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Lea Tsemel - Israeli lawyer for Palestine

Morning Star editor Ben Chacko on the remarkable 'lawyer who always loses' fighting racism and apartheid in her native Israel

ONE of the requirements the Board of Deputies (BoD) of British Jews makes of candidates for the Labour leadership is “engagement with the Jewish community via its main representative groups.”

Presumably the BoD will decide what these “main representative groups” are — a privilege it has claimed at least since 1981, when as David Rosenberg has written for this newspaper, “a range of politically independent Jewish groups, secular and religious, received funding [from the Greater London Council] for their projects.

“The BoD wrote to Livingstone insisting on its right to vet any applications by Jewish groups seeking GLC funding.” Rosenberg notes that Livingstone’s refusal was never forgiven.

The BoD is known for making highly controversial political statements. It welcomed the shift of the US embassy to Israel from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, for example, despite this being widely seen internationally as an explicit rejection of the two-state solution for Israel and Palestine. It blamed Hamas for the massacres of unarmed Palestinians by the Israeli Defence Forces along the Israel-Gaza border during the Great Return March.

Its record suggests it is likely to object to recognising the many Jewish organisations that strongly disagree with these positions as legitimate. Yet revolutionary socialists will always be cautious about accepting the right of organisations considered “mainstream” in capitalist countries to police what is and isn’t acceptable. This is particularly so given the BoD’s open support for the more extreme actions of an Israeli government that many of its own citizens view as lurching to the right, as I heard last weekend.

One of the most powerful speakers at the Rosa Luxemburg conference in Berlin was Lea Tsemel, the Israeli lawyer whose fearless defence of Palestinian clients was showcased in last year’s award-winning documentary film The Advocate. Tsemel is Jewish, but that didn’t stop the Mercure hotel, where the conference took place, from receiving demands that it refuse to host it on the grounds that it featured an “anti-semitic” speaker.

“These epithets are not so strange to my ears,” she told the audience, noting that in Israel the right have dubbed her “the devil’s advocate” for her defence of Palestinian prisoners (ironic given that in English the term, rather than being sinister, implies the necessary presentation of an opposing view to ensure all aspects of a question are thrashed out).

“I am not a self-hating Jew at all, and I’m certainly not an anti-semite,” Tsemel declares. “What I am is someone who really, deeply hates the occupation.”

For Tsemel, Israel’s illegal occupation of Palestinian land is the root cause of conflict between it and Palestinian groups. She defends Palestinians because “I have a moral and ethical duty to defend the occupied.

“It’s not my place to judge what the occupied do to resist. We have enough judges in Israel. Do I like it? Not necessarily. Does it scare me? Sometimes. But it is not my place.

“The context is clear: when the occupation ends, the resistance to the occupation will end too.”

This uncompromising stance has made Tsemel a deeply controversial figure in Israel, and while her film received top prize at Israel’s Docaviv film festival, it was denounced by Culture Minister Miri Regev and faced boycotts and cancelled screenings across the country. Israel’s national-lottery company even said it would pull funding from future Docaviv festivals – though following an uproar from film-makers and artists it backtracked.

The row over freedom of expression showed that opposition to the hard-right politics of Benjamin Netanyahu still exists in Israel, but Tsemel warns that she is not the “bearer of good news. Today we are in a period of severe regression, and the fact that this is not just true of Israel but of much of the world is no consolation.

“Israel today is witness to constitutional changes that violate the balance that supposedly existed to protect its status as both a Jewish and a democratic state. The Nation State Law fails to recognise all citizens of Israel as equals. There are efforts to limit the powers of the Supreme Court, and to revoke the citizenship of citizens — Arab citizens, of course — deemed to have acted against ‘state security.’ The so-called ‘Nakba law’ allows the state to cut off funding for any organisation that marks the dispossession of Palestinians in 1948.

“Israel continues to impose collective punishment such as house demolitions.”

She bitterly reflects that even victories have proven transient: when the Israeli Supreme Court banned torture in 1999, “we thought it was a huge victory. Yet it continues. And via special permits some suspects are tortured so badly they are close to death.

“Targeted assassinations are routine for those considered opponents of the occupation. This is a practice that has now been adopted internationally.”

Yet the answer, when she raises these issues on the streets of Israel, is often “‘so what?’

“The hope that we would be a ‘light unto the nations’ has been replaced by crude nationalism, proud racism, the desire for apartheid.”

What was most striking about Tsemel’s address was how many of the issues she raised were those faced by socialists internationally.

Israel’s bid to revoke the rights of its Arab citizens and erase their history are all too familiar from the attacks on Muslim and Christian rights in Narendra Modi’s India. Hard-right governments with an increasing contempt for the rule of law and a stated desire to bring the supposedly independent judiciary to heel exist in the United States and Britain as well as in Israel.

“The reality may be full of despair, but all is not yet lost. Peace Now may not flood the streets as it once did, but it has not had its last word,” she says of the Israeli NGO. “If Rosa Luxemburg was here now, she would be standing with the veterans of Breaking the Silence” (the organisation for former IDF soldiers exposing crimes of the occupation) “and the Rabbis for Human Rights resisting settlers trying to steal Bedouin lands in the Jordan Valley.”

Tsemel has described herself as “a lawyer who always loses,” “grateful for every month I can knock off a client’s sentence” in a political and legal system rigged against Palestinians. “Sometimes I feel like the child crying out that the emperor has no clothes; sometimes like the one with their finger in the dyke, trying to stop the torrent.”

Both roles are likely to be thrust on socialists in this country facing a ruthless Conservative government and a ferocious Establishment drive to discredit the left of the Labour Party following Jeremy Corbyn’s departure as leader. The work of lawyers like Tsemel shows the long and unrelenting struggle to which all of us who want to change the world must resign ourselves — but also that it is a struggle in which even small and localised victories can make a difference.

And it’s a reminder too that no country and no community is a monolith. It can be as important to listen for voices of dissent at the fringes as it is to go with the flow of political trends. No revolution adheres to the common sense of the political system it brings down.

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