“In Yiddish that means somebody ballsy, somebody gutsy,” Jones explains. “Chutzpah, she has a lot of chutzpah.”
Tsemel has been demonstrating that chutzpah in a legal career that stretches back 50 years, taking on the unpopular task of representing Palestinian defendants charged in Israeli courts. That has earned her the bitter enmity of many Israelis, but the respect of Jones and fellow director Philippe Bellaiche, who explore Tsemel’s work in their award-winning documentary Advocate.
“She’s the woman that everybody loves to hate, but also hates to love. She’s very determined,” Jones observes. “She’s the kind of person who spoke truth to power before the term became trendy, and she’ll continue to do so after fear makes it unfashionable.”
Jones describes Tsemel, who was born in Palestine in 1945, three years before Israel’s founding, as “Israeli through and through.” She volunteered for the Israeli army in the midst of the Six-Day War of 1967 but has opposed Israel’s continued occupation of the West Bank and Gaza Strip, land that was seized during that war. She will defend any Palestinian accused of crimes—violent or otherwise—that she believes were motivated by resistance to the occupation.
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“I always see the person behind the case. That’s the important thing,” Tsemel comments in Advocate. “Israelis have no right to tell the Palestinians how to struggle.”
Part of Advocate unfolds in real time as Tsemel takes on the case of a 13-year-old Palestinian boy accused of attempted murder in the stabbing of an Israeli boy. The suspect was aggressively questioned by police but stuck to his claim that he hadn’t intended to harm anyone, only to scare people he viewed as oppressors.
Taking the case was “a no-brainer for Lea,” Jones observes, “in terms of the gravity of the crime or the charge, the context in which the action takes place…In some ways, what captivated her almost more than anything else—and this is our interpretation—is how he withstood his interrogation.”
Some of Tsemel’s colleagues urged her to strike a plea deal which would have got her client out of prison by 18, but she pressed ahead anyway.
“I think she was just captivated by the fact that there could potentially be a fair trial here,” Jones notes. “She really tries to fight it out each time, despite the fact that she knows better than any of the rest of us that she always loses.”
Tsemel has in fact scored some victories, including defending her husband, fellow activist Michael Warschawski, who was accused in 1987 of aiding an illegal Palestinian group. Tsemel got him acquitted on all but one charge.
In 1999 she was part of a legal team that argued a case before the Israeli Supreme Court that resulted in a decision barring the Israeli Security Agency from using torture and inhumane treatment in interrogations.
Tsemel says of her motivation to continue her work, “It’s as if I live with the illusion that I can do something in the world, make an impact, that there’s someone to reason with.”
Advocate premiered at the Sundance Film Festival and has qualified for Oscar consideration this year. It won Best Picture at the DocAviv Film Festival in Tel Aviv, to the outrage of some Israelis, including Minister of Culture and Sport Miri Regev. According to the Haaretz newspaper, Regev condemned “the choice to make a movie focusing on a lawyer who represents, supports and speaks in the name of many who undermine the State of Israel’s existence, use terrorism against its soldiers and people, and win legal and public support from Tsemel.”
The filmmakers take Regev’s criticism with a grain of salt.
“The Minister of Culture came out bashing the film, of course, not having seen it,” Jones retorts. “[Regev] says, ‘I don’t need to see it. I still hate it, and I don’t need to see it and I won’t see it.’”
Jones and Bellaiche say Advocate has actually received widespread support in Israel.
“We had some right-wingers come up to us and talk about how they felt that despite the fact that they don’t agree with her or necessarily us, they thought that the film was worthy, the people should see it,” Jones tells Deadline. “We were just blown away. It defied our expectations.”
Bellaiche adds, “We discovered that there is in Israel a public which is thirsty to hear this kind of story about Israel and to hear this kind of Israeli, that people want that.”
The film has also been a hit far from Israel, winning awards at festivals from Hong Kong to Krakow, Poland and Thessaloniki, Greece. It’s up for Outstanding Producer of Documentary Motion Picture at the Producers Guild Awards and this weekend competes for Best Feature at the IDA Documentary Awards in Hollywood.
“We feel humbled, honored, and very, very grateful,” Jones says. “As it turns out, people need and want inspiring figures. They want big-mouthed women…People want Lea Tsemels—I’m putting that in the plural. They want them in Greece. They want them in Italy. They seem to want them in Hungary. They want them in the U.S.”
Jones adds, “I think she’s courageous, but I think she’s imperfect as any good heroine should be. Otherwise, how could you identify with them? So I hope she arouses just enough inspiration, but also just enough identification, and that means she’s a mortal.”
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