Attorney General Condemns Nixing Film Screening on Lawyer Defending Palestinians

Deputy attorney general says cancellation 'violates freedom of expression'; culture minister called for the cancellation of the showing of 'Lea Tsemel, Advocate,' which she claims glorifies terrorists

From the documentary 'Advocate,' about Lea Tsemel.
Philippe Bellaiche

The attorney general said Friday that a northern Israeli city's cancellation of a documentary about a lawyer who defends Palestinians accused of terrorism has no legal basis and violates freedom of expression.

Ma'alot-Tarshiha canceled the screening, slated for Saturday as part of a documentary film festival, following pressure exerted by Culture Minister Miri Regev.

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The Association for Civil Rights in Israel has asked the deputy attorney general to instruct Regev that she acted illegally "and misled the mayor into believing that he is authorized to attack freedom of expression."

The association also asked that Ma'alot Mayor Arkady Pomerantz be told that he does not have the right to intervene at the Docaviv Galilee Documentary Film Festival.

In response to The Association of Civil Rights of Israel, Deputy Attorney General Dina Zilber wrote, "No basis was introduced that establishes such exceptional or extreme circumstances that would allow for freedom of expression to be violated by cancelling the screening."

Zilber added that "The message projected by the leadership, that activities of cultural institutions and artists are constantly under the watchful eye of government authorities and subject to supervision and monitoring in order to adapt their content to government tastes – harms the foundation of freedom of expression."

The municipality of Ma'alot-Tarshiha reported that the legal opinion had reached the city's legal bureau and is being examined by the legal adviser.

In a letter sent to Regev on Thursday, Mayor Pomerantz wrote that he does not support the film and that the city had no say in selecting the festival's lineup.

"It is important to me as mayor to maintain the correct balance and good relations between the various and highly varied populations," he wrote. "The film 'Lea Tsemel, Advocate,' despite being funded by the Culture Ministry, endangers this balance. I have therefore decided to cancel the showing of the film."

As a result of the cancellation, the festival’s management announced it would screen the film tomorrow at an alternative location, and open a special internet channel that would allow watching the film directly, over a period of 24 hours.

In addition, the Hot 8 channel, which supported the production of the movie, announced it will broadcast it on Saturday night in protest of the cancellation. 

“The festival’s management will not lend a hand in any manner to censorship, silencing cultral and artistic works, and political acts intended to harm the dialogue that reflects the reality in Israel, in all its diversity,” said the festival’s management Thursday. 

The association's chief legal counsel, Dan Yakir, wrote to Attorney General Avichai Mendelblit to complain about Regev's contacting the mayor on the matter and reminded Mendelblit that Yakir had written to him about the general issue in 2017 after Regev sought the cancellation of cultural events due to their content.

"In your response, you made it clear in no uncertain terms that mayors must not intervene in artistic content and that the culture minister is barred from approaching and pressuring them to act against the law."

Yakir noted that a Haifa court recently granted one of the association's petition and ruled that a mayor must not intervene in the content of cultural events, even if they are held at venues owned by the city.  

On Twitter, Regev welcomed the cancellation of the showing of the film in Ma'alot. She referred to Tsemel as "the terrorists' lawyer" and said she was "pleased that following my demand, the Tsemel film was removed from the Docaviv Festival. There are no grounds for giving a public platform to glorifiers of terrorists!"

In the debate over the cancellation that followed on social media, documentary film producers protested the festival’s decision and viewed it as an act of surrender. “Film festivals are a means and not an end! Their role is to celebrate diversity, artistic freedom and intellectual independence, and if they don’t do so, then they have no right to exist,” wrote former chairman of the documentary film forum, director Uri Rosenwaks.

Regev previously criticized the documentary after it won the top prize at the Docaviv Festival in Tel Aviv in June. The culture minister had condemned “the choice to make a movie focusing on a lawyer who represents, supports and speaks in the name of many who undermine the State of Israel’s existence, using terrorism against its soldiers and people, and gaining legal and public support from Tsemel.”

On several prior occasions, Regev condemned films and other cultural works that she claimed glorified terrorism or demonized Israel and its military.