Attorney Lea Tsemel has defended Palestinian political prisoners in Israeli courts for nearly half a century, insisting on their humanity and their right to a fair trial. Her work has earned her the scorn and reprobation of many Israelis, as well as death threats. A staunch critic of the Israeli occupation of Palestine, Tsemel has long argued that Palestinians who carry out politically motivated violence are freedom fighters, not “terrorists.” In 1999, Tsemel won a landmark case in the Israeli Supreme Court, making it illegal for Israeli officials to torture detained Palestinians during interrogations. The documentary “Advocate” narrates the remarkable life story of Tsemel. The film premiered at this year’s Sundance Film Festival and screened in New York City for the first time Thursday night at the Human Rights Watch Film Festival. We speak with Lea Tsemel and the director of “Advocate,” Rachel Leah Jones.
AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now!, democracynow.org, The War and Peace Report. I’m Amy Goodman. Attorney Lea Tsemel has defended Palestinian political prisoners in Israeli courts for nearly half a century, insisting on their humanity and their right to a fair trial. Her work has earned her the scorn and reprobation of many Israelis, as well as death threats. A staunch critic of the Israeli occupation of Palestine, Tsemel has long argued Palestinians who carry out politically motivated violence are freedom fighters, not “terrorists.” In 1999, Lea Tsemel won a landmark case in the Israeli Supreme Court, making it illegal for Israeli officials to torture detained Palestinians during interrogations. The documentary titled Advocate tells the remarkable story of Lea Tsemel’s life. This is the film’s trailer.
INTERVIEWER: [translated] My next guest is no doubt very controversial, right?
LEA TSEMEL: [translated] So they say!
INTERVIEWER: [translated] Good morning, attorney Lea Tsemel.
LEA TSEMEL: [translated] How do we reach the detention cells? With the elevator. Is it going down?
MAN IN ELEVATOR 1: [translated] Lea, what will become of you?
LEA TSEMEL: [translated] What do you think?
MAN IN ELEVATOR 1: [translated] When will you mend your ways?
LEA TSEMEL: [translated] Who? Me? I’m a lost cause.
MAN IN ELEVATOR 2: [translated] A rebel with a lost cause.
MAN IN ELEVATOR 1: [translated] A rebel with a lost cause.
INTERVIEWER: [translated] You defend terrorists and their families. I imagined you differently, taller and tougher.
LEA TSEMEL: [translated] I left my devil’s tail at home this time.
INTERVIEWER: [translated] You’ve been called that, no?
LEA TSEMEL: [translated] Yeah. “Devil” and stuff like that. I’ve been called every name in the book.
INTERVIEWER: [translated] Like what else?
LEA TSEMEL: [translated] “Traitor,” “leftist,” “devil’s advocate.” The usual.
INTERVIEWER: [translated] Does it hurt you?
LEA TSEMEL: [translated] No. There are times when being called those things is a compliment. I always took it as a compliment.
AMY GOODMAN: Advocate premiered at this year’s Sundance Film Festival. The documentary screened for the first time in New York City last night as the opening of the Human Rights Watch Film Festival. The film was recently named best picture in Tel Aviv’s annual Docaviv Film Festival. The Israeli cultural minister, Miri Regev, condemned the decision to honor the film.
Well, for more, we’re joined by Lea Tsemel herself, as well as the film’s director, Rachel Leah Jones.
We welcome you both to Democracy Now! It’s wonderful to have you with us. Rachel, why don’t we begin with you, why you made this film?
RACHEL LEAH JONES: Why? Why do we make any film? Lea is the kind of Israeli I wanted to be. I mean, I grew up in Israel. I left. I came back as a young adult after the First Intifada. I had heard about her. I wanted to meet her. She was one of the first people I met when I went back as a young adult. And she modeled for me the kind of Israeli I wanted to be, somebody completely critical and completely, at the same time, not thinking of going anywhere else, just thinking: How do you—how do you get people to live together in that space, with full equality, and with, obviously, human rights, civil rights, it goes without saying, but just with a basic understanding that the place has to be shared in complete and full equality?
AMY GOODMAN: Lea Tsemel, talk about being an Israeli, how you grew up and what made you decide to represent Palestinians.
LEA TSEMEL: I would see myself as a typical Israeli, Sabra, if you want. I was born there in 1945 and then grew up with the state. And I was studying law in 1967 when the war broke. Until then, I would say, I was a normal, regular Israeli. And once the war broke, I realized that we were—we, the students, the people, were misled before the war to believe that this is a war for peace. Israel didn’t think of creating peace. And I found myself having to decide whether my humanity prevails, when I saw what happened to the Palestinians in the Occupied Territories, or my Israeli loyalty would prevail.
And I chose my humanity. Therefore, when I became a lawyer, it was only natural that I will try to defend the underdogs, the Palestinians, while thinking all the time of a possible—the only possible solution to the conflict there: one, equality; two or one state—it doesn’t make a difference, really—but freedom for the Palestinians; a recognition of what we have caused to them; and ability to continue together with equality, which is the most important, equality, and freedom, of course, for both people.
AMY GOODMAN: I wanted to turn to a clip from the film Advocate that features Dr. Hanan Ashrawi, the longtime Palestinian diplomat and scholar.
HANAN ASHRAWI: And I was arrested. I was looking for a lawyer. And from that day on, I mean, Lea was really part of our experience of struggle at Birzeit University. During, you know, all these closures, during all these military incursions, the shootings, the arrests and so on, it was Lea who was there all the time.
PROTESTERS: Open Birzeit! Open Birzeit! Open Birzeit! Open Birzeit!
HANAN ASHRAWI: To us, being a prisoner is a fact of life. Every home, every family, has had at least one prisoner, if not more. And many families have had “martyrs.” Many families have had people, you know, deported. Many families have had their homes destroyed. But every family can tell you, “I have prisoners in my midst. The Israelis reached into my home and extracted my son, my daughter, my husband, my brother, and took him or her away.” And it was Lea who was there saying, “I will try to bring him or her back.”
Lea went to court to help our students. And I was nursing; I was breastfeeding Zeina. And Talila got hungry, so I breastfed her, as well. And so, now we have—they’re milk sisters. You see, in our tradition, when two babies are fed the same mother’s milk, they become sisters. And this is a very strong bond.
LEA TSEMEL: I really don’t feel the gap of a Palestinian, a Jew. I don’t think we ever had it between us.
HANAN ASHRAWI: She was very human. She was the only one, really, who recognized us, in the Greek sense of anagnorisis—you know, I recognize your humanity and what you’re going through. If you are fighting against injustice, and you don’t have any other tools, you adopt the tools that are available. You manufacture your own tools. Some people turn their bodies into tools. They don’t have warplanes. They don’t have tanks. They have bodies. And it doesn’t mean she condoned this or she thought it was right, but she said you have to understand it in the context within which this happened. This is a very difficult and rare situation, where you could look at the victim, cum violent person, and understand the motives for violence and understand that this is a response to a greater form of violence. You are not abstract labeled “terrorists.”
AMY GOODMAN: So, that’s Dr. Hanan Ashrawi, the longtime Palestinian diplomat and scholar. She was just on Democracy Now! a few weeks ago. Lea Tsemel, continue along the lines of what Dr. Hanan Ashrawi was talking about, who you come to represent—people who have been accused of violence, Palestinians who have been accused of violence, and those who simply have been arrested.
LEA TSEMEL: I think most of the people that I represent are Palestinians who are acting against the occupation, in this way or another, or that have been tackled with problems that the occupation created. Like, if we talk about Jerusalem, the Jerusalemite Palestinians have difficulties in getting a position, in getting their rights, in getting their identification cards, in getting family reunification, for instance. So, these are the civil aspects of the occupation that I’m also dealing with, beside, of course, people who have committed security offenses, as they call it. And I believe that I’m obliged to defend them. I believe they have the right to act against the occupation, like every person on this Earth has a right to act against any occupation. And I don’t try to condemn them. I try to be near them and have the—my ability as a lawyer and recruit the Israeli law to defend them.
AMY GOODMAN: Let’s go to another clip from Advocate. Lea Tsemel, along with a team of human rights lawyers, argued before Israel’s Supreme Court against torture carried out by the Israeli security forces. In 1999, 20 years ago, the Israeli Supreme Court ruled the practice is illegal.
NARRATOR: [translated] After a decade of legal battles, they posed for a victory photo.
LEA TSEMEL: [translated] We made history today! What a moving decision, a just ruling, a warranted ruling. Too bad we didn’t conduct this struggle 30 years ago.
NARRATOR: [translated] Nine years, nine justices and one Supreme Court bottom line: “All interrogation methods that entail physical pressure are illegal.”
LEA TSEMEL: [translated] As soon as the Supreme Court handed down its decision, I knew that, for once, we’d won! The security service had been exposed. It was a wonderful feeling. I wanted to burst into song.
AMY GOODMAN: That was 20 years ago, Lea Tsemel. You won. You’re not used to winning. All of these years, 50 years, how many cases have you won?
LEA TSEMEL: First of all, it’s not my personal win. We were a group of lawyers, we were a group of human rights organizations, that have appealed for many, many years on this subject of torture. And it was a big victory. It’s true. The victory was somehow eaten away during the years. The security services found other ways, that some are also illegal. And the—
AMY GOODMAN: You’re saying that the security forces are continuing to torture Palestinians in prisons?
LEA TSEMEL: In this way or another, yeah, with permission, with authorization sometimes. But the situation continues. And the struggle continues. We know it very, very well. So, it was a highlight in the career, undoubtedly. There are not too many winnings we can talk about. There are many failures. And altogether, I think that the Israeli society has failed to rebut and fight against the occupation as we should.
AMY GOODMAN: Early in your career, talk about the Arab-Israeli Alliance, the group of young men who you represented, that are portrayed in Advocate.
LEA TSEMEL: You know, we all started as young, ambitious, hopeful revolutionaries, believing that we can change, here and now, the situation. And some of our leftist groups then even went further on to join a Palestinian leading group. And then they were, of course, detained and sentenced, with a lot of scandalous reactions, to 17 years in prison, like Udi Adiv, a kibbutznik who was the head of that group, and others. And since then, we didn’t see the repetitive of that phenomenon. We do see cooperation at times. You know, there is now BDS, so it’s more difficult to cooperate. But I still carry the dream of a common future that we share with the Palestinians, and I don’t see ourselves living there without this cooperation.
AMY GOODMAN: You also represented your own husband, Michel Warschawski—
LEA TSEMEL: Yeah, right.
AMY GOODMAN: —famous peace activist—
LEA TSEMEL: Yeah.
AMY GOODMAN: —when he was jailed as head of the Alternative Information Center.
LEA TSEMEL: Yes. He was charged with publishing, in his office, a booklet of how to sustain torture by the security forces and what are the security services’ methods of torture. And, of course, this was shoo-shoo. You cannot talk about it. You should not expose it. Especially, it was—they intended to write it in Arabic. So, of course, you cannot tell it to the Arabs. They would know what they are anticipating in the interrogation rooms. So, he was detained. And later on, very little came out of it, but he spent some time in prison. And—
AMY GOODMAN: So, you won, to a certain extent. At least you won your husband back.
LEA TSEMEL: Yeah, yeah.
AMY GOODMAN: Let’s go to a new clip of the documentary Advocate, featuring our guest, the pioneering Israeli attorney Lea Tsemel.
LEA TSEMEL: [translated] When I ask myself about red lines, I ask it in reverse. I don’t have a moral conflict with saying “yes,” but with saying “no.” That’s my contemplation. When am I allowed to say “no”? So I set the following “framework” for myself: I’m an Israeli occupier, no matter what I do. I “enjoy” the fruits of occupation, both bitter and sweet. And I didn’t manage, despite my moral obligation as an Israeli, to change the regime and its policies. On what moral grounds should I judge the people who resist my occupation? And hand out grades—”That’s good. That’s bad. If you’re a nonviolent demonstrator and they shoot you dead, you’re good. But if you have a knife and they shoot you dead, you’re bad.” Who gave me that right? So, in that sense, if the act is intended to resist the occupation, as such, I’ll take it on.
AMY GOODMAN: So, that’s another clip from Advocate, and that is Lea Tsemel speaking in Hebrew, translated. Advocate was just named best picture in Tel Aviv’s annual Docaviv Film Festival. The Israeli cultural minister, Miri Regev, condemned the decision to honor the film. Rachel Leah Jones, you’re the filmmaker. Your response to this?
RACHEL LEAH JONES: Docaviv was a huge surprise. We had five sold-out screenings. Roughly 1,800 Israeli Jews came to see the film in over the course of a week, and not a single person complained. On the contrary, people were crying, laughing, hugging, elated. It was beyond my wildest dreams or expectations for how a film like this could be received in this day and age in Israel. And we—
AMY GOODMAN: We have 10 seconds.
RACHEL LEAH JONES: And we won first prize. Miri Regev, the culture minister, has been condemning films like this since she came into power.
AMY GOODMAN: And the film is Oscar-qualified. That does it for this segment. We’ll do Part 2, post it online at democracynow.org. Israeli human rights advocate Lea Tsemel, Rachel Leah Jones, director of Advocate.
That does it for our show. Welcome to the world, Ryan Joseph Crosby-Wallach. Congratulations to our colleagues. I’m Amy Goodman. Thanks so much for joining us.