Right-wing Protesters Threaten Organizers at Israeli Screening of Documentary on Human Rights Lawyer

Screening comes after film was pulled from festival lineup following request from culture minister ■ Police ask for screening to be halted, citing tense atmosphere

A protest against the screening of the film 'Advocate' on November 9, 2019.
Ben Ophir

Right-wing activists attempted to disrupt the screening of a documentary about an attorney who represents Palestinians accused of terrorism on Saturday, after the film was pulled from a festival lineup following pressure from Culture Minister Miri Regev.

The screening of the film about Lea Tsemel was organized by the DocAviv Galilee Festival at Kibbutz Kabri in the Western Galilee, in protest against the cancellation by Mayor Arkady Pomerantz of the official festival screening in Ma’alot Tarshiha.

Haaretz Weekly Ep. 48Haaretz

As the film was playing, right-wing activist Tzachi Eliyahu went up on stage with his hands covered with red paint, stood in front of the screen and began denouncing the screening.

Meanwhile, some 150 people protested in front of the cultural center in Ma’alot Tarshiha during an outdoor screening of the film organized by the Israel Democratic Forum. Right-wing activists cursed, spat and hurled threats at the event’s organizers and the DocAviv Festival’s director, who had come to the site to express support for the Israel Democratic Forum.

Tzachi Eliyahu interrupts a screening of 'Advocate' on November 9, 2019.

The police had to stand between the protesters and the representatives of the forum and a few dozen residents who had come to see the film. “We started the screening late, it took a long time for us to put up the screen and plug in all the equipment, and the police permit for the screening was valid until 10 P.M.," producer Liran Atzmor told Haaretz.  In the end, at 9:30 the police asked us to fold up because the atmosphere became tense and dangerous for our people. The protesters were constantly trying to disrupt the screening. Then, when the police asked us to fold up early, we did.

“Many residents of the north thanked us and came to be with us. There were 150 protesters against us, and that’s completely legitimate. What’s not legitimate is that the mayor of Ma’alot Tarshiha gave in to pressure,” Atzmor added.

Filmmakers Yael Kipper and Ronen Zaretzky were present at the screening and were attacked as they tried to leave. “At some point the police asked us to leave, everybody together, so they could protect us," Kipper said. "We went toward the car and an older woman who was at the screening followed us, and behind her were about 100 right-wing activists, mostly teens. The police protected us, because the protesters wanted to attack us – they shouted, spat and were really violent. It was insane.” Kipper said.

Kipper and Zaretzky said that after they got into their car, the protesters continued to spit at it and make threatening gestures, calling them “leftists” and “traitors,” saying they wished “something will happen to you on the way home,” and shouting “Kahane Hai,” a far-right slogan used by supporters of the racist rabbi Meir Kahane.

Kipper and Zaretzky hold a film workshop in Ma’alot and live in the northern community of Harashim. Kipper said she didn’t know the protesters or whether they came from Ma’alot. "It was a feeling of helplessness," she said. "I wanted to respond but there was no way. At that moment, when we were in the car, I thought the police should do something because children were standing there and spitting on our car. But apparently there isn’t a lot to do about this."

 The police acted to keep the protesters back so they could drive away, Kipper said. “At the beginning of the event I suggested our son come with us and see the protest and now I’m glad he didn’t want to come,” she added.

Late last week Deputy Attorney General Dina Zilber wrote to the Association of Civil Rights in Israel that local authorities are not authorized to intervene in the content of public activities and that Mayor Pomerantz’s decision to cancel the screening of “Advocate” was illegal and an infringement on freedom of expression.

Zilber wrote that Regev, who asked Pomerantz to cancel the screening, also had no authority to intervene in a cultural event due to its content.

“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," Zilber wrote.

In protest against the cancellation, the film is being directly streamed at no charge on the DocAviv Facebook page until 6 P.M. on Sunday. So far, 2,584 people have seen it, according to DocAviv.

“Advocate,” directed by Rachel Leah Jones and Phillippe Belaiche, follows the work of the Israeli lawyer Lea Tsemel, who for five decades has been pursuing justice, representing Palestinians whom she sees as political prisoners – from non-violent protesters to armed fighters.

After the film won first prize at the DocAviv Festival this year, a group of bereaved parents called the Choosing Life Forum protested the prize, encouraged by right-wing activists and demanded it be rescinded. The Mifal Hapais lottery, which funds the prize, said it would consider the matter, and would no longer fund the prize for the winning film at the DocAviv Festival.

The decision by Mifal Hapais stirred sharp criticism over what was called a failure to defend freedom of expression. Judges on the awards committee resigned in protest and candidates for the lottery’s Sapir Prize announced that they would give part of their prize money to DocAviv. A wave of cancellations of lottery subscriptions followed.

About two months ago, Mifal Hapais backtracked and said it would continue awarding grants as planned, although it would give them to the festival, and the festival would transfer them to the winners.

The Mifal Hapais funding is meant to pay for the PR campaign for the Oscar bid for “Advocate.” The film continues to garner global praise. Last month the International Documentary Association announced that the film was up for two awards – for best picture and best director.