Taking cues from both Errol Morris and Harun Farocki, Ra'anan Alexandrowicz's riveting documentary The Law in These Parts begins contrite about its own inherent limitations. A set is constructed, a chair is positioned at a desk, and a green screen is lit up behind it, Alexandrowicz asserting over voiceover that the film's reality begins and ends with what he decides to show, how he documents it. His interviewees are a handful of retired Israeli judges and legal experts, all ex-military. "Their work," he says, "remained behind the scenes of familiar historical events and, in my opinion, never received the exposure it deserved." The participants are uniformly craggy, proud figures, some dressed in staunch blazers with ties, others in loose vacation wear.
Alexandrowicz frames each of these men sitting behind the same desk, literally in front of the "scenes" in which they had a hand: the initiation of new laws for residents of Gaza and the West Bank following the Six-Day War, trials for accused terrorists, the claiming of settlements outside of Jerusalem in the '70s and '80s (a project spearheaded by Ariel Sharon, then minister of agriculture), the state's response to the 1987 Intifada, and the rise of "administrative detention," a practice whereby any suspected combatant can be held for a renewable six-month period without charge. There's no mistaking the indignation of the filmmaker's inquiry into Israeli occupation policy, but it's tempered at every turn by Alexandrowicz's wise, repeated acknowledgement that there's no implicating the policies of these men without implicating himself—that is, without his acknowledging that these laws were written for Israelis.
Broken into chapters, The Law in These Parts begins in 1967 and charts the growth of the law (per the Israel Defense Forces, or IDF) for Arab residents in newly occupied territories. "Ramallah, Tulkarem, Hebron, Jenin, Gaza. At first they were in a state of shock," says one retired military prosecutor. "They didn't realize what had happened. It took them six to 12 months to realize things aren't so bad, and in some respects it's better than it was before." The film fundamentally questions the hypocrisy of Israelis handing down laws on the treatment of Arabs, though most of Alexandrowicz's interviewees happily defend said law as just, even necessary for both sides. These avowals can be breathtaking, as these men clearly feel they've earned their authority, and rife with human-rights implications.
A handful of trials that took place during the '60s and '70s immediately following post-occupation years address the legitimacy of Israeli occupier law—cases which reinforce, time and again, that IDF rules are formulated around security risks, not peacetime land acquisition. An Arab woman named Arifa Ibrahim was put on trial for feeding pita bread and sardines to a man who, it turned out, was a suspected combatant from Jordan, hiding out in vineyards close to her farm with three other men. The case hinged on the question of whether or not feeding a person in need, politics aside, can be considered a legal act of generosity. The Israeli judge ruled that "human values" do not apply to suspected terrorists, and so Ibrahim spent a year and a half in prison. Like so many other Israeli policies, it boils down to a core state definition of "stability" that demands rigid enforcement.
"Order and justice don't always go hand in hand," chides a retired brigadier general when the director asks about the ruling. His neck stiffens and his eyes harden as he explains the imperatives of deterrence. Over grainy black-and-white archival footage of similar trials, projected behind his now-empty desk, Alexandrowicz says, "Justice demands that I, the person documenting this case, interview the defendant..." Glimpsing Israeli commandos and their suspected prisoners across several decades and various film and video formats, these deftly scored archival passages engender a feeling of Israeli power multiplying beyond simple geographic boundaries into a sustained psychology of uncertainty. The director continues: "Rather than make due with quotes from her trial, read over images of other Palestinian women from the same period. But I do not intend to interview her. Because this film is not about the people who broke the law, but about those entrusted with the law." And with that, a new chapter of interviews begins.
Here in the United States, we like to use the word "wonk" for people whose appetite for legislative and procedural details sets them apart from the pack, even though the rules in question apply to all of us. The Law in These Parts is a film for those who, whether here or in Israel, believe the law is the beginning, and not the end, of rights discourse. The strength of feeling Zionism carries within the culture that produced the documentary is obvious, the probable reason for the interviewees' participation. It's not enough for Alexandrowicz to merely indict or attempt catching them in a "gotcha" moment; to the filmmaker's credit, he doesn't particularly try to make that happen, and for the most part these men seem unequivocal—even when, occasionally, their eyes are clearly haunted. More than one falls back on a phrase that was, lest we forget, a favorite of George W. Bush: "History will be the judge."