Israeli Roots, Palestinian Clients : Taking the Arab Cause to Court Has Earned Jewish Lawyer Lea Tsemel the Wrath of Her Countrymen

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Times Staff Writer

Sitting on a kitchen stool on a cool, bright morning in Santa Monica, Lea Tsemel really doesn’t look like a “traitor,” “communist,” “whore,” “Palestinian lover,” “self-hating Jew” or any of the other things she’s been called for defending Palestinians in Israeli military courts. In fact, she’s looking surprisingly domestic. There’s an array of cat food dishes on the floor at her feet. She’s using her shoulder to hold a telephone to her ear and, while waiting to do a phone interview with a radio station out in the Valley, she idly flips through a stack of recipes.

Tsemel is in the Los Angeles area on the first stop of a two-week speaking tour of major United States cities for the Palestine Aid Society. She is here to talk about what she calls Israel’s systematic denial of human and political rights for Palestinians in the territories captured in the 1967 war. She believes that as a Jew she has special credibility on the Palestinian question--the “pro-Israel lobby,” she says, can’t accuse her of being “an anti-Semite.”

Debated Michael Jackson

Tsemel has already debated Michael Jackson on his radio show earlier this morning. Now the tension of hanging on the line has her chain-smoking. It has also left her primed for the jugular.


“The Palestinians have had 21 years of oppression,” she tells the interviewer when he finally puts her on 15 minutes late. “If Israel is stupid enough to continue to do what they are doing, the solution is going to be a single state but it is going to be named Palestine instead of Israel.”

After 10 minutes, the interviewer closes by asking Tsemel if she is a Marxist, whereupon she stubs out her cigarette so hard she flips the ashtray off the counter.

“I consider myself an anti-Zionist,” she says as she crouches on the floor snatching up the cigarette butts. “You can consider it Marxist. It is a dirty word for you. But I consider myself anti-Zionist.”

She hangs up the telephone and heads for the door where her local host, Santa Monica stockbroker John Zacharia--a Palestinian whose family, he says, fled the country following a massacre of Palestinian civilians in the 1948 war--is waiting to drive her to a noon lecture at UCLA.

Anti-Zionist Jew

“ ‘Are you a Marxist? Are you a Marxist?’ ” she repeats in a sarcastic sing-song as she walks out to the car. “That (was his) last question. Everyone is so concerned about that. I told him I was an anti-Zionist.”

“It was a good answer,” says Zacharia, who is so anxious to get Tsemel to her talk on time that he drives off with the rear car door open.


“Dad-dee!” yells Zacharia’s 19-year-old daughter Christina from the back seat.

“Don’t worry,” Tsemel says soothingly, “they won’t start without us.”

Tsemel began practicing law in Israel in 1972. Her first big case (“I lost, of course.”) involved a group of Palestinians and Jews who supported the PLO and who went to Syria for guerrilla training. One of them--a former kibbutznik named Udi Adiv--is known as one of the country’s most famous traitors. Tsemel represented the Palestinians--not Adiv, who was released from prison only in 1986 and is apparently still under a court order not to talk to the press. With the recent unrest, Tsemel spends most of her time representing Palestinians accused of everything from stone-throwing to attacking buses, those being deported and those held in administrative detention in what she calls “concentration camps.”

Perhaps it’s fighting all those losing battles in the courtroom, or maybe it’s just being around the Israeli military so much, but Tsemel has an aura of command. She has gray eyes, short black hair and a direct--even brusque--manner, which at unexpected times can turn warm and welcoming. She’s wearing leather boots, a gray tunic with a cheap plastic clip-on watch and, as her primary concession to fashion, three silver rings on each hand. (She was, she says, one of the original founders of the Israeli feminist movement.) It is her voice, however, that is most distinctive--it’s so low and gravelly that when she calls the Israeli army, she says, the young women who answer the telephones think that “I am a high-ranking officer and make passes at me.”

Tsemel was born in Israel in 1945 to pro-Zionist parents, grew up in Haifa and attended Hebrew University law school. She worked as a volunteer in the Israeli army during the 1967 war helping evacuate Moroccan Jews from the border with East Jerusalem. As a reward, she says, the Israeli army took her on a tour of the West Bank. “I saw Palestinian refugees walking down the Jordan Valley. It was exactly a copy in my collective memory of the wandering Jew, but now they were wandering Palestinians.”

After that, Tsemel says, she became a political activist. “I thought it was a war for peace. I felt cheated.”

Tsemel subsequently became a member of the now defunct Matzpen (Compass) movement, a revolutionary communist faction associated with the ideas of the late Leon Trotsky and considered “left” of the pro-Moscow Rakah Communist Party in Israel. Now, Tsemel says, she is far too busy defending clients in court to have time for political activity.

After the 1982 war, Tsemel says, Israeli society took a sudden turn to the right. Many Israelis, instead of trying to defend Israeli policy as a social and economic benefit to the Palestinians, didn’t bother anymore. Instead, she says, the country took a cue from Nazi Germany--”the same racism, the same hatred, the same ideology of super race: ‘We are the chosen people. God intended to make us special. This land belongs to us.’ ”


Although such hardball critiques make her a hero to Palestinians and the Israeli left, to the rest of the country she’s at the very least a “fringe weirdo,” and at worst an outright traitor who is giving aid and comfort to the enemy in time of war. She’s been spat upon and slapped around. And, on occasion, she says, followers of right-wing Rabbi Meir Kahane have made nighttime visits to her East Jerusalem law office to deface the building with graffiti.

The Anti-Defamation League’s Max Greenberg, who debated Tsemel in a Friday afternoon taping in the Channel 2 television studios, says that although Tsemel obviously has a heartfelt identification with the Palestinians, the policies advocated by Tsemel’s supporters on the Israeli left would inevitably lead to the establishment of a pro-Soviet state in the Middle East.

Palestinians Are Pawns

The Palestinians, Greenberg says, are “pawns in a geo-political game being played by the Arab states. There are 20 Arab states surrounding Israel, but none are seriously pursuing the possibility of peace. Yasser Arafat will not renounce terrorism. He is not ready to say he believes Israel has a right to exist.”

Tsemel responds that Israel does not need recognition by the Arab states in order to do something about its oppression of the Palestinians. Her efforts to fight racist attitudes in Israeli courts generally leave her so drained and exhausted, she says, that she couldn’t go on if it were not for the fact that at least once a day she encounters yet another “outrageous” injustice to the Palestinians. And that, she says, “gives me energy for a week.”

At UCLA, Tsemel is surprised to find there are no ashtrays in the windowless room in the basement of Lu Valle cafeteria where she’s to give her talk. “Everyone is so concerned about smoking here,” she says in wonderment. Undeterred, she makes an ashtray out of an empty cigarette box and chain-smokes anyway.

“I am in the occupied territories every day,” she tells a respectful and attentive audience that includes both Arabs and Jews. “When I got a permit to be a lawyer, it was natural that I would want to defend the underdogs.”


Not that she ever wins any cases in the Israeli military courts, she says. “I don’t consider myself a lawyer. I’m a merchant just trying to get the best deal possible.”

She tells her audience that upon the signature of a military commander, a person in the occupied territories can be arrested and detained without charges and without a trial for six months. “After the six months is over, it can be renewed another six months,” she says. Right now, she claims, the Israelis are holding more than 1,500 people on administrative detention without trial and without charges. “I had one client who was arrested administratively for seven years.”

If nothing else works, she says, the Israelis just deport the Palestinians en masse, despite the fact that such deportations are expressly prohibited by the Geneva Conventions. (The Israeli Supreme Court gets around the conventions, Tsemel says, by arguing “we are not doing mass deportations. We are doing individual deportations.”)

Now a Colonial Power

As a result, Tsemel says, Israel has now become a colonial power in the occupied territories. “Punishments are outrageous,” she says. “Torture is legalized . . . There is one set of laws for Jews and another one for Arabs. Before the uprising, the army would merely humiliate the Palestinians.” Now, she says, whenever they catch a Palestinian they break his bones.

One would think, Tsemel says, that the media would on occasion show a little sympathy for the Palestinian. What they do instead, she says, is show a soldier breaking a Palestinian’s bones “for one-half second” on the TV followed by “a long interview with the soldier, (asking him) ‘What does it do to your soul?’

“Why don’t they ever ask what it does to the soul of the Palestinian’s mother. Or the Palestinian with the broken bones?”


Back in the car after her talk, and on the way to a TV taping, Tsemel seems almost nostalgic for the days when, she says, angry Zionists used to challenge and disrupt her public appearances. Now, “The Zionists are not attacking,” she says. “They are all on the defensive. I wish they would show up.”

“You do?” Christina Zacharia says.

“Of course,” Tsemel says.

Times Jerusalem bureau chief Dan Fisher contributed to this story.