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film The Angry Optimistic Life and Times of Lea Tsemel: A Review of "Advocate"

"In addition to political prisoners, there is the oppression of Palestinians: freedom of speech, freedom of the press. The suppression of student protests. It was all part of my daily workload, beyond the hardcore cases involving armed resistance."

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Jewish Israeli lawyer, Lea Tsemel, who has made a career defending Palestinians in Israeli courts. , Advocate Films

Being someone’s lawyer entails more than appearing in court and arguing their case passionately. It means being there for them in their daily life. Especially if they are sentenced to prison for political reasons. Given the miserable prison conditions, I could not just say, “Case closed” and drop the client. But in addition to political prisoners, there is the oppression of Palestinians: freedom of speech, freedom of the press. The suppression of student protests. It was all part of my daily workload, beyond the hardcore cases involving armed resistance.

Lea Tsemel is an angry optimistic woman. That is how she describes herself to a journalist in a phone interview as she races to the Israeli Supreme Court to appeal two major political cases that she just lost. Advocate, by filmmakers and Tsemel’s long-time friends Rachel Leah Jones and Philippe Bellaïche, offers an intimate portrait of this Jewish Israeli lawyer who has made a career defending Palestinians in Israeli courts. To many, Tsemel is a hero, a fearless and tireless warrior for justice. To others, she is “the devil’s advocate.” To everyone who knows or has heard of her, regardless of their political views, she is larger than life, which is ironic because she is tiny. When she stands beside a thirteen-year-old client, one of the Palestinians whose case is traced through this film, her head barely reaches his shoulder. Yet when she speaks, she roars. Advocate brings audiences into her world and explains why she roars.

Tsemel’s fearsome reputation is legendary. In the early 1990s when I began researching the Israeli military court system in the occupied West Bank and Gaza, it amused me to learn from some military judges and prosecutors that they had been warned by their colleagues to “watch out for Lea.” Good advice for people who uphold the occupation. Tsemel is a human cyclone who, if the playing field on which she works were actually level, could demolish any adversary through the sheer force of her will. The playing field is not level, however, and she probably can count her victories on two hands. However, that force of will keeps her going, keeps her fighting, and that angry optimism sustains her faith that maybe the next fight can be won.

Early in the film, the camera zooms in on files in Tsemel’s East Jerusalem office that bear the labels “possession of a weapon,” “accessory to murder,” “suicide bombings,” “stone throwing,” “case law minors,” and “possession of a knife.” These types of cases are her bread and butter and her raison d’être. In a scene with several Palestinian women whose family member is a client, she explains, “It is not that I like to take tough cases. I am not afraid not to. I always see the person behind the case. That is the important thing.” This is one side of a Rubik’s cube explanation about why Tsemel does what she does. Another side is presented in a clip of Tsemel on an Israeli morning talk show in 1999. She explains herself to the confounded interviewer: “Israelis have no right to tell Palestinians how to struggle . . . You should try to understand me because I am the future.”

The filmmakers capture a third side of the Rubik’s cube as Tsemel explains that, as an Israeli, she benefits from the fruits of the occupation, bitter and sweet. “On what moral grounds should I judge the people who resist my occupation? . . . Who gave me that right? So, in that sense, if the act is intended to resist the occupation, as such, I will take it on.” She elaborates:

Being someone’s lawyer entails more than appearing in court and arguing their case passionately. It means being there for them in their daily life. Especially if they are sentenced to prison for political reasons. Given the miserable prison conditions, I could not just say, “Case closed” and drop the client. But in addition to political prisoners, there is the oppression of Palestinians: freedom of speech, freedom of the press. The suppression of student protests. It was all part of my daily workload, beyond the hardcore cases involving armed resistance.

Advocate is a compelling representation of Tsemel’s biography. We learn that her mother emigrated from Europe to Palestine in 1933 and was able to bring her own mother, but the rest of the family was annihilated in the Nazi Holocaust. Tsemel was born in 1945 and grew up in the Arab-Jewish city of Haifa. In 1967, she was a law student at Hebrew University when the war started. She volunteered for military service. We see a photo of her in a baggy khaki uniform with a gun slung over her shoulder. When the Israeli army conquered East Jerusalem, she was the first Israeli woman to reach the Wailing Wall which, at the time, was in a narrow alley. After the war, dozens of homes in the vicinity of the wall were destroyed to make way for a prayers' plaza. She wondered, “What happened to the people who lived here?” Although she was from a Zionist family, she was unsettled by what she was starting to learn about the occupation. Soon after the war, she decided to join the ultra-leftist organization Matzpen because they had answers to her questions. “From that moment, I never looked back.”

Tsemel was already a Matzpen firebrand when the man who would become her husband and life-partner, Michel Warschawski, first saw her in the thick of a brawl at Hebrew University. At the time he was, by his own account, “a religious boy in religious attire.” In the midst of this melee was a “short little woman. Beautiful. Fashionably dressed in an extra short skirt with extra high boots. She was waving around a chain with tons of keys, like a prison warden. To this day, she has tons of keys. God knows what they open.”

Tsemel’s first political trial, in 1972—which coincided with the birth of her first child Nissan, was representing members of the Arab-Jewish Underground. In court, the accused described their interrogations. Tsemel recounts,

It was one after another, always the same. They all described the shackling, sleep deprivation, deafening music, interrogations day and night, and the beatings. It clearly was not the whim of a sole interrogator. It was systematic. There were instructions, like a user manual. How to cause the human body pain and suffering. How to cause pain and suffering without leaving marks. How to cause the body pain and suffering so that the detainee remains conscious and keeps answering questions. 

Then the voiceover of a judge, “We have no doubt that the defendant’s claims about torture are a figment of his imagination, and we do not believe him. We are convinced he confessed of his own free will, and we approve [the confession] as evidence in this trial.” Arab-Jewish Underground members Daoud Turki and Udi Adiv were found guilty of the charges and sentenced to seventeen years in prison while Tsemel was “faulted” for identifying with Israel’s “enemies.”

Torture was not a figment of anyone’s imagination, except for the gullible or craven Israeli judges who, for decades, chose to believe lying security agents and government officials who denied that violent and coercive techniques were staples of the interrogation of “enemies of the state.” Tsemel saw the lies for what they were because so many of her clients were tortured and so much of her work turned on judgment-proof confessions that had been beaten or sleep-deprived out of them. She explains: “The confession is ‘the queen of evidence’ and they will do anything to get it. With a confession, be it true or false, his fate is sealed.”

For Tsemel, the client who does not confess, who does not break down and seal his own fate or name his whole village with the first blow is like a unicorn—a rare and mythical figure.

For Tsemel, the client who does not confess, who does not break down and seal his own fate or name his whole village with the first blow is like a unicorn—a rare and mythical figure. She deals constantly with clients who confessed, true or false, and in these circumstances, she strives to minimize the damages by negotiating a plea bargain. The unicorn client who does not confess, even under duress, gives her ammunition to fight it out in court. Ahmad, her thirteen-year-old client, was a unicorn.

Ahmad and his fifteen-year-old cousin Hassan were from Beit Hanina. They took souvenir knives from their homes and went to the neighboring settlement of Pisgat Zeev. Hassan stabbed and injured an Israeli man and a boy, and then he was shot, or in Israeli parlance “eliminated” by the police. As Hassan lay dead in the street, angry Israelis shouted that the police should put a bullet through his injured cousin Ahmad’s head too. Ahmad, who became Tsemel’s client, did not use his own knife, and at the time of the attack, had urged his cousin not to strike another child. Throughout his interrogation, in his responses to a screaming security agent who was trying to frighten or bully him to admit that he had gone to Pisgat Zeev with the intention to kill people, he maintained that he had not; he and his cousin had taken the knives in order to scare people because they were angry that Israel was bombing and killing children in Gaza.

Ahmad became the youngest person Tsemel had, to that date, ever represented who faced such serious charges—two counts of attempted murder and possession of a weapon. She and her co-counsel Tareq Barghout, a lawyer with the Palestinian Prisoners Office in Ramallah, began strategizing. Tsemel pointed out that Israel’s Youth Law does not allow for the detention of individuals younger than fourteen in adult prisons. Could they work this angle? Ahmad’s looming birthday, which would transition him to an incarcerable age, was like a ticking clock. Barghout thought they should try to negotiate a plea bargain right away in order to ensure that he go to a juvenile detention facility, whereas Tsemel wanted to take the case to trial because she believed she could use the fact that he did not confess to the intent to murder to strike or downgrade the charges. After all, she tells Barghout, there is precedent for leniency: a Jewish man who attacked a Palestinian woman got just three months of community service. That was her optimism speaking.

The arc of the film follows the progress in Ahmad’s case. Remand. Indictment. Plea. Testimony. Plea bargain negotiations. Verdict. Punishment proceedings. Sentence. Before the testimony hearing, as she and Barghout go into the courtroom, she says, “I am ready for battle, as they say.” When they come out, Tsemel is elated and impressed that Ahmad has maintained that he never intended to kill anyone. Outside the courtroom, she gives her unicorn a thumbs-up.

Hanan Ashrawi, the famed intellectual and former negotiator (who recently was denied a visa to the United States), was once Tsemel’s client and became her close friend. Ashrawi explains the phenomenon that is Tsemel: “Every single Palestinian family can tell you: ‘I have prisoners in my midst.’. . . And it was Lea who was there saying, ‘I will try to bring him or her back.’ She was very human. She was the only one really who recognized us in the Greek sense of anagnorisis. I recognize your humanity and what you are going through.” Ashrawi elaborates on Palestinian resistance politics and their effects on her friend’s career choices:

If you are fighting against injustice and you do not have any other tools, you adopt the tools that are available; you manufacture your own tools. Some people turn their bodies into tools. They do not have warplanes or tanks; they have bodies. It does not mean she condoned this or she thought it was right, but she said you have to understand it in the context in 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.

The second high-profile case that Tsemel takes during the making of Advocate involves a Palestinian woman, Israa Jaabis, who is charged with attempted murder for an act that is interpreted by Israeli officials as a botched suicide bombing. One morning, Jaabis loaded a couple of butane tanks in the back seat of her car and drove into Jerusalem. She set fire to the car, injuring a policeman lightly and herself severely. As with the case of Ahmad, for Tsemel the question is what was her intent? Did she intend to kill many people, or did she intend to kill just herself and if so, why? Tsemel learns from Jaabis’ relatives that she was a depressed woman in an unhappy marriage who had attempted suicide twice before but not in a showy “political” way as the car incident. This time, Tsemel wonders, had she decided to try “suicide by cop”? The prosecutors were indifferent to this question of intent; for them, her actions were enough to make her a terrorist who wanted and tried to kill Jews.

These two cases, Ahmad’s and Jaabis’, are as tough as they get. The camera focuses on Tsemel’s tired face as she yawns and says, “What terrible fatigue.” That scene reminded me of something Warschawski told me years ago about how his wife manages her punishing workload and hectic schedule. After working till late every night and knowing that she would have to appear in some court or another early the next morning, she would drink a gallon of water before bed. That way, her body would function as an alarm clock; when she woke up at four a.m. to go to the bathroom, she would not allow herself the luxury of crawling back between the sheets but rather would stay awake get ready for the day’s challenges.

Both cases were decided on the same day in the Jerusalem District Court, and both clients were found guilty of all the charges against them. Ahmad was sentenced to twelve years in prison, and Jaabis was sentenced to eleven. According to the court: “Their sole intent was to kill.” As Tsemel reads the ruling in Ahmad’s case, she mumbles, “Wow, wow, wow, wow, wow. Wow, not a sliver of hope.” Looking up at the camera, she says, “It is as if I live with the illusion that I can do something in the world, make an impact. That there is someone to reason with. It is strange. I am not willing to give up trying.”

Outside the courtroom, journalists have formed a scrum. Barghout is so devastated that he refuses Tsemel’s pleas to stand by her side while she makes a statement. He leaves and she faces the press alone. She roars: 

We have been defeated! . . . But our defeat, as a legal team, is nothing compared to the far-reaching and long-lasting defeat for Israeli society and its judicial system. The court ignored the fact that this is a national conflict. It attributed anti-Semitic sentiments to both defendants, which neither of them expressed at any stage. But it is convenient to think: “They only want to hurt the Jews!” Fifty years of occupation were stricken from the record, and vanished from the judges’ consciousness, unfortunately. I hope it will not vanish from the public’s consciousness. This is an occupation! And it must be responded to. And everyone does so according to their capabilities. The victims, the vanquished, the children, the women—respond in their own way. The expectation that Palestinians can find justice in Israeli courts may have been buried for good. I hope not. I really hope not. The path to the Supreme Court still lies ahead of us. We will appeal as soon as possible, in pursuit of justice.

In 2017, the Supreme Court upheld Ahmad’s conviction but reduced his sentence to nine and a half years. It rejected Israa Jaabis’ appeal outright.

Advocate ends with a blackened screened and a postscript. “In 2019, shortly after the film’s world premiere, attorney Tareq Barghout was arrested. After a month of secret service interrogations, with a gag order and without the right to counsel, he initiated his own plea negotiations. He was charged with shooting at Israeli targets.” As of now, we learn, he has not been sentenced or convicted, but Tsemel has become his lawyer.

Earlier this year 'Advocate' screened at Sundance and the Human Rights film festivals.  Most recently it was featured at DOC NYC.

Lisa Hajjar is a professor of sociology at the University of California-Santa Barbara. Her scholarship focuses on international law, war and conflict, human rights, and torture. She is the author of Courting Conflict: The Israeli Military Court System in the West Bank and Gaza (University of California Press, 2005) and Torture: A Sociology of Violence and Human Rights (Routledge, 2013). She is a co-editor of Jadaliyya, and has served on the editorial committees of Middle East Report and Journal of Palestine Studies. She is working on a book about anti-torture lawyering in the “war on terror.” In 2014-2015, she was the Edward Said Chair of American Studies at the American University of Beirut, and the following year she served as the director of AUB’s Center for American Studies and Research.