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Defending the Palestinian Resistance Movement: New Film Chronicles Life of Pioneering Israeli Lawyer

Web ExclusiveJune 14, 2019
Media Options

Web-only conversation with Israeli attorney Lea Tsemel and Rachel Leah Jones,
director of “Advocate,” a new documentary about Tsemel, who has defended Palestinian political prisoners in Israeli courts for nearly half a century, insisting on their humanity and their right to a fair trial.

This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now!, democracynow.org, The War and Peace Report. I’m Amy Goodman. U.S. Ambassador to Israel David Friedman told The New York Times Israel has the right to annex parts of the West Bank. In April, the Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu made a campaign promise to annex the territory. Before becoming ambassador, the U.S. Ambassador to Israel David Friedman worked as Trump’s bankruptcy lawyer. He had no diplomatic experience.

This comes as the Trump administration is preparing to release Jared Kushner’s Middle East peace plan at a conference in Bahrain that begins on June 25th. The Palestinian leadership has vowed to boycott the talks.

We continue our conversation today with pioneering Israeli attorney Lea Tsemel, who’s profiled in the new documentary Advocate, which chronicles how Lea Tsemel has spent the last 50 years defending Palestinians who resist the Israeli occupation. Also with us, the film’s director, Rachel Leah Jones. The film has been premiering in film festivals. I just saw it here in New York. It was the opening night of the Human Rights Watch Film Festival at Lincoln Center.


Both you, Lea, and Rachel Leah Jones were there.



AMY GOODMAN: And it premiered in Israel in the Docaviv Film Festival, documentary Tel Aviv. We started talking about that in Part 1 of our conversation.


AMY GOODMAN: But it won the highest prize.

RACHEL LEAH JONES: Mm-hmm. We won first prize, which was a surprise, a lovely one. You know, we premiered at Sundance and then went through a bunch of festivals, until we showed in Tel Aviv. I think, for me, Tel Aviv was the premiere. We needed to know how it was going to be received on home turf. And it was received beyond our wildest expectations.

The general feeling that we had was that given the kind of chilling effect that the last four years have had on Israeli Jews—I mean, Israel has always had a big human rights problem and now also has a civil rights problem, or a budding civil rights problem, meaning Israeli Jews have come to feel uncomfortable being—having your cake and eating it, too, being anti-occupation and living a perfectly fine life. And so, there was a chilling effect that came into place. I felt affected by it in the last four years. And it felt a little bit like the audience, 1,800 people in five sold-out screenings over the course of one week, were saying, “You know what? If this is the new normal, we’re pushing back a little bit. We’re going to reclaim some space that feels like these narratives also represent us.”

And Lea represents them—strangely enough, the least representative Israeli out there, so many people felt such deep identification. You know, Lea is one of those people who spoke truth to power, before the term became trendy. And she’s one of the people who will continue to do so after fear makes it unfashionable.

AMY GOODMAN: At the Human Rights Watch Film Festival, you talked about her being the woman that people, that Israelis, love to hate and hate to love.

RACHEL LEAH JONES: And hate to love, yeah. She’s very personable. In Part 1 of the show, she said, you know, “Yeah, we all started as revolutionaries and with big highfalutin ideas. But ultimately I was faced with a choice: Do I go with my nationality or with my humanity? And I chose my humanity.” And I think that’s what’s coming across for people. And that’s what comes across in the courthouse, inside the courtroom, in the hallways. She’s a flirt. She’s naughty. She’s playful. She’s serious. She’s a fighter. She’s honest. She tells everybody what they—what she thinks of what they’re doing. And after that, it’s “How are you doing? How’s your wife?” You know, there’s a kind of a personable way that she deals. Even the bad guys are humans. And she deals with everybody on that level. We observed it while we were filming. And clearly, people love to hate her, but they also hate to love her.

One judge’s—from another project, a fantastic film, if people are interested in this topic, called The Law in These Parts, by Ra’anan Alexandrowicz—


RACHEL LEAH JONES: The Law in These Parts. It won Sundance seven years ago. In some ways, it’s a precursor to our film, because it sort of maps out the history of the Israeli military legal system. And in one of his interviews there—he told us this when we were getting started on our film—a judge, a very high-ranking judge, said, “If Lea Tsemel didn’t exist, we would have to invent her.”

Because she plays this really tricky role for Israelis. On the one hand, she’s the boy pointing at the emperor, calling him nude and saying, you know, “The system doesn’t work.” She’s calling out the most fundamental flaw of the system, which is saying, “The occupied—the occupier is judging the occupied. How how could that possibly work?” And she’s constantly reminding the judges of that. “Are you really in a position to judge what this person did? And can you see his individuality?”

The other thing that she’s doing, though, she’s also the boy with his finger in the dam—right?—trying to keep the flood of injustice from drowning all of us. And I think that Israeli Jews today are understanding her role in keeping her finger in the dam, which is also something that has saved their humanity over the years.

AMY GOODMAN: So, Rachel Leah Jones, talk about the cases of Lea Tsemel’s that you chose to focus on.

RACHEL LEAH JONES: The film follows one primary case in real time, the case of a 13-year-old boy who went out with his 15-year-old cousin on a stabbing spree or ran around with knives. It’s not 100% clear what their intentions were. They had very little time to premeditate over it. They came home from school, threw their backpacks in the corner, grabbed knives, the 13-year-old under the influence of the 15-year-old, and ran out to the nearby settlement. What they had discussed among themselves was, “We’re going to scare the Jews. We want to scare them so they stop killing us.”

What happened in practice is two people were stabbed, not killed, a 13-year-old Jewish boy and a 20-, 21-year-old Jewish man. And the 15-year-old cousin was the stabber, because the 13-year-old’s knife was clean. There were no evidence, no DNA findings on it. And the 15-year-old was “eliminated,” as the Israelis call it—assassinated on site. But somebody still had to stand trial for this, because the public needs a trial. So, even if he had faced probably the harshest punishment anybody could face, which is execution on site, somebody had to pay in terms of the Israeli public. And the 13-year-old was accused of two attempted murders. And therein starts a whole saga about how Lea should handle that kind of a case.

AMY GOODMAN: So, Lea Tsemel, talk about taking this case on. I mean, the journey you go on with this boy’s family. Talk about why you took the case and what it meant to you. And what happened with it?

LEA TSEMEL: I took the case as one of a series of very similar cases of youngsters who take upon themselves the continuation of the Palestinian struggle. In this particular case, he was very, very young. And there was a conflict whether we should grab an immediate plea bargain, to plead guilty for the two attempted murders, although he denies it, totally denies any intention to kill anyone, any feelings, any mens rea of murder in him—but to grab it and try to sentence him before he becomes 14, and by that, he would avoid prison. Together with the family, we decided not to, because he does not plead guilty to attempted murder. It’s against the interrogation. It’s against his values. It’s against whatever he represents, although he was hardly tortured. And we can see it in the movie.

AMY GOODMAN: I mean, this is amazing, the video footage you have. I have to say, it reminded me in New York of the case of the Central Park jogger five boys.


AMY GOODMAN: They were the same age.


AMY GOODMAN: I mean, I think in your case, it was 13. These boys are 14 years old. And in police interrogation, they’re being screamed at. And you, Rachel, had access to this video footage.


AMY GOODMAN: And it was played in court, as the Israeli interrogators are screaming at this point.

LEA TSEMEL: Not only are they screaming, they bluff him. They tell him that they have a video of him stabbing the people.

RACHEL LEAH JONES: And he says, “I don’t remember.”

LEA TSEMEL: Which doesn’t exist.

RACHEL LEAH JONES: “I don’t remember,” because he didn’t stab.

LEA TSEMEL: It doesn’t exist, but they insist, “We saw you. We are seeing you. You are there. You did it.” And he doesn’t know what to say. You know, he says, “I don’t remember.” And he really had a brain—his skull was broken, because they called a car to run over him in order to stop to arrest him. And really, a small boy being faced with lies and having to react to it, it was unbearable.

RACHEL LEAH JONES: I think that one of the main reasons that we followed this case were because Lea starts out as a sister to her clients and then, over the years, sort of becomes their mother. Along comes a 13-year-old, and suddenly she’s her client’s grandmother. And if the first clients kind of have an approach to whatever they are doing, which is another world is possible, the kid comes along and tells us the world that we have bequeathed to him is impossible. And she feels implicated by that, presumably, along with everyone else, because why should 13-year-olds be trying to handle anything about this historical mess that we—you know, that he’s born and raised into?

LEA TSEMEL: Was raised in.

RACHEL LEAH JONES: And so, although she’s very devoted to all of her clients, I think that this one really hits her in another place. Another reason it hits her hard is because he stands up to his interrogators, or stands up to the process of interrogation, you know, withstands it, rather, in a way that almost none of her adult clients manage to. So, there’s just something so utterly pure about his insistence that he really didn’t have criminal intent or the kind of criminal intent that is being attributed to him.

And Lea wants justice. It’s almost impossible to come by in almost all of her cases. And here, she felt like it was really maybe doable, which she says in the film, “I start every case thinking maybe this time I’m going to manage.” I don’t think she could play the game otherwise. Does she know that it’s a completely unlevel playing field, and the chances are like this, you know, that if Israel has a 96% or 98% conviction rate with Palestinian defendants, it’s going to be something like 99.9? She knows that. But she has to work on that sliver. She has to work on that sliver of possibility, among other reasons because she also believes in the humanity of the people she’s up against. The prosecutors, the interrogators, the judges are people. And maybe she can get them to see beyond the “terrorist.”

AMY GOODMAN: So, talk about meeting with the family and being there for them, explaining the system to them.

LEA TSEMEL: Yeah. It’s enormous responsibility to take such a case, that could perhaps end up differently, and decide to go to the end, with the—all the bad possibilities that are waiting there. So, the family had to agree. And you can also see some footage in the film, that we’re talking with the family, and the family and the child say. “No, I had no intention of killing anyone, so I will not plead guilty for that, although I am offered some candies if I do.” We continued it. It was a very bad consequence—in the first degree in the district court, and later on, the punishment was vindicated to beat in the Supreme Court. But still he will not be released until he’s 23 years old. And—

AMY GOODMAN: He’s a 13-year-old boy.

LEA TSEMEL: Yeah, a 13-years-old boy. He will grow up in prison. This is the reality. And from time to time, we visit him. We see that he studies. He’s maintaining all right, more or less, with other youngsters his age. And now they become even younger and younger.

AMY GOODMAN: I mean, the figures on this—what?—800,000 Palestinians have been arrested.



AMY GOODMAN: Forty percent of the male population of the Occupied Territories has been arrested.


AMY GOODMAN: Almost half the population.


LEA TSEMEL: Yes, of course, of course. It’s a daily event for Palestinians.

RACHEL LEAH JONES: It’s a people criminalized and incarcerated en masse. And I use those terms because they’re not the ones that we commonly get kind of circulated when you think about Israel-Palestine. Maybe they resonate more with U.S. audiences in terms of criminal justice reform and so on. But I think it’s really important.

And in the beginning of the film, when Lea says to a talk show host 20 years ago, “You should try to listen to what I’m telling you,” because they’re sort of—she says, “I’ll never understand you. I can’t possibly understand. But that’s OK, right?” And Lea says, “Well, maybe you should, because I’m the future.” And when she says, “I’m the future,” what she means is, “If the people that we’re sharing this piece of land with are criminalized and incarcerated en masse like that, and I know what they’ve been through, because basically every”—”I know,” “I” being Lea—”basically every Palestinian defendant has been tortured, one way or another, in varying degrees, anywhere on the scale from 1 to 10, but in varying degrees, it is with these people and with those experiences with whom we’re going to have to share our futures. And I know what that entails. You might want to listen to what I have to say, because security jurisprudence is not solving anything. If anything, it’s making things worse.”

AMY GOODMAN: There’s a 99% conviction rate?

LEA TSEMEL: More or less, yeah. Yes.

AMY GOODMAN: You call yourself “the losing lawyer.”

LEA TSEMEL: Sometimes, yes. That’s basically—

AMY GOODMAN: And you practice on—and this was pointed out yesterday at the Human Rights Watch Film Festival, in the talkback afterwards. Talk about where the courthouse is.

LEA TSEMEL: Well, there are a few—there are a few courts, of course. First of all, we have courts all over the Occupied Territories. We used even to have a court in Gaza, of course, that I used to go once a week, at least, and all over the West Bank. Now they concentrated it to two major courts on the borderline. And, of course, there are courts all over Israel.

There is a total separation between the settlers, who live in the same Occupied Territories and act very often against the same soldiers, and—separation between them and their legal procedures in Israeli proper courts, civil courts, and the Palestinians who will be brought from the same territory, same similar actions—they would be brought to a military court. And still there are courts in Israel.

And the court that we are seeing in the movie again and again is the District Court of Jerusalem, which is based on Salah e-Din Street in the occupied East Jerusalem just vis-à-vis the Ministry of Justice, that is also occupying another building of the former Jordanian regime. And that’s where the sceneries are, not far from my office. And this is our reality for the last so many years.

AMY GOODMAN: Rachel Leah Jones, you do something interesting—many interesting things in the documentary, but one of it—one of the things are the illustrations. Explain how you animate this film.

RACHEL LEAH JONES: We were faced with a structural limitation. You know, there is there—as in most countries, there are special laws pertaining to the prosecution of minors, and to minors in legal proceedings. And anonymity, both face and name, are part of those expectations, that youth—that youth can be rehabilitated, and therefore they shouldn’t be known in the world publicly as sort of criminal lost causes. Right? And so, the youth law mandates that the anonymity be preserved.

Israeli media, Palestinian media and international media violated that law left and right. That didn’t make it possible for us to necessarily violate that law. The law still stands. So we were obliged to obscure his identity and his name. But we also felt that it was a necessity, that it was a moral imperative. You take a legal system that has—and I think Lea is the exemplar of this—you take a legal system that has enormous flaws, but you don’t necessarily want to throw the baby out with the bathwater. You say some of these structures have the potential to be applied in ways that are progressive. Maybe we don’t let go of all of them. So, we decided to sort of be holier than the pope on this and to obscure his name and obscure his likeness. However, we were—

AMY GOODMAN: [inaudible]

RACHEL LEAH JONES: Yeah. We were faced with the possibility of doing so with what? Blurring, pixelation. That would mean also sort of taking away his humanity. That would mean effacing him, effectively. And I had no interest, nor did my partner on the project, Philippe Bellaïche, any interest in effacing him or dehumanizing him. So there was nothing in that law that said you can’t—that obscuring entailed dehumanizing or effacing. So we took it to the other extreme, and we created an animated effect that preserved humanity but obscured the identity.

AMY GOODMAN: So you illustrated it.

RACHEL LEAH JONES: Yeah. So, we illustrated it with artifacts, basically, from Lea’s desk, if you will—laws, charge sheets, decisions, press clippings, 50 years’ worth of visual and material culture around litigating the occupation, that are applied to the characters in a way they start to wear the weight of history. You understand that they are historical constructs, that a woman who wakes up in the morning and does X or a boy who comes home from school and does Y are not doing so out of history, out of context, that there’s a political story here that they have been cast into.

AMY GOODMAN: And explain the case of the woman.

RACHEL LEAH JONES: A minor, more minor, secondary case that we follow is the case of a woman named Israa Jaabis, a 31-year-old mother of an 8-year-old, who—her car—it’s hard to speak at—my understanding, she sets her car on fire at a checkpoint. As Lea says in the film—

AMY GOODMAN: With herself in it.

RACHEL LEAH JONES: With herself in it, lightly injures a policeman, an Israeli policeman, and burns herself. Maybe 60% of her body is burned. So, mutilates herself, effectively. As Lea says in the film, “Was it a suicide bombing? Wasn’t a suicide bombing?” One thing is clear: The woman didn’t want to stay alive. Suicide by cop, for sure. OK, something along those lines.

But she survives, and she’s in prison. She’s sentenced to 11 years. The boy is sentenced to 12. And they were sentenced on the same day, back to back, which we couldn’t have known in advance. We could only thank our lucky stars that we were following both, because both sentences somehow become part and parcel of the same collapse of—as Lea says in the film, “I fear that the expectation that Palestinians can find justice in the Israeli legal system may have been buried today for good.” We don’t know if that’s indeed the case, but that’s how she feels on that particular day.

AMY GOODMAN: How did you survive that day, you know, just yet another day illustrating the 99% conviction rate in Israeli courts of Palestinians?

LEA TSEMEL: I thought that we have to appeal and put all our energy into the appeal, and perhaps we—we won, partly, only the case of the boy. But that’s how I could pull myself with my own hair out of this dam.

AMY GOODMAN: Meanwhile, you’re working with a Palestinian lawyer named Tareq Barghout.

LEA TSEMEL: Yes, yes.

AMY GOODMAN: Can you explain what happens with Tareq?

LEA TSEMEL: It seems we only revealed it much later, just recently, when he was detained three months ago by the Israeli security services, that that case really broke for him the ability to continue his work as a lawyer and seeking for justice in the Israeli courts. And here and there, during those—the two-and-a-half years that passed since that day, he shot at Israeli targets in the Occupied Territories, some roadblock and then buses of settlers. Nothing happened, really. Nobody was injured. But that’s how I understand he could live together with his one failing profession, on one hand, and his life as a Palestinian patriot.

AMY GOODMAN: So, he is now charged with?

LEA TSEMEL: He is now charged with shooting at places where people could be, according to the defense regulation and according to the military law in the Occupied Territories, military orders.

AMY GOODMAN: And your colleague has now become your client.

LEA TSEMEL: Yeah, and, of course, he’s naturally also my client. And there are many other lawyers who are supporting him and us in this case. And he’s awaiting—


LEA TSEMEL: —some years in prison. Yeah, of course, trial and—

AMY GOODMAN: How many years in prison does he face?

LEA TSEMEL: More than 10, I believe.

AMY GOODMAN: And how has the Great March of Return, that happens every Friday, people nonviolently protesting in Gaza, yet hundreds of them shot by Israeli military snipers, thousands injured, hundreds killed—how has this affected life in Israel?

LEA TSEMEL: We should see the real picture. The real picture is that this enormous refugee camp, Gaza, has refugees from all over that area exactly surrounding Gaza, whether it was Ashkelon, Ashdod, and all the places around it, Be’er Sheva. And those people want to return, and they want their freedom, and they want their democracy, and they want the self-rule, not being ruled by Israel, as the situation is now. And although Israel withdrew from Gaza, it still controls it and controls the sea, as we saw, and the fishermen’s possibility to make a living. And they come in only demonstration. They have nothing but stones or balloons in their hands. And Israel treats them as they used to treat, recently, and more and more so: shooting in order to kill.

AMY GOODMAN: Paramedics, journalists, children.

LEA TSEMEL: Yeah, exactly. So, that’s what we are living in.

AMY GOODMAN: Do you feel the Israeli peace movement has any effect? Is there an Israeli peace movement?

LEA TSEMEL: We are going with this movie all over the world, in different countries. We came here to the Human Rights—Human Rights Watch. And we were in other festivals in Europe. And we—

AMY GOODMAN: You did the Krakow Film Festival, where this—


AMY GOODMAN: —where Advocate won first prize.


AMY GOODMAN: Thessaloniki Film Festival, won first prize. And, of course—

LEA TSEMEL: Again, again, the first prize, etc. And when we talk to the people, we believe that they would wake up somehow and—if they’re not—I believe many of them know the reality. But they will be recruited into some kind of a reaction. And we have to react. We don’t react enough.

AMY GOODMAN: Final comments, Rachel Leah Jones?

RACHEL LEAH JONES: Listening to Lea describe Gaza, it’s—and listening to you ask the questions, the extent to which the Israeli public just is shut down to that reality and doesn’t understand the way in which we are implicated in it, presently and in the past, is something that we, for the most part, can only just scratch our heads at in bewilderment.

And I think that one of the reasons that the film is gaining the popularity that it has is because Lea represents a conscious, eyes-wide-open, ears-wide-open, active, wanting-to-do-something person. And she never left the country, although she could have, like many other people. She never gave up, as other professionals sharing, you know, the work that she does did. Something in that dogged tenacity and insistence on continuing to sometimes, unfortunately, say the exact same thing, not only year in and year out, but decade in and decade out, is inspiring to people, and people are taking taking notice.

You know, Lea often says to the audiences when we go to festivals around the world, “Take what you saw, and speak about it and act on it.” And I often say something slightly different, not that I disagree with her. I say, “Take what you saw, and look at this exact—these cases and the roles that the various people in the film play, and look at your own society. Who are you in this story in your own society, be it Hungary, be it Brazil, be it the United States, be it Russia, be it Turkey, be it all of the places that are part of that tidal wave of moving further to the right and eroding basic, basic notions of civil rights and civil liberties?” I think that this film is very much about Israel-Palestine, obviously, but it’s—it goes way beyond that. And we have lessons to draw from it.

AMY GOODMAN: And finally, Lea Tsemel, yourself—


AMY GOODMAN: What do you see as a solution to the situation in Israel-Palestine? And what gives you hope?

LEA TSEMEL: It’s very difficult to say what I see as a solution. Whatever they will achieve that brings about honor, equality to both people, I will take as a solution.

What do I hope? As she said, I did represent those who are now grandfathers, and later their sons, that are fathers, and already I did represent the third generation, the grandchildren of those people, in a chain. I don’t want to represent the grand-grandchildren child. I don’t want. That’s it. I think it’s time for a solution. And it depends so much on also your audience, on the Americans, on others. So, I hope it will bring them to do something also from their point.

AMY GOODMAN: And your view of yourself as an Israeli lawyer, a Sabra, a person who was born in Israel, what that means?

LEA TSEMEL: It means, you know, I did what I could do. And I still keep doing it. And I hope others will not have to do it again and again. I think I did the right thing, and I have no regrets. And if I have to start from the beginning, I will, probably.

AMY GOODMAN: I want to thank you both so much for being with us. Lea Tsemel, Israeli human rights lawyer, Rachel Leah Jones, director of Advocate, the new film about Israel-Palestine that has just won prize after prize, and it’s just opened the Human Rights Watch Film Festival here in New York. This is Democracy Now! To see Part 1 of our discussion, go to democracynow.org. I’m Amy Goodman. Thanks so much for joining us.

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