Equal justice: Israeli film traces how military law evolved in territories

Israel, like the U.S., prides itself on being a nation of laws. But even the best intentions, and the best minds, can produce a system of imperfect justice.

In the wake of the Six-Day War in 1967, the Israeli government found itself in control of a little over a million additional Palestinians. A separate, military-run legal system was set up for the territories, evolving and expanding over the course of four decades.

“The Law in These Parts,” the revelatory documentary by Israeli filmmaker Ra’anan Alexandrowicz, painstakingly traces this history through interviews with several retired Israeli military judges and prosecutors whose work helped to create and define the laws.

Retired Lt. Col. Abraham Pachter, an Israeli military prosecutor from 1967 to 1970 photo/shark de mayo

“The film wants to open up for discussion some very basic terms, like justice and law, the rule of law, all kinds of words that have to do with the democratic principles which Israelis believe in or think they believe in,” Alexandrowicz said in an interview last spring at the Sundance Kabuki Cinemas, when the film played the S.F. International Film Festival.

“The Law in These Parts,” named best documentary at the 2011 Jerusalem Film Festival and winner of the World Cinema Jury Prize in Documentary at the 2012 Sundance Film Festival, opens Jan. 18 for a week in San Francisco.

An important film for anyone interested in Israel, “Law” serves as a complement to another award-winning Israeli doc, “The Gatekeepers,” in which several former Shin Bet heads revisit Israel’s strategy and tactics vis a vis the Palestinians; it opens Feb. 22 in the Bay Area.

The articulate, unemotional and tough-minded former jurists who agreed to be interviewed by Alexandrowicz had to balance Israel’s security needs with the rights of Palestinians under international law. The stakes were high if they erred, especially during times when suicide bombers were a pervasive threat.

But in applying the law, military judges frequently had to take the word of army officials in ascertaining whether a defendant was guilty, and in weighing a sentence, because evidence was classified and witnesses were unavailable on grounds of national security.

“One of the things the film examines is, what does security stand for exactly,” said Alexandrowicz, whose acclaimed previous films from a decade ago include the social satire “James’ Journey to Jerusalem” and the documentary “The Inner Tour.”

He suggested a parallel between Israel’s dilemma and the U.S. war on terror, which has had civil liberties repercussions.

“For the U.S., ‘security’ is used partly because 9/11 happened, and other things happened, but it’s also used for advancing U.S. interests, and then you get security problems,” Alexandrowicz said. “Then they don’t just go away.”

An Israeli parallel in “The Law in These Parts” involves the interpretation of an 1858 Ottoman law defining land ownership in a way that allowed then–Prime Minister Ariel Sharon to justify taking “unused” Palestinian land.

“Sometimes creating your own problem is called security, and then [you have] to deal with the security problem that you created — i.e., the settlements,” Alexandrowicz said. “After 40 years of this, and after half a million of our citizens living in the occupied area, I think it’s difficult to stand there and say ‘security’ as if that’s all there is.”

Alexandrowicz screened “Law” in Israel more than 150 times over a six-month period before its premiere at Sundance, in part to head off criticism that he was providing ammunition for enemies abroad.

“There’s a lesson that I see with Israeli society: These things, we don’t really want to look at them unless other people look,” he said. “The fact that you have the world looking, or Jews outside looking, makes Israelis look.”

The filmmaker, whose films have played throughout the diaspora, acknowledges that some American Jews share the concerns of Israelis.

“I definitely can feel that maybe Jews outside of Israel are now worried [about] work that portrays Israel in a negative way because this gives arguments to that anti-Israeli, anti-occupation, anti-Zionism crowd, and that feeds some anti-Semitism. But we can’t use all that as a reason not to discuss the real problem.”

Ultimately, “The Law in These Parts” depicts how well-educated, well-meaning people of integrity gradually created a legal framework for a deeply problematic situation.

“Some of the people who agreed to be in the film don’t like the film at all,” Alexandrowicz said. “Everyone did his own couple of steps, and to see [the whole history] together was shocking for them.”

The filmmaker questions the legal system that developed over 40 years, but he does not judge the individuals who helped to shape it.

“Those people are no different than me,” Alexandrowicz said. “I cannot, no way, say that in their situation I would have done better.”

“The Law in These Parts” opens Jan. 18 at the Roxie Theater in San Francisco. In Hebrew with English subtitles. (Not rated, 100 minutes)

Michael Fox

Michael Fox is a longtime film journalist and critic, and a member of the San Francisco Bay Area Film Critics Circle. He teaches documentary classes at the Osher Lifelong Learning Institute programs at U.C. Berkeley and S.F. State. In 2015, the San Francisco Film Society added Fox to Essential SF, its ongoing compendium of the Bay Area film community's most vital figures and institutions.