Chris Knipp Writing: Movies, Politics, Art

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MOR LOUSHY: KINGS OF CAPITOL HILL/HALOBBY (2021) - - San Francisco Jewish Film Festival 2021 (July 22 - Aug. 1)


The powerful pro-Israel lobby and its move to the right

The American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC /ˈeɪpæk/ AY-pak), is a lobbying group that advocates pro-Israel policies to the Congress and Executive Branch of the United States. Those who follow American politics know that it has long been the most powerful lobby in Washington. So why a documentary? What's new here? Mainly, that AIPAC, having grown rich and strong in its sixty-year history, has lately drifted toward the extreme right and the extreme Christian faction. The Israeli filmmaker Mor Loushy presents this case through interviews with former AIPAC CEO's and officials, and also delves into their broad disaffection with the lobby and the way it works and their increasing self-distancing from the policies of Israel. (In an interview, Loushy has pointed out that Israelis are largely ignorant of AIPAC, so almost this whole film will be news to them.)

This film represents another in a strong group of recent Israeli documentaries using retired officials for exposés. Dror Moreh's The Gatekeepers (2012) used former security officials to expose Israel's failed policies. Ra'anan Alexandrowicz's The Law in These Parts (2011) dealt with the country's double legal standards for Jews and Palestinians. Yotam Feldman's The Lab (2012) described Israel's huge arms industry. Recently Moreh made The Human Factor (2019), again using surviving participants to expose the failure of Israeli-Arab "peacekeeping" efforts and the US's unfruitful role in them. Mor Loushy previously made 2015's Censored Voices, of doubters of the 1967 victory.

This may not be as searching a film as some of those (neither wasThe Human Factor). It probably shouldn't be a revelation that anti-war lobbyists started AIPAC, or that the organization was very small when it started in 1960. A lot has happened in America since then: the whole country has shifted to the right and a few mega-wealthy people have come to dominate. But we need to look at the whole idea of a powerful lobby in Congress, at what AIPAC supports and how it supports it.

A turning point for AIPAC, we learn, came in 1985 with the defeat of anti-Israel Senate Foreign Relations Committee chairman from Illinois Charles Percy by the AIPAC-funded pro-Israel candidate Paul Simon. This put the fear of AIPAC in the hearts of congressmen. Reagan's presidency also was pivotal, strengthening AIPAC and support of Israel, and starting AIPAC's shift toward the right.

Former AIPAC executives Tom Dine, AIPACC CEO 1980-93; M.J. Rosenberg, his executive assistant 1980-86; and Steven J. Rosen, AIPAC director of foreign policy 1982-2005 explain how they were pushed out for being moderate and supporting Palestinian moderates and for being in favor of peace. Tom Dine started out as a Peace Corps volunteer and aide to Ted Kennedy. The film makes clear these were different people and a different AIPAC.

M.J. Rosenberg makes a blunt statement: "AIPAC's role is to defend Israel when it's wrong." Keith Weissman, AIPAC senior analyst 1993-2005, ruefully says of the lobby's "absolute support" of Israel, "I guess that only goes for when the Likud is in power." Howard Kohr, AIPAC's CEO since 1996, is okay with that. A Republican and conservative, Kohr is a "war" and "threat" lobbyist. That position works best: it's only when Israel is seen as in danger that the public donates to the lobby. Ideal for this setup is belligerent right-wing Israel PM Benjamin Netanyahu, who makes sure Israel stays on a war footing and does not hesitate to dictate to US presidents.

"A great piece of theater," one of the others says of the annual AIPAC policy conference. Here, many congressmen attend - because lots of money from donors, "hundreds of thousands of dollars," the lobby "donates" to congressmen in return for support for its policies promised to AIPAC in meetings in rented hotbox rooms.

Rosen and Weissman turn out to have been scapegoated by AIPAC and its right-wing leader Kohr after they became threatened with arrest and imprisonment via an FBI sting operation. Rosen says they targeted him for what he had been doing all along, talking about foreign affairs at the Pentagon and passing on information to his boss. But someone had started to think AIPAC was interfering too much.

The last quarter of the film is taken up with the craziness of recent years. AIPAC's and Israel's pro-war leaning came to the fore when President Obama negotiated a nuclear treaty with Iran, and Bibi had the effrontery to fly to Washington and address Congress, bypassing the President. Enter Trump: Trump was an easy stooge of Netanyahu as he was of Putin, the film says. He moved the US embassy to Jerusalem, an act greeted elatedly by Netanyahu, and sent Pence to the Christian right represented by John Hagee and the Christian evangelicals who care not about Jews, who they think will be swallowed up on judgment day, but about Israel, where the saved will go. Hence CUFI, the Christian fund for Israel, which the Israelis value - even though the Christian right may well be antisemitic. (The film indicates that Israel's Jews supported Trump, America's Jews, not.)

The new AIPEC president from 2018, Mort Fridman, is shown giving a speech thanking Trump for his pro-Israel gestures: breaking with the Iran treaty, moving to Jerusalem, and (with a big grin) approving settlement of the Golan Heights. Congresswoman Ilhan Omar is called antisemitic for stating the unwelcome truth that congressmen support Israel because they get money from AIPAC to do so. Rosenberg emphatically affirms that opposing AIPAC or Israel is not "antisemitic."

Finally, in the film's last ten minutes, two young former AIPAC 'soldiers at last mention Palestinians and the Occupation, and their realization that their support of the lobby, and through it the Israeli government, had been hurting people. This film, which may lack revelations for a person who knows the subject, may likewise lead to the beginnings of a late awakening for some who have been unquestioning in their support of Israel - or its lobby in America. But this is a film that tends to get lost in the details. Loushy might have hinted at the outset that those old film clips she shows of healthy young Jews among the orange trees were propaganda that from the start masked some ugly truths. But she does show that with J Street, with young activists, with some Democrats in Congress, opposition to Israeli policies and to AIPAC has now become more open and stronger than ever before.

Kings of Capitol Hill/HaLobby, 90 mins., debuted Dec. 2020 at Tel Aviv ((Docaviv). It was screened for this review as part of the San Francisco Jewish Film Festival (Jul. 22-Aug. 1, 2021) available nationwide. Suggested viewing time Saturday July 31, 2021, 5:00 p.m.

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