Palestinian offenders facing trial in Israel make for losing cases from the start. Defending them comes with a stigma, but Lea Tsemel is used to that. A fierce and fearless Jewish lawyer, she has made defending Palestinians her life and mission. For almost five decades, Tsemel has been at the forefront of the fight for justice and human rights for those who seem lost and indefensible in society’s eyes. Advocate is a portrait of her courage, her battles – old and current – and also her dream. Hers is a fight for social and political justice, not for the sake of individual court battles, but for Israel’s future and past.
A game ball
A young Arab man gets on a bus, stabs the driver and eleven of its passengers. Thirteen-year-old Ahmad and his cousin go on a stabbing spree in a Jerusalem neighbourhood. A depressed mother named Israa sets her car on fire yelling Allah Akbar. If the victims are Jewish people, Palestinian offenders are quickly labelled «terrorists» by the media, and their cases become a game ball in the on-going political battle between Israeli and Palestinian authorities. Their cases are judged with a double standard, as the balance of power does not favour them from the start. The occupier is judging the occupied, making it impossible for justice to be blind.
It takes a certain kind of strength to see behind the surface
Through Tsemel’s eyes, her clients are, first of all, just people – people who did things, people in trouble, and people who have families and stories behind them. Beyond the violence and labels, what becomes clear through these cases is how the whole of Israeli society is bleeding, how fear and suffering affects everything and everyone.
This reality is what fuels Tsemel’s work. Through interviews, photographs and archive footage, Advocate dives into Tsemel’s past. Her story goes back to an awakening period of the Israeli conflict’s real nature, and travels through her landmark cases, defending feminists, non-violent demonstrators, armed militants and fundamentalists alike. All of these, building blocks toward the person and lawyer she has become.
After the 1967 war, Tsemel woke up with the realization that most of what she thought of politics and the country’s future was wrong. She saw Palestinians fleeing, entire neighborhoods being destroyed, and it was clear to her there was no «country without people for people without a country», as the slogan went. She joined Matzpen, a revolutionary socialist and anti-Zionist organisation, and boarded on a life of activism against what was then tabu to name, and now common sense to call «the occupation».
What she knows to be right
It takes a certain kind of strength to see behind the surface, to see the causes and the pain, and to take a stand. Throughout the years, she has been demonized and threatened. Yet, equal parts heart, determination, and courage, nothing seems to defeat what she knows to be right.
The occupier is judging the occupied, making it impossible for justice to be blind.
«I don’t understand you», says a TV presenter interviewing her in 1999. «You should try to understand me, because I am the future», she replies. «The political questions we are facing in Israel today, we will face them for many years. So if you try, you will see I have a point». Twenty years later, the reality that surfaces throughout her story is that in looking back, some things have changed but not that many. «Me, I’m a lost cause», she says in the beginning, already used to being seen as «a rebel with a lost cause».
We see Tsemel now in her cluttered office; a veteran lawyer meeting the families of the accused, watching heavily framed media reportages of the cases, and dragging suitcases of files to court. A handful of a woman now in her 70s, she seems to never rest or lose her sense of humour, not even when everything seems to fall apart. Armed with a witty and occasionally filthy mouth, she goes through a continuous circle of frustration and outrage, never afraid to let her heart be broken in the process. And after all these years, despite the small wins and the struggle, she never doubts her convictions and her role.
Beyond the violence and labels, what becomes clear through these cases is how the whole of Israeli society is bleeding
The film is not militant but it is infuriating. It is also inspirational and full of heart. It ends in hope that, as long as there are people still living with compassion, there is still a chance for resolution, even if that resolution is – for now – nowhere in sight. It captures the humanity and pain that lays behind agression and labels, building an insightful picture of a flawed judicial system. One that brings no justice and more pain for those living in what seems a hopeless conflict in a part of the world we choose to see as very far away.