Before I made my recent trip to Israel, as an Act for Israel media fellow, I was excited to learn more about how religion informs politics in the region. Many of my friends and acquaintances cautioned me that religion doesn't play as big a role as one might think. I now realize that all they meant was that the story is much more complicated than just about religious differences. I thought of that while reading two wildly different news accounts of a recent murder in the West Bank. Actor Juliano Mer-Khamis, who starred in Julian Schnabel's 2010 film Miral, was killed by masked gunmen. Here's the Canadian National Post's explanation why:
The actor was apparently the target of death threats for his opposition to military occupation on the West Bank. "They are trying to kill what Juliano tried to spread -- peace and freedom," said Samia Staiti, the director of Freedom Theatre, a drama centre founded by Mir-Khamis in a Palestinian refugee camp. "We will keep on going on."
Now let's look at the same story from Haaretz, which is an Israeli English-language newspaper:
Zubeidi was appointed co-theater director in an attempt to subdue the ongoing threats voiced against both the institution and Mer-Khamis. The theater itself was torched twice in the past, and the threats persisted despite Zubeidei's appointment.
Some of the criticism focused on the fact that the theater offered co-ed activities, despite prohibition in the Islamic moral code. Objectors were also outraged when Mer-Khamis staged the play "Animal Farm", in which the young actors played the part of a pig, which Islam considers an impure animal.
Mer Khamis said he had planned to stage The Lieutenant of Inishmore, a satire of armed resistance, but shelved the idea after someone smashed the window of his car.
Haaretz also reports that Jenin police chief Mohammed Tayyim said Mer-Khamis was shot five times by masked Palestinian militants but that motive is unclear.
Now, the National Post story is riddled with factual errors, quite an accomplishment on account of its brevity. It says Mer-Khamis' wife was also injured in the shooting. In fact, she wasn't with him. A babysitter was, and the babysitter was injured. Mer-Khamis' 10-month-old son, however, was fine.
In any case, there's no indication that Mer-Khamis was targeted in Jenin because he opposed Israel's presence there. In fact, the Jerusalem Post is reporting that a former member of Aksa Martyrs Brigades has been arrested in connection with the shooting. If he is involved, or other Palestinian militants are involved, this certainly points to a religious conflict that needs careful reportage.
These stories are always complex -- as this one will doubtless turn out to be -- but it's hard to convey that complexity when the basic facts are so off.