“I’m an Israeli occupier no matter what I do. I enjoy the ‘fruits’ of the occupation, both bitter and sweet. And despite my moral obligation as an Israeli, I didn’t manage to change the regime and its policies. On what moral grounds should I judge the people who resist my occupation?”
So says Jewish Israeli attorney Lea Tsemel as she explains her life’s work defending Palestinian clients—many of whom most Israelis consider to be terrorists—in the documentary film Advocate.
Directed by Rachel Leah Jones and Philippe Bellaïche, both Israeli citizens, the film is one of 15 documentaries shortlisted for an Oscar nomination—quite an achievement for a film that humanizes Palestinians caught up in Israel’s criminal justice system for resisting Israeli occupation, both nonviolently and violently.
The film follows Tsemel’s work on two recent court cases involving Palestinian residents of East Jerusalem who were charged with committing violent acts against Israelis, and is interwoven with archival footage of Tsemel’s past cases as well as interviews with her two children; Palestinian leader and activist Hanan Ashrawi; and her husband, Michel Warschawski. Warschawski, a well-known anti-Zionist activist, himself became one of Tsemel’s clients after being arrested in 1987 for publishing a know-your-rights booklet edited by students with ties to the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine. When he complained to her about the punishing interrogation tactics, he recalls in the film, she told him he wasn’t worthy of being her husband.
Fearless, tough, and powerfully charismatic, Tsemel is a familiar character—what she herself has described as “a typical Israeli, Sabra, if you want”—but with a crucial twist: The 74-year-old, who is fluent in Arabic as well as Hebrew, deploys her uncompromising fierceness in the service of fighting the system. In 1999, she was part of a team of lawyers that argued—and won—a landmark case before the Israeli Supreme Court barring torture of Palestinians in interrogations. While many of her cases haven’t led to such decisive victories, including the two cases profiled in Advocate, she nonetheless keeps arguing, keeps fighting.
Says Jones, the film’s director, during a recent chat with The Nation: “I was making the film to remind myself what it meant to be critical, principled, what it could look like. And Lea models that probably better than anyone else.”
Mairav Zonszein: How did you come to meet and get to know Lea Tsemel?
Rachel Leah Jones: I grew up in Israel, all of my elementary school, and then we moved back to the States. I came into young adulthood during the First Intifada and became critical of Israel politically, but didn’t know how that reconciled with my Israeli inner child. I did my third year of college in Israel-Palestine in 1991 to ’92, and I met people like Michel [Lea’s husband] and Lea. They helped me re-locate myself and understand how to be both Israeli and live there and be critical. They played a formative role for me and modeled that you can love the people, love the land, and yet you don’t have to love the regime.
A lot of people understand, even on the far right, that people like Lea and Michel are incredibly invested. They are reaching different conclusions, but they care, and that matters in Israeli society. They are concerned citizens. And that “caring” has informed the potent response to the film in Israel over the last year and how people deal with Lea on the job. A lot of people she deals with daily, she has nothing in common with ideologically—and they adore her. As much as she is a woman they love to hate, she is also the woman they hate to love.
MZ: Why did you decide to tell this particular story, and what did you hope to achieve by telling it?
RLJ: I made the film together with Philippe Bellaïche, who is my partner in life and in this project. We didn’t have the exact same motivations when we got started. As a cameraperson, he really wanted to not talk about what she does so much as look at how she does it. We understand the what but how does that actually translate in life, in practice? He didn’t have a target audience that was sociologically or political defined.
I think quite early on I understood I was probably making this film for myself more than anyone else. I didn’t feel like I stood any chance of converting anybody through the film, even though that has proven to be untrue—not converting but influencing, for sure.
After the 2015 [Israeli] election, when we started this project, it was the first time I wasn’t 100 percent comfortable being who I am. For me, as both an American and Israeli Jew, the most comfortable place to be critical of Israel had always been in Israel. But that shifted for me, personally. I was making the film to remind myself what it meant to be critical, principled, what it could look like. And Lea models that probably better than anyone else.
MZ: In the film, Tsemel’s son talks about a time she was verbally threatened on the street. But the film doesn’t really devote any time to the personal toll this line of work takes on her. She seems undaunted. But there must be a personal emotional toll. Did you choose not to portray that or were you simply not exposed to it?
RLJ: Lea deals with people who are victimized so totally and brutally that her own version of being a target of assault pales in comparison. She always insists, “I never suffered. This is what I want to be doing. I am one of the freest people I know. I don’t experience alienation.” Lea is wired that way—to live her life in a sociopolitical maze and obstacle course. She is living her own version of some kind of survivor reality show quite happily.
MZ: So how did Lea feel about the movie being done about her?
RLJ: She makes changing the world look fun. She doesn’t shy from exposure, but she’s also not concerned about how she will be portrayed. She’s not here to please. She doesn’t have an ego that needs to be reinforced through credit. But she loves life and the world and all of its wackiness, and she loves to show it to other people, to take people along for the ride. And she doesn’t shy away from her faults. She watched a film that documents a trial that was a total loss. And she’s OK with that, with how she comes across. All she said after she saw the rough cut was, “But why so many wrinkles?”
I really appreciate her, with her faults. People have asked in Q&As what surprised me about her, even knowing her as well as I do. It is her “ism”—her “ism” is human-ism. It’s really simple. She doesn’t just believe in the humanity of her clients and the people she advocates for, she sees the humanity of all her adversaries too—judges, prosecutors, interrogators, who by and large don’t share her worldview at all. She believes all the people who make up the system are people. And they are human beings, and she has the capacity to reach them. Her belief in the system is her belief in people, period. By believing she can get them to see the humanity of her clients, she is also recognizing their humanity.
MZ: How is the film funded?
RLJ: Our first money was Israeli private money, from the HOT8 cable documentary channel. At first, we got rejected from Israeli film funds and we thought, “OK, this is the new normal, let’s not expect to see public Israeli money, for better or worse.” Then we tried to fundraise outside the country and by the time we finished the film, we had 10 broadcasters, two co-producers, and several film funds—including Sundance and the Bertha Foundation—on board. Toward the end of filming, we applied and got production funding from the Makor Foundation for Israeli Film and a post-production grant from the Israel Lottery Council for Culture and Arts post-production grant. So, we finally did finish the film with Israeli public funding. Our position was: We are tax-paying citizens, it is within our civil rights to have access to this money. It is not our job to censor them—they would have to censor us.
We must delineate the difference between government funding and public funding. We’re not part of the government, but we’re part of the public, and that funding is earmarked for the public. Lea Tsemel, who is working in a legal system that is fundamentally flawed, echoes that way of thinking better than anyone. She takes every case saying, “So long as the system exists, we need to maximize what we can get out of it.” In many senses, Lea is more of a reformist than she is a revolutionary.
MZ: How has its reception been in Palestinian society?
RLJ: Incredible. There’s an incredible amount of appreciation for Lea and her work and the role she has played for Palestinians over the years as an ally. So far, it has screened in East Jerusalem in a private screening and there is a lot of interest in screening the film elsewhere in the West Bank, and plans are underway.
We screened privately to all the family members and all the Palestinian legal staff and their families, and everyone was moved and pained and grateful that they had been portrayed with dignity, as the hurting people between a rock and a hard place that they are.
MZ: What kind of Israeli pushback has there been?
RLJ: We premiered internationally at Sundance last January. We didn’t screen in Israel until late May at the Docaviv International Documentary Film Festival. Before the festival [opened], we had three screenings [scheduled]. They all sold out, so they added a fourth. It sold out. They added a fifth after we won the festival, it too sold out. Over the course of one week, roughly 2,000 Israeli Jews saw the film. There were standing ovations.
But then a week later [Culture Minister Miri] Regev came out against it with the usual: “I haven’t seen it and won’t see it but I still know what I think about it. I’m appalled a film like this was even made let alone with public funding.” It was demonizing, witch-hunting rhetoric, which gave a platform to right-wing vigilante groups like Im Tirtzu to protest the award and the Israel Lottery Council for Culture and Arts folded really fast. [The council announced it was suspending the prize money for future films and would put Advocate’s grant under legal review.] But that gave rise to the most incredible backlash I’ve seen in the last four, five years, [with] the arts community saying enough is enough. The Israel Lottery is basically the biggest arts funder in Israel, and people went so far as to give back grants unspent, along the lines of “it’s either all of us or none of us.” The solidarity was outstanding. It was beautiful. It felt like people were saying enough is enough. People were saying, “If this is the new normal, we will push back.” Three months later, the grant was reinstated.
There have also been some attempts to go after Lea through the Ministry of Justice, to examine the “legality” of her contract work for the Public Defender’s Office. But the chief public defender has said they have no intention of reexamining her employment. She works for her defendants, she doesn’t work for the government. [Tsemel is a private-sector lawyer with her own firm who handles cases either privately or on contract through the Public Defender’s Office.]
MZ: To me part of the importance of this film is documenting and archiving the generation of Israelis who remember what it was like before occupation. Do you think her work is becoming more accepted in Israeli society, the notion that Jews and Palestinians need to have equal rights?
RLJ: Michel, her husband, when he is describing Lea’s first case, the 1972 trial [of Jews involved in an Arab-Jewish underground], says that the message then was rather simple and today it sounds trivial. “There’s an occupation, there are Palestinians. They have rights. At the time, it sounded revolutionary; today it sounds banal.” Well—unfortunately, it sounds revolutionary again. When we were looking for archival footage of Lea’s life and work, there’s almost nothing in the ’70s, there’s a little bit in the ’80s, there’s a ton in the ’90s. And then she disappears again. It was a really strong and painful indication of the place that Israeli society has afforded her and what she has stood for in the public sphere. And then she shows up 20 years later in this movie, which is screened on Israeli TV—and all of a sudden we’re entering our fifth month in the cinematheque. Two or three screenings a week for five months! Constantly getting invitations to screen in community centers all around the country, including the Sderot Cinematheque—so not exclusively lefty, Ashkenazi circles.
Does it mean things are looking good or better? I doubt it. The jury is still out on whose version of history—meaning the future—is right. I would sum up this year by saying that the solidarity and the interest and openness has been 10 times more potent and noticeable for us than all the censorship and the rabid discourse that came with it.
MZ: The last time Israeli documentaries were up for an Oscar was in 2013, when both 5 Broken Cameras and The Gatekeepers were nominated, the former an anti-occupation film. Do you see your film as an anti-occupation film? How does your film stand apart from other political Israeli films that have challenged the status quo?
RLJ: I would like to think it goes beyond Israel-Palestine, in that Lea spoke truth to power before the term became trendy and will continue to do so before fear makes it unfashionable. She is a model of engaged citizenship that we’re lacking in this day and age, and a model we’d like to see replicated in Israel-Palestine but also elsewhere. The film clearly has to do with Israel-Palestine but it also has to do with being that kind of person and that kind woman in the world. And doing it decade after decade.
The one thing I learned from making this film is that there is no “end.” There is no better world we will arrive at one day. It doesn’t exist. The 21st century is a monster curveball for those of us who came into critical consciousness in the 20th century. And Lea is living proof that there is no end, but there’s means. You’ll never come close to that “better place” without getting up every morning and going through the motions and doing the work. She models that. There is nothing armchair about her. You don’t sit and wait for that better world. You go out and fight the good fight. If there’s any chance of a slightly better version of the world it’s only because you get up and go practice the means. It’s not an action plan, it’s just action.