Israeli biopic about lawyer representing Palestinians wins Best Documentary Emmy

‘Advocate,’ on Lea Tsemel, has caused controversy back home since it follows her court defense of two accused terrorists

Attorney Lea Tsemel in a trailer for the documentary "Advocate." (Screen capture/YouTube)
Attorney Lea Tsemel in a trailer for the documentary "Advocate." (Screen capture/YouTube)

A biopic about an Israeli attorney who has defended Palestinian terror suspects won an award for Best Documentary at Wednesday night’s News and Documentary Emmy Awards.

“Advocate” follows the story of Lea Tsemel, an attorney who represents Palestinian clients including civil rights activists and suspected terrorists — most recently Arafat Irfaiya, who has confessed to the brutal rape and murder of 19-year-old Ori Ansbacher in a Jerusalem forest in 2019.

The controversial movie — directed by Rachel Leah Jones and Philippe Bellaiche — was previously among 15 films shortlisted for the 2019 Academy Awards in the documentary feature category.

The film follows two cases from the past few years in which Tsemel, 74, represented Palestinians eventually convicted of terrorism.

One is the case of Ahmed Manasra, who was convicted of the attempted murder of two Israelis in a stabbing attack in Jerusalem in October 2015, when he was 13 years old, and is currently serving a 9.5-year prison sentence.

Manasra carried out the attack with his 15-year-old cousin Hassan Manasra. The two stabbed and seriously wounded a 20-year-old man and a 13-year-old boy in the Jerusalem neighborhood of Pisgat Zeev. Hassan Manasra was shot dead by security forces, while Ahmed Manasra was hit by a car as he fled.

The second case is that of Israa Jaabis, a Palestinian woman from East Jerusalem who detonated explosives in her car near Jerusalem in 2015, with a gas canister failing to explode.

While “Advocate” has received international critical acclaim and has won top prizes at the Krakow, Hong Kong, and Thessaloniki festivals, along with Tel Aviv’s documentary film festival Docaviv, it has caused deep political controversy in its home country and has been lashed by right-wing politicians and groups, as well as organizations representing families of terror victims.

13-year-old Palestinian Ahmed Manasra (c) at the Jerusalem District Court on October 25, 2015. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Following a pressure campaign from a group of bereaved families, Israel’s state lottery company, Mifal HaPayis, announced two years ago that it was pulling its funding for future grants given to Docaviv best picture winners after “Advocate” was awarded the prize.

Tsemel herself is a longtime political activist for the Palestinian nationalist Balad party, the most extreme of the three parties that currently make up the Joint List. She has been featured on the party’s electoral slate — in non-realistic, symbolic positions — six times in the last 20 years.

Jacob Magid contributed to this report.

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