In the wake of pressure from far-right and racist Culture and Sports Minister Miri Regev (Likud), the mayor of Ma’alot-Tarshiha in northern Israel, Arkady Pomeranets, canceled a screening of the documentary film Advocate that was to be held at the Docaviv Galilee Festival last Saturday night, November 10. Advocate, depicts the life and work of human rights lawyer Lea Tsemel. Regev axed the screening of the film because of its sympathetic portrayal of Tsemel, who has been defending Palestinians under Israeli occupation for nearly 50 years, tirelessly representing both Palestinian and Israeli political prisoners.
Miri Regev, a former Brigadier-general in the Israel army, served as the military spokesperson from 2005-2007. Prior to that, she was the army’s Chief Press and Media Censor (2004-2005). Upon her leaving the military in 2008, she joined the Likud, and was elected to the Knesset for the first time in 2009. Since 2015 she has served as Minister of Culture and Sport in Netanyahu’s governments, where she has vehemently pursued an agenda against what she considers to be politically subversive works and institutions. Regev applauded the removal of the film from the festival program and said there is “no room to screen subversive films in publicly supported institutions.”
In reaction to the canceling of the Saturday night screening of Advocate in Ma’a lot-Tarshiha Joint List MK Aida Touma-Sliman (Hadash) said: “Miri Regev continues to operate contrary to the law… A serious problem is that mayors who speak so highly of the importance of Arab-Jewish relations cooperate with Regev’s persecution and restrict freedom of expression. Lea Tsemel is a leading human rights activist. Ma’alot Tarshiha should be proud to present the film about her.” Joint List MK Ofer Cassif (Hadash) also voiced similar criticisms on Twitter. Touma-Sliman and Cassif are both leading members of the Communist Party of Israel.
In June, Mifal Hapais (Israel’s national lottery) decided to stop funding the Docaviv Prize after a far-right organization of “bereaved families of terror victims” protested the awarding of the prize to Advocate in May. The main Docaviv festival is held in Tel Aviv in the spring, while the Docaviv Galilee event takes place in Ma’a lot-Tarshiha in November.
Explaining the decision to cancel the screening, Pomeranets wrote in a statement that the Ma’alot-Tarshiha Municipality was not involved in selecting the film and that it “was important to maintain a delicate balance between different factions among the population and that showing the film could negatively shift this balance.” The city was established in 1963 through a municipal merger of the Arab town of Tarshiha and the Jewish town of Ma’alot.
Following cancellation of the screening, the management of Docaviv released a statement saying it would screen the film at Kibbutz Kabri on Saturday November 10, at 3 pm and that it would make the film available on its website for 24 hours starting on Saturday at 6 pm. The statement condemned the arbitrary and unilateral decision on the part of Mayor Pomeranets to intervene and censor the film that won first place at DocAviv in Tel Aviv. “The decision to screen the film at an alternative venue stems from a responsibility that the festival has to our loyal audience, filmmakers and documentary film-making. The festival management will not cooperate in any way with censorship and the silencing of cultural and artistic works whose aim is harming discourse that reflects the reality of Israel in all its forms.”
Advocate, a film by Philippe Bellaiche and Rachel Leah Jones, actually received funding from the Israeli Film Council, which is run by the Culture and Sport Ministry headed by Regev, and since its release has won prizes and acclaim at film festivals around the world, including being chosen as an official selection at this year’s prestigious Sundance Film Festival.
Advocate will be screened in New York during the week-long 13th annual “Other Israel Film Festival” that begins there on Thursday, November 14, and at 7pm it will be featured as the festival’s opening night selection. The screening will be followed by a Q&A session and the opening night reception.