Documentary Review: Palestinians rely on the “Advocate” to battle Israeli justice system

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A photographer, obviously new to covering Israeli courts, asks the woman about to give a statement at the end of the trial for her name and title. The scrum of photographers are too busy to react, though you can hear a couple of shocked chuckles amidst the shutters clicking and mad shuffle for position.

“Lea TSEMEL,” the defense counsel barks. “Losing Lawyer!”

For close to half a century, she has been Israel’s legal gadfly, a thorn in the military “occupation” and legal system, an “Advocate,” the “Jew who defends terrorists.” She’s been labeled “traitor,” been spat upon and threatened at gunpoint. Her husband, an activist who works outside the court system, has been arrested.

Lea Tsemel’s other clients? Interrogated without counsel, tortured, run through courts where – even if their guilt is little in doubt, “due process” appears to be untranslatable into Hebrew.

An armed forces veteran from just after the 1967 “Six Day War” who turned to the law when she saw civil rights being trampled, violence against Palestinians brushed off or covered up, “confiscations” of property legalized and sweeping punishments routinely administered for whole families, neighborhoods and classes of citizens.

She became the public conscience of Israel as the state struggled to absorb conquered territories via a series of measures that collectively came to resemble a Middle Eastern Apartheid if not outright “ethnic cleansing.”

Decades of TV interviews are interspersed in this profile documentary by Philippe Bellaiche and Rachel Leah Jones, with the main story thread following her defense of a Palestinian minor caught taking part in one of the country’s frequent knife-attacks — this one on a public bus.

Chapters in that story shape the legal protocols of such a case — “plea,” “charge sheet changes,” “testimony,” “sentencing etc.

Her lonely quest through a maze of legalese and the shifting sands of Israeli jurisprudence is illustrated by sketch-animation inserting court documents behind her as outline as she’s followed into court.

The 70ish, matronly Tsemel bickers with Tareq, her co-counsel, meets with the parents of the 13 year old boy she’s defending as snippets of interviews from the ’70s, ’80s and today — and the cases that were closely linked to that period in time — underline her decades of dogged determination to case by case, turn the tide in the courts and through public opinion, even as she loses — pretty much constantly.

Here she is in the ’70s, declaring that “Israelis have no right to tell Palestinians how to resist.” Hunger strikers in the ’80s, bombings and shootings and slashings all divorced from the actions these “terrorists” are reacting to — land seizures, random air strikes, raids and sweeps and wall-building.

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Her own children recall the difficulty of being associated with a high profile figure treated as “traitor” to her race by many Israelis. Not the easiest way to grow up.

But Talila Warschawski gets what her mother has been up to, starting a dialogue, pushing the idea of “equal justice for all” into the Israeli mainstream as something that doesn’t exist — yet — but should. Talia knows what to shout “whenever I find myself in trouble,” caught in a riot, trapped in a violence situation.

“I’m LEA TSEMEL’S DAUGHTER!”

At least the Palestinians would pay her heed. Palestinian feminist Hanan Ashrawi praises Tsemel’s stoicism in the face of terrible odds, her righteous sense of right and wrong.

And other activist lawyers note her impact, chipping away at a court system with inherent biases, forced to treat the occupied people fighting Israel as “combatants,” just to give them International Law standing, forced to consider juvenile defendants under different rules — eventually — a fierce “Advocate” and “losing lawyer” building a wall of case law, one painful loss at a time.

It’s hardly the most “balanced” documentary you’re going to see on the woman, who was the subject of a “60 Minutes” profile in the ’80s. None of her critics are put on camera.

But “Advocate” is a reminder to audiences everywhere of the importance of the rule of law, its equal application and appointing judges who understand that importance.

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MPAA Rating: unrated, news footage of violence, profanity, smoking

Cast: Lea Tsemel, Hanan Ashrawi, Michael Warschawski, Talia Warschawski, Nissan Warschawski,

Credits: Directed by Philippe Bellaiche, Rachel Leah Jones, script by Rachel Leah Jones. A Film Movement release.

Running time: 1:49

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