Why the Pro-Israel Lobby Made ‘a Deal With the Devil’ and Embraced Trump
The new doc “Kings of Capitol Hill” examines the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, the nation’s highest-profile pro-Israel lobby, and how it’s come to embrace the right.
There’s a considerable difference between thorough, pointed investigation and one-note activism, and it’s the latter that ultimately defines Kings of Capitol Hill. Mor Loushy’s documentary about AIPAC (American Israel Public Affairs Committee), the United States’ most high-profile pro-Israel lobby, purports to be an inside look at the powerful political organization, buoyed by first-time-ever public commentary from some of its past members. Yet the result is less a clinical analysis of the group’s pros and cons, and the context in which it exists, than a polemic that initially feigns even-handedness before revealing its true colors.
Kings of Capitol Hill (debuting Nov. 11-19 at DOC NYC) views AIPAC as a dangerous entity, and its strongest passages arrive late, when it addresses the outfit’s embrace of President Donald Trump, who courted American Jews by damning predecessor Barack Obama’s Iran nuclear deal and compromised support of Israel, and promised to fully embrace Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s right-leaning agenda. The incongruity of President Trump standing by Israel at the same time that he champions domestic white-nationalist groups—and the conflict that dynamic engenders in American Jews—is a fascinating and knotty topic, as is the growing evangelical movement (typified by Pastor John Hagee’s Christians United for Israel) that advocates on behalf of Israel for its own warped purposes. That AIPAC has so enthusiastically gotten in bed with Trump (a “deal with the devil,” as one person opines) speaks to pressing geopolitical concerns that deserve in-depth non-fiction inquiry.
Alas, Kings of Capitol Hill eventually undermines itself by tipping its slanted hand, although before it lets its own opinion dominate the proceedings, Loushy’s film provides a handy primer on the origins of AIPAC, which was founded by Cleveland journalist Si Kenen as a means of creating a grassroots political community designed to foster a greater strategic relationship between Israel and America. Its early days were relatively humble, but things took a turn for the momentous once Tom Dine became AIPAC’s third CEO in 1980, and set about eliciting grander political support from both sides of the red-blue aisle. In 1984, AIPAC sought foreign aid for Israel, and when Republican Illinois Senator Charles Percy loudly balked, it backed the challenger to his seat, Democrat Paul Simon. Simon’s subsequent victory demonstrated AIPAC’s impressive clout to everyone in Congress.
While these formative passages are handled in relatively straightforward fashion, Loushy suggests that AIPAC’s efforts to forward its cause through financial support of likeminded candidates—i.e. that they were buying politicians—is damning proof of AIPAC’s particular nefariousness, rather than an example of a larger failing of the current campaign-finance system. In other words, AIPAC’s lobbying may be objectionable, but it’s no different than that perpetrated by countless other special-interest groups—a contextual qualification that’s mostly missing here. Kings of Capitol Hill at once understands this (former AIPAC CEO executive assistant M.J. Rosenberg makes brief mention of Big Pharma, and climate change advocates and opponents, behaving similarly), and yet casts AIPAC’s conduct as a unique problem in order to bolster its overriding point.
That argument becomes clearer once the film segues to the 1990s, and AIPAC’s response to Israel Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin’s attempted Oslo I Accord with PLO Chairman Yasser Arafat. According to Kings of Capitol Hill, AIPAC’s objections to the deal were born not from potentially legitimate complaints (say, the opinion that Arafat wasn’t a reliable partner for peace), but from a desire to perpetuate endless war because its very existence is predicated on scaring Israelis with talk of impending doom. The same contention is more or less made against AIPAC with regards to its later opposition to Obama’s Iran nuclear deal, as Loushy paints the president’s diplomatic plan as an inherent good and AIPAC’s stance as solely the byproduct of militaristic, money-making self-interest—a notion that ignores the fact that the truth likely lies somewhere in the greyer middle.
This isn’t to argue that AIPAC is above reproach; on the contrary, it’s to say that Kings of Capitol Hill proceeds from a specific perspective and never deviates from it, thus undercutting its claims. There are nuanced and heated debates to be had about these contentious matters, but Loushy’s doc doesn’t want to let viewers decide what to think; it wants to promote its vision without complication or contradiction, and with more than a hint of transparent manipulation. That’s felt in early newsreel-y sequences that appear to feature their own narration, but actually seem to be set to the film’s scripted commentary, and it extends to its ham-fisted score, which is anxious and ominous during a speech by current conservative AIPAC CEO Howard Kohr, and then more gentle and hopeful when the material immediately cuts to young kids protesting a recent AIPAC conference.
Such formal devices italicize the general preachiness of Kings of Capitol Hill, which is amplified by its use of various former AIPAC members (including Steven Rosen, Keith Weissman and Ada Horwich) who’ve uniformly turned away from the organization. Even its talking-head journalists, The New York Times deputy Washington editor Jonathan Weisman and The Forward opinion editor Batya Ungar-Sargon, merely echo the sentiments found elsewhere in the doc. Moreover, the overarching absence of any competing voices is echoed by the choice of archival news footage presented here. Whereas director Loushy finds time to sneak in quick clips of white nationalists (as a way to emphasis AIPAC’s gross affiliation with Trump), there are no related scenes of Middle Eastern leaders spewing anti-Semitic hate; to a glaring degree, the only time we see Arabs, they’re everyday citizens being roughly manhandled by Israeli soldiers. The proceedings’ agenda is hard to miss.
AIPAC’s strengthening alliance with the right-wing factions of the United States government—begat, in part, by the left’s increasing criticism of Israeli policies—and the way in which that evolution has put American Jews in a uniquely tricky position, are relevant and crucial issues worth dissecting in exhaustive fashion. Kings of Capitol Hill, however, isn’t that work, opting instead for a censure dressed up in a disingenuous guise of objectivity.