Pressured by Far Right, Israel's Bar Association Sanctions Attorney Defending Palestinians

Lea Tsemel, whose work representing Palestinian terror suspects was documented in a film that sparked controversy, loses post as head of military tribunals committee

Netael Bandel
Netael Bandel
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Lea Tsemel at a hearing at the Central District Court in Lod, in 2013.
Lea Tsemel at a hearing at the Central District Court in Lod, in 2013.Credit: Tomer Appelbaum
Netael Bandel
Netael Bandel

Israeli advocate Lea Tsemel’s position as chairwoman of the military tribunals committee with the Israel Bar Association's Jerusalem district was frozen on Monday following pressure by right-wing organizations and bereaved families.       

Tsemel, a prominent attorney who has been representing Palestinians suspected of carrying out terror attacks for years, drew controversy and a lot of attention after a documentary about her, “Advocate,” was shortlisted for an Oscar Award in February as part of the documentary film category. 

The bar association's Jerusalem district chairman, Asher Axelrod, ordered to freeze her appointment after it received requests from the Choosing Life Forum (which represents Israeli bereaved parents), that had been backed by the radical, right-wing Im Tirtzu movement, the right-wing Israel Sheli movement and Btsalmo, a right-wing human rights organization.

Tsemel has been chairing the military tribunals committee of the Bar Association for eight and a half years. Her appointment was supposed to be renewed for the third time on Monday. 

Alongside its cinema success, the documentary on her work directed by Philippe Bellaïche and Rachel Leah Jones aroused public criticism by a group of bereaved families.

After the documentary won the best picture award at Tel Aviv’s annual Docaviv film festival, Culture Minister Miri Regev slammed it and demanded that its screenings be cancelled, claiming it is anti-Israeli. The Mifal Hapayis lottery company said it would withdraw support for the award handed out at the Docaviv festival in the future, though it later relented. The festival management responded by distributing the film on YouTube for 24 hours, so it would be accessible to all. 

On Monday, Axelrod told the religious Israeli website Srugim that Lea Tsemel’s appointment was “nothing new – she has been on the job for eight and a half years. Every four years it is renewed, now she is starting her third term on the job.” He ascribed the change of course concerning the attorney to internal politics within the Bar Association: “All kinds entities who were once in coalition with me and are in opposition today find it convenient to bring it out because it’s a hot topic. It’s all politics. Look, Lea Tsemel, and suddenly everybody wakes up.”