Advocate, a new documentary by filmmaker Rachel Leah Jones, is the true story of Israeli attorney, human rights advocate and freedom fighter Lea Tsemel. Nominated to this years Sundance World Cinema Documentary category, we get a close, intimate view of an extraordinary person and unrelenting soul in the fight for Palestinian rights.
Born Into Turmoil
Lea Tsemel was born in 1945 in Haifa, Isreal, a town where Jews and Muslims co-existed. She was literally born in the age of the Arab-Israeli conflict, when Zionist beliefs clashed with Arab nationalism over rights to lands sacred to both the Jewish and Muslim people. A civil war broke out in Palestine between the Jews and Arabs there, and, by 1948, a mass migration ensued of Palestinian refugees who fled or were cast out of their destroyed homeland.
Raised in Zionist beliefs, Lea volunteered to fight for Israel when the Six Day War started in 1967 and managed to be the first Israeli woman to visit the Western Wall, since the Jordanian occupation and Israeli shut out in 1948. What she found there changed her beliefs about Palestinians and opened her eyes to the lies that the Israeli government told its people about Israeli occupation. The government called it a “War for Peace”, when really it was all about besieging and colonizing a land that was already occupied and calling it their own.
Starting with her very first trial as an attorney in 1972, Lea fought for Palestinian freedom fighters who were caught, imprisoned and tortured in Israeli prisons. Fifty years later she is still defending and a staunch advocate for the human rights of a people deemed “terrorists” in her country.
Always an Uphill Battle
The first case Lea takes on in the film, is about a 13-year-old Palestinian boy Ahmed and his 15-year-old cousin Hassan who are accused of entering Jerusalem with knives in order to harm as many Jews as they could. Hassan allegedly murdered a young Jewish man and was shot and killed by Israeli police in turn. Israeli news immediately assails the young “terrorists” and is fast to judge them as dangerous.Though Israeli law doesn’t punish children as adults till they are 14, due to media sensationalism and distortion, the public wants young Ahmed tried as an adult for maximum penalty.
A second case involves Israa Jaabis, a young Palestinian wife and mother, who stands accused of a suicide bombing, when propane tanks in the backseat of her car accidentally ignite at a checkpoint. Though no one but Israa was injured, the Israeli media paints a compelling picture of a “terrorist” who’s intent was to blow herself up in the city center to kill as many Jewish citizens and officials as possible. However, they don’t disclose Israa’s two prior suicide attempts due to her past history suffering with depression and an abusive marriage.
What also is missing in these newscasts, are the reasons why so many Palestinians are willing to sacrifice their own lives in their fight against Israel.
For over 70 years war has raged between these two countries, mostly over the fight for sacred, religious land and monuments. But Palestine has consistently been on the losing side in the war. Israel, funded in part by the United States, has displaced and killed hundreds of thousands of Palestinians and continues to do so.
Tsemel has seen in real time the unscrupulous side of the Israeli government and court practices heavily skewed in bias and bigotry. She knows how every Palestinian deemed a terrorist by the Israeli media is actually responding to the long standing violence, oppression, jailing and torture of their own people by Israel.
Though she doesn’t condone the violence, she is able to see and understand the aggravation of a people who are killed, persecuted and displaced daily by a well funded, unrelenting government.
One Voice Speaking for Many
Lea Tsemel isn’t the only voice in Israel speaking up for Palestine, but she is nearly the only one who represents Palestinians accused of criminal acts in Isreal. She has long been scrutinized by her colleagues, the press and the public.
Once nicknamed the “Devil’s Advocate”, she and her family have been threatened with violence and murder, spat on and ostracized for her work. She knowingly defends people at a clear disadvantage, but her faith in what she is doing and what is right has never faltered. She is also one of the only practicing female attorneys in Jerusalem and has never allowed anyone to intimidate her out of the system.
Despite insurmountable odds, from biased media to dishonorable judges, Lea’s unwavering tenacity brought about an Israeli Supreme Court decision, creating a law that now disallows any guilty “confessions” elicited by torture or under duress, to be admitted in court. It was the first law of it’s kind and a major triumph for Tsemel and her staff.
It is these rare triumphs and her own hope for true justice and peace between the two nations, that keep her moving forward despite the overwhelming disproportions.
In All Honesty….
This film is timely and incredibly important.
In an age where anyone who dares to stand with Palestinians is labeled an anti-Semite, Jones takes a huge risk bringing this very touchy subject to the forefront. The tensions between Israel and Palestine are at an all time high and countless Palestinians are still being killed, tortured and displaced from the only place they know as home.
Using a “fly on the wall” technique while following Tsemel; creatively incorporating animation over real people to respect individual privacy; cutting between Tsemel’s present and past and interviewing members of her immediate family, Jones creates an effective, all-encompassing view of Tsemel’s life and paints a picture of an all but unheard of Israeli justice system steeped in bias and Zionism.
Jones shows a wider perspective of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and a point of view seldom used in world news today. We get to know a champion of justice who has spent decades fighting for the rights of people she was taught to hate. It shows us the resilience of the human spirit and just how much one person can affect a giant system predisposed to prejudice and intolerance.
Advocate also illustrates the effects of a tendentious, fear-mongering media that only tells a society what they want it to know rather than the truth. The spread of misinformation is a cancer to the world that can only breed ignorance and malcontent. Though almost no writing is ever totally without bias, literal lives are at stake in this situation and the Israeli media seems responsible for fueling the fire of a seemingly endless conflict.
Humanity must make a crucial choice: Is being “right” worth more than hundreds of thousands of lives? Is it possible for one culture to overcome the toxic “patriotism” saturated in bias, long enough to see the humanity in another? Can centuries old religious beliefs be put to rest long enough to enable the much needed objectivity to establish peace?
The answers can be found if we are courageous enough to look past what is being fed to us and exhume the truth buried beneath it all. Until then, we must rely on daring filmmakers such as Jones, to bring that which is unseen to light.
Advocate premiered at Sundance Film Festival, January 27, 2019