was buried, next to his mother’s, in the cemetery at Kibbutz Ramot Menashe. Neither was a kibbutznik, but when his mother had died after a long battle with cancer, the kibbutz was the only community that would accept the body of this controversial social activist.
Arna and Juliano Mer-Khamis (and Tim Hetherington for that matter) represented the ideals of what might be understood as “kibbutzism”: a passion for social justice, a willingness to take risks, a desire to create new worlds and new ways of living, a restless need to question authority and bear witness, and a belief that it is through creative expression, not political repression, that we will find our way to collective peace. That might seem, today, like a naive dream in the shadow of their deaths—and amid the ongoing violence throughout the Middle East. But we can only hope that their work, which carries on, and their vision, which is shared by others, will win out in the end.