The Essential Role of Culture in Israeli Democracy

14 November 2019

Saul Alinksy, widely known as the father of community organizing, once defined a “radical” as “that unique person who actually believes what he says…that person to whom the common good is the greatest personal value…that person who genuinely and completely believes in mankind.” Advocate, the Oscar-qualified documentary by filmmakers Rachel Leah Jones and Philippe Bellaiche, tells the story of Lea Tsemel, a woman who can only be defined, in the Alinksyian sense, as a “radical.”

The film, which won first place in this years’ DocAviv festival in Tel Aviv, is the story of this inveterate human rights lawyer from her student activism with the Israeli socialist organization Matzpen, through her decades-long career of defending Palestinians, including those charged with committing acts of violence against Israelis. Undaunted by the unpopularity of her work, Advocate depicts a woman who insists on a moral vision of the world as she sees it — and ceaselessly working towards achieving it.

That sense of dedication to justice and peace is certainly something we could use more of now, especially in these moments of uncertainty, tension, and conflict.

Advocate is not easy viewing. Because the life and work of Lea Tsemel are not easy. A daughter of European Jews who came to the shores of Palestine on the eve of the Holocaust, Lea was raised in a Zionist home in Jerusalem. She witnessed the fighting of the Six Day War as a student at Hebrew University and felt the euphoria that gripped the country after that war. But for Tsemel, that euphoria wore off faster than for most.

Soon after she encountered the reality of Israel’s occupation of its newly captured territories, Tsemel began to look for answers, and she dedicated herself to fighting for the rights of Palestinians.

Recently, the film became the latest target of an ongoing campaign by the Israeli right to silence dissent and shut down artists who insist on depicting the occupation and its actual impacts on the lives of Palestinians. After the film came in first place at the DocAviv film festival in Tel Aviv, the government-backed NGO Im Tirzu launched a campaign, alongside Israel’s chief cultural censor, Minister of Culture Miri Regev, to keep Israelis from seeing the film.

Regev called on Israel’s national lottery Mifal Hapayis, which funded the festival prize, to withdraw the prize awarded to the film. Regev’s and Im Tirzu’s campaign of intimidation succeeded at first, and Mifal Hapayis initially agreed to rescind the prize. But in a display of moral courage, Israel’s artists stood shoulder-to-shoulder in protest, cognizant of the threat to a free society posed by Regev’s demand for “loyalty” in the arts.

That the DocAviv prize was ultimately reinstated, that Advocate has sold out movie houses in Tel Aviv – that there is an audience for this film – none of this should be taken for granted. But that is not the full story.

The attempt to censor Advocate is part of a bigger, more dangerous pattern. The Israeli right has tried to shield the occupation from view in several domains. The joint HBO-Keshet production of “Our Boys,” the serialized television drama recounting the abduction and murder of Mohammed Abu Khdeir was attacked by the right-wing for its depiction of a Palestinian victim of a hate crime – at the hands of Jewish perpetrators – and the portrayal of his bereaved family as actual human beings, deserving of sympathy and compassion. Without a dose of irony, the Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu called for a boycott of the Israeli television station that aired the program, and described the series as “anti-Semitic.”

This drive for ideological conformity requires shutting down any attempt to portray either the occupation as a moral crisis, or the Palestinians living in the West Bank as human beings entitled to basic civil and human rights. That is why Israel’s right-wing ruling coalition passed legislation banning the Israeli veterans group Breaking the Silence from speaking in Israel’s public schools.

By their illiberal lights, any organization that holds a mirror up to Israeli society, that educates about the realities of military service in the occupied territories and the human costs of the occupation for both Palestinians and Israelis soldiers, is a public relations problem that must be swept under the rug.

This month, Israel’s Supreme Court capitulated to this campaign when it allowed the government to deport Human Rights Watch Israel and Palestine Director Omar Shakir. The ruling, which applies the 2017 anti-boycott law to a US citizen lawfully in the country, is part of a distressing clampdown on dissent. The law deliberately conflates opposition to Israel’s settlement enterprise with a boycott of Israel. Shakir’s looming deportation raises an ominous specter of the use of deportation to silence and intimidate human rights workers from reporting on the realities of the occupation. A statement by 23 Israeli human rights organizations, including the New Israel Fund and our grantees and partners in Israeli civil society, declared that Shakir’s deportation “severely harmed us all.”

Cynics among us say we live in a post-fact world. But truth still matters. Those who defend the status quo at all costs do not want the truth about what the occupation is doing to the Palestinians, to Israelis, and to Israeli democracy to be known. That is why they try to silence the messenger. That is why they bar IDF veterans who share the truth about the occupation from Israeli classrooms. That is why they’ve tried to deport a leading human rights defender from the country. That is why they seek to intimidate artists.

But the truth is not something you can so easily extinguish. And art, we know, can be one of its most potent conduits.

The film Advocate opens a portal into the life of another human being, and forces the viewer to consider the world from her vantage point. In an environment of intimidation and cultural McCarthyism, Lea Tsemel’s story shows us what it looks like for a woman to articulate a view at odds with the one Israel’s ruling coalition so desperately wants Israelis – and others – to accept unchallenged.

That is radical.

Advocate is screening this week at New York’s 13th annual Other Israel Film Festival which provides New Yorkers a window into Israeli and Palestinian societies, including some of the most underrepresented populations. Presented at the Marlene Meyerson JCC Manhattan, the Other Israel Film Festival was founded by visionary NIF International Board Member Carole Zabar. For 40 years, the New Israel Fund has protected and strengthened democracy, equality, justice, pluralism, and human rights in Israel. And now in its fourth year of publication, the NIF Field Guide to the Other Israel Film Festival gives audiences access to the people and organizations that continue to address the challenges raised by the festival’s films.