Culture Minister Slams Award-winning Documentary on Israeli Lawyer Who Defends Palestinians

Presenting the work of Lea Tsemel, who represents suspected terrorists, in a positive light 'is outrageous and deserving of condemnation,' Regev claims

Israeli lawyer Lea Tsemel during the filming of "Advocate," May 6, 2019.
Adi Mozes

Israel’s Culture Minister Miri Regev on Monday heavily criticized awarding a prize to a documentary that tells the story of an Israeli lawyer who defends Palestinians charged with terrorism.

“Advocate,” which features lawyer Lea Tsemel, won first prize at Tel Aviv’s annual Docaviv Film Festival, being named “Best Picture” last Wednesday. 

Regev 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, use terrorism against its soldiers and people, and win legal and public support from Tsemel.” She also called on Mifal Hapayis, the national lottery company that funded the movie, to reject the prize.

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Regev’s comments come after a letter was sent to her from the Choosing Life forum of bereaved families, urging the minister to void the award given to the movie.

The forum, which is supported by the Im Tirtzu Zionist organization, wrote to Regev, “That same Tsemel, for over five decades, has been representing terrorists who murdered Israelis among them many of our children, wives, husbands, siblings and other relatives. Funding the prize for a person defending terrorists in court is to spit in the faces of the bereaved families,” the forum wrote. “This crazy film is supposed to represent the State of Israel in the international Oscars contest, which is astonishing and repugnant.”

The DocAviv award goes directly to the filmmakers, not to their subject, in this case Tsemel.

Hadas Mizrahi, among the Choosing Life forum leaders, admitted that she had not watched “Advocate.”

Regev also wrote in her letter that any movie representing Tsemel’s work in a “positive light is outrageous and deserving of condemnation,” and cannot leave Israelis who fear for the future of the State of Israel indifferent. “No cinematic effects can hide Lea Tsemel’s work against the State of Israel and its people,” Regev wrote, adding that it is regrettable a movie of this ilk received funding from the state. 

Her spokesman said he was not sure if the minister watched the movie.

Shortly after Regev’s comments were publicized, the Culture Ministry released another announcement clarifying that the award had not been granted by the ministry itself, that it does not fund the prize and that in fact the ministry has nothing whatsoever to do with the DocAviv prize. “That prize is funded by the Payis council for culture and art, which is a body of the Finance Ministry and Union of Local Authorities, which isn’t connected with the Culture Ministry,” statement read.

That announcement was attached to Regev’s call on the Payis organization to turn its back on the festival leaders’ choice of the winning movie, starring Lea Tsemel. 

“Advocate” was directed by Rachel Leah Jones and Philippe Bellaiche and follows an Israeli lawyer who has been defending political prisoners for over 50 years, from nonviolent demonstrators to armed fighters, in an incessant fight for justice. The movie’s debuted at the Sundance festival and its Israeli debut was at DocAviv, which ended Saturday night. 

In contrast to what was written in Choosing Life’s letter, “Advocate” isn’t “Israel’s representative” to the Oscars. Although it already won three prizes – DocAviv, Saloniki and Krakow), qualifying it to be a candidate for the Oscars’ best documentary, movies in that category aren’t presented by state. 

“Advocate” was financed by HOT Channel 8, the Makor foundation, and the Hapais Council for the Culture and Arts. It is scheduled to be broadcast on HOT channel 8 on June 30.

HOT commented that it respects the feelings of the bereaved families however it also stands behind this movie and is proud to have been part of its worldwide success, and plans to show the movie as scheduled.