Public Comment

Commentary: Great Opportunities to Learn More About Israel-Palestine

By Henry Norr
Thursday June 19, 2008 - 10:07:00 AM

For those with an interest in learning more about the Israel-Palestine conflict than the mainstream media deliver, the Berkeley/Oakland area is a great place to live—not only because the Daily Planet often presents impassioned debates on the issue and KPFA delivers daily on-the-scene updates and background, but also because we get to hear directly from so many insightful visitors from the front lines of the struggle.  

In just the next two weeks, for example, notable guests from Israel and Palestine making public appearances in this area include: 

• Juliano Mer Khamis, son of an Israeli Jewish woman and a Palestinian father, a noted actor in Israel, and director of a controversial but critically acclaimed film about his mother and the Palestinian youth who participated in a children’s theatre group she ran; and Dr. Mervat Aiash, a Palestinian professor of fine arts and expert on Islamic archaeology and art, who is working with Mer Khamis on an ambitious revival of the theater program in the battle-scarred West Bank city of Jenin.  

• Jeff Halper, an American-born Israeli Jewish professor of anthropology, author of two compelling books on the conflict, and coordinator of the Israeli Committee Against Home Demolitions (ICAHD), an organization that joins with Palestinians in non-violent direct action to resist the demolition of Palestinian homes and expropriation of Palestinian land by the Israeli authorities. 


‘Arna’s Children’ and the  

Freedom Theatre 

Mer Khamis and Aiash will appear at several Bay Area locations beginning tonight (for details see, but their main East Bay presentation will be at 7 p.m. next Tuesday, June 24, at the Humanist Hall, 390 27th St., Oakland. 

Sponsored by the International Jewish Solidarity Network, the event will feature a showing of Mer Khamis’ 2003 documentary Arna’s Children. The film is in part a tribute to the director’s mother Arna, who as a teen-ager fought with the Palmach (one of the Jewish military organizations) in the 1948 war, but then married a Palestinian Communist leader and became a prominent activist in the struggle for justice for Palestine. In footage shot in the mid-1990s, as she was dying of cancer, she is seen leading a noisy demonstration at an Israeli checkpoint in the occupied West Bank and, with Juliano’s help, interacting with Palestinian children and their parents at the theatre she created in the refugee camp in Jenin. 

The most gripping parts of the film, however, were shot after Israeli military forces invaded Jenin in April, 2002, destroying the theater and much of the rest of the camp. By then most of the sweet-faced boys who had frolicked on the stage just a few years earlier had become tough resistance fighters; many had already been killed. When Juliano returned after the invasion—apparently for the first time in years—they took him into their confidence, not only bringing him and his camera along on several firefights with Israeli occupation forces, but also sitting down with him to share their feelings about the continuing conflict, their dead comrades, and their own uncertain futures. The worldview they present is mix of true courage and youthful bravado, of deep commitment and—I’d say—manifest disregard of both military and political realities. Many viewers may find these scenes disturbing, but they’re undeniably riveting.  

After the film, the speakers will discuss their new project, the Freedom Theatre. In a newly renovated and well-equipped theatre in the Jenin refugee camp - the only community theatre in northern Palestine—the theater presents regular performances by both Palestinian and international artists, as well as workshops for youth in theater arts, dance, movement, music, and story telling. 

Aiash serves as chair of the two-year-old theater’s governing board, which also includes the celebrated Palestinian poet Mahmoud Darwish, the noted scholar and political leader Hanan Ashrawi, and other Palestinian notables. It’s supported by a Swedish foundation that counts Noam Chomsky and Berkeley’s own Judith Butler among the members of its separate board.  

To help support the theater, a donation of $5 to $10 will be requested at the door of Tuesday’s event. 


“Can Israel Be Redeemed?” 

Jeff Halper of ICAHD will speak at 7:30 p.m. on Monday, June 30, at the Berkeley Fellowship of Unitarian Universalists, 1924 Cedar Street at Bonita Avenue in Berkeley, under the sponsorship of Jewish Voice for Peace and the BFUU Social Justice Committee. The following night—Tuesday, July 1—he’ll appear at 7:30 p.m. at the First Presbyterian Church of San Anselmo, 72 Kensington Road, San Anselmo (map and directions at 

Halper’s Berkeley presentation carries the provocative title “Can Israel Be Redeemed?” It’s based on his recently published political autobiography, “An Israeli in Palestine: Resisting Dispossession, Redeeming Israel,” in which he traces his personal evolution from middle-class, non-religious Jew growing up in Hibbing, MN, to academic anthropologist whose personal and professional life was, he writes, dominated by his “romance with Israel,” to leader of one of the most prominent of Israeli organizations trying to publicize and resist the depredations of the occupation in East Jerusalem and the West Bank.  

The turning point in his political life came almost exactly a decade ago—in July, 1998 - when he watched Israeli forces level the house of a Palestinian family in a village outside Jerusalem, one of some 18,000 Palestinian homes the Jewish state has now destroyed in the occupied territories since 1967. It was, he writes, “an act so unjust, so brutal, so at odds with the ethos of the benign, democratic, Jewish Israel fighting for its survival I had absorbed on ‘my side’ of the Green Line that it was inexplicable in any terms I could fathom.”  

On the spur of the moment, he chose to throw himself in front of the bulldozer. That led to the first in what’s now a long series of arrests for Halper; more importantly, the shock of what he saw that day spurred him to rethink the liberal Zionist assumptions he had until then accepted. “As the bulldozer pushed through the walls of Salim’s home,” he writes, “it pushed me through all the ideological rationalizations, the pretexts, the lies and the bullshit that my country had erected to prevent us from seeing the truth: that oppression must accompany an attempt to deny the existence and claims of another people in order to establish an ethnically pure state for yourself.” 

Since then Halper and his colleagues in ICAHD, along with their Palestinian allies, have waged a courageous campaign of direct action and civil disobedience against Israeli home demolitions and land seizures in the occupied territories. They’ve also developed an extensive educational campaign around the issue and its implications, including leading tours that have given countless diplomats, dignitaries, journalists, and ordinary Israeli and international visitors at least a taste of the harsh reality of the occupation. And the group has mobilized thousands of Israelis, Palestinians, Americans, and others to join in resistance to the occupation by rebuilding demolished homes. 

For his efforts the American Friends Service Committee nominated Halper for the 2006 Nobel Peace Prize. 

Halper doesn’t push any particular plan for resolving the conflict; he argues that any of several formulae could work—provided that Israelis and their supporters abandon their commitment to ethno-religious exclusivity and instead adopt what he calls a “rights-based reframing of the issue.”  

Unfortunately, that remains a distant dream, but Halper is working hard to bring it closer. Come out to the BFUU on June 30 to support his quest. 


Henry Norr is a Bay Area journalist.