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

April 27, 1988|PAUL CIOTTI | 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."

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