‘The Law in These Parts’

‘The Law in These Parts’

An Israeli filmmaker struggles with the question of the rule of law in conquered territory

Eric Goldman writes and teaches about Jewish cinema. He is president of Ergo Media, a distributor of Jewish, Yiddish and Israeli film.

“The Law In These Parts” director Ra’anan Alexandrowicz. Courtesy of Cinema Guild

In 2003, Ra’anan Alexandrowicz’ narrative feature film, “James’ Journey to Jerusalem,” was being screened at a local film festival, and the Israeli cultural attaché there led the discussion that followed. An audience member asked the attaché how he could allow such a film, which shows the plight of migrant workers in Israel, to be shown. After all, it presented a negative picture of Israel, and it showed Israelis taking advantage of these foreign workers.

The consul paused for a moment and then he said, “Israel is a democracy. We do allow for free speech and freedom of expression.” He went on to say that he was proud of the fact that this Israeli filmmaker could bring a situation so desperately in need of repair to the screen.

Now, once again, nearly a decade later, Ra’anan Alexandrowicz is pushing buttons by asking hard questions in his documentary, “Shilton Hachok,” released here as “The Law in These Parts.” The film is garnering many awards, including a grand jury prize at the Sundance Film Festival and the best documentary award at the Jerusalem Film Festival. Fully aware of the fact that documentary filmmaking can be manipulated easily, throughout the film the filmmaker alerts us to the various quandaries that he has had to tackle. Should certain people be interviewed? How should he assemble the interviews? What impact would including one person and excluding another have on the thrust of the film?

He does this to make clear that no matter how he crafts his work, the film still will have his imprimatur and surely will be influenced by his politics.

Alexandrowicz begins the film by building a set – a chair and a desk. He does that literally, with wood, a hammer, and nails. It is there that the people who are interviewed are to sit.

Behind the set, footage is screened to provide us, the viewers, with a fuller picture of events, though often the film is obstructed by the desk and chair. At first we are annoyed that we cannot watch the full picture, but the documentarian wants us to be keenly aware that a case is being presented. The military legal authorities being interviewed are the witnesses, and in a way we are left to judge.

Just what is it that Alexandrowicz wants us to know? What was the legal framework and labyrinth of laws created and enforced when Israel took control of the west bank after its victory in the Six Day War? How have those laws changed over the last 45 years? What impact does it have on the Palestinians living under Israeli administration? The real question, which is never really posed, is who is the defendant? Is it the State of Israel?

When Israel was victorious in 1967, a set of laws were put into place that carefully drew on international law and convention. The Israeli government wanted to be sure to handle its moral and judicial imperatives in an appropriate fashion. It is quite impressive to hear from some of the people who crafted these laws as they talk about the care that was taken to make sure that they were doing the right thing. Among the people interviewed in this film are some of Israel’s legal giants, like Dov Shefi, Jair Rabinovich, Jonathan Livny, and Meir Shamgar. Shamgar was Military Advocate General when Israel first took control of the west bank and later became a judge and then president of Israel’s Supreme Court. How are the laws that were created for the territories different from the laws that govern Israel proper? Are not laws of occupation inherently different? We know that a trial in a military court cannot be the same as a trial in a civilian court. That certainly is the case in the United States and throughout the western world. Israel is no different. So what is the filmmaker looking at?

Some nine years ago, Alexandrowicz found himself in a military courtroom. He was shocked by the mechanisms that were in place to administer justice to Palestinian residents in the west bank. Though he supported the effort to bring criminals to trial, he was appalled by what he perceived as a different justice system than the one to which he was subject. With this in mind, he asks the various military advocates general, prosecutors, and judges to help shed light on the situation.

What we learn from them is that the Israeli military legal system strongly desired to do what was appropriate, to follow international law, and to tackle the mechanisms of justice in a fair and appropriate way.

One of the things we learn is that west bank cases frequently are sent to Israel’s Supreme Court on appeal. As one of the judges points out, he cannot think of too many democracies that so often allow the process to go forward from military courts to the civilian supreme court of the land.

In the end, this film is an effort to try to clarify and understand what the filmmaker terms “the law of occupation.” In the course of Alexandrowicz’s investigation, he delves into how various laws, military orders, questions about torture, and appeals since 1967 helped shape the system, and how looking at this evolution provides a unique perspective on the Palestinian-Israel conflict.

To his credit, Alexandrowicz tries to remain outside of the discussion, though he does remind us throughout that in the end it is his choice of material that will constitute the final film.

In the aftermath of 9/11, all of us have struggled with questions about rights, laws, and justice in this country and abroad. In a democracy these questions require an ongoing examination, and again Ra’anan Alexandrowicz is asking the questions through his medium, cinema. Though there may be no clear answers, we are challenged to consider the case placed before us. We need not be lawyers to comprehend that many of these issues lay at the heart of the conflict.

The filmmaker does a masterful job in putting everything on the table. The film ends as the set is about to be dismantled. We hope that justice, the rule of law, and an enduring peace might be a fitting conclusion.

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