National lottery pulls funding for festival prize after divisive film wins

Mifal HaPayis says it will also examine legal options to rescind grant to documentary about Israeli lawyer who has defended Palestinian terror suspects

Jacob Magid is The Times of Israel's US correspondent based in New York

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)

Following a pressure campaign from a group of bereaved families, Israel’s state lottery company announced on Thursday that it would be pulling its funding for future grants given to best picture winners at Tel Aviv’s documentary film festival after a biopic about an Israeli attorney who has defended Palestinian terror suspects was awarded the prize last month.

“It was decided to stop funding the prize for the winning film at the DocAviv Festival and to examine the issue of the current award with legal counsel,” a statement from Mifal HaPayis said.

Last month, the documentary “Advocate” was named best picture at the Docaviv film festival. The movie follows the story of Lea Tsemel, an attorney who represents Palestinian clients including civil rights activists as well as suspected terrorists — most recently Arafat Irfaiya, who is on trial for the brutal rape and murder of 19-year-old Ori Ansbacher in a Jerusalem forest in February.

In awarding the film, judges wrote that “Advocate” is “a thought-provoking project that addresses an important subject and demonstrates impressive cinematic skills, especially the innovative and intelligent use of animation… [It] sketches out a complex portrait of a strong and inspiring woman who believes in the justness of her path with all her heart.”

The documentary won two sets of prize money — the Howard Gilman Award of NIS 70,000 ($19,500) and a marketing grant from Mifal HaPayis’s Council for Culture and Arts of NIS 150,000 ($42,000).

According to the Choosing Life Forum, a group for bereaved families that partnered with the right-wing Im Tirzu activist group, hundreds of Israelis throughout the country canceled their memberships with Mifal HaPayis as a result of their pressure campaign on social media. The group also protested outside the firm’s Tel Aviv headquarters, pouring red paint symbolizing blood on the entrance of the building.

Responding to Mifal HaPayis’s announcement, the Choosing Life Forum said, “It’s a shame that the organization’s management did not prevent from the outset the awarding of a grant to a film that portrays someone who defends Israel’s enemies on a daily basis.”

DocAviv called on Mifal HaPayis to rethink its decision. “Canceling its awarding of the prize means direct damage to the artists and a direct violation of freedom of expression,” the film festival said.

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