An interview with Rachel Leah Jones, director of Advocate, the Oscar-shortlisted film about Jewish Israeli attorney Lea Tsemel who has made her work defending Palestinians.
By Mairav Zonszein | The Nation | Jan 10, 2020
She doesn’t just believe in the humanity of her clients and the people she advocates for, she sees the humanity of all her adversaries too—judges, prosecutors, interrogators, who by and large don’t share her worldview at all.
— Rachel Leah Jones, director of Advocate
“I’m an Israeli occupier no matter what I do. I enjoy the ‘fruits’ of the occupation, both bitter and sweet. And despite my moral obligation as an Israeli, I didn’t manage to change the regime and its policies. On what moral grounds should I judge the people who resist my occupation?”
So says Jewish Israeli attorney Lea Tsemel as she explains her life’s work defending Palestinian clients—many of whom most Israelis consider to be terrorists—in the documentary film Advocate.
Directed by Rachel Leah Jones and Philippe Bellaïche, both Israeli citizens, the film is one of 15 documentaries shortlisted for an Oscar nomination—quite an achievement for a film that humanizes Palestinians caught up in Israel’s criminal justice system for resisting Israeli occupation, both nonviolently and violently.
The film follows Tsemel’s work on two recent court cases involving Palestinian residents of East Jerusalem who were charged with committing violent acts against Israelis, and is interwoven with archival footage of Tsemel’s past cases as well as interviews with her two children; Palestinian leader and activist Hanan Ashrawi; and her husband, Michel Warschawski. Warschawski, a well-known anti-Zionist activist, himself became one of Tsemel’s clients after being arrested in 1987 for publishing a know-your-rights booklet edited by students with ties to the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine. When he complained to her about the punishing interrogation tactics, he recalls in the film, she told him he wasn’t worthy of being her husband.