An unholy alliance

Two documentaries reveal how the U.S.'s pro-Israel coalition swung to the far right — endangering American Jews in the process.

As the results of the U.S. election are being tallied, a question mark hangs over the future of the Israel lobby and the broader pro-Israel scene in the country, which has enjoyed widespread patronage by the Trump administration over the past four years. 

That question mark, and what it reveals about Israel’s place in U.S. politics, is placed under the microscope in two new Israeli documentaries: “Kings of Capitol Hill,” which looks at the history and evolution of AIPAC and is directed by Mor Loushy, whose CV includes Censored Voices; and “Till Kingdom Come,” which focuses on a small, Evangelical Zionist congregation in rural Kentucky, and is helmed by Maya Zinshtein, whose previous work includes Forever Pure.

As both films show, one of the most unsettling trends in the U.S.-Israel political nexus is the way in which pro-Israel constituencies have at best pulled punches on, and at worst indulged, the most heinous excesses of the Trump administration. This includes its galvanization of antisemitic white supremacists in the United States — with lethal consequences.

The rise of Zionist antisemitism as a standard behavior among large swaths of the GOP and its ecosystem has become a defining feature of the American far right’s worldview and modus operandi. Antisemitic conspiracy theories about the boundless and malign influence of Hungarian-Jewish financier George Soros, or dog whistle comments about Jews and money, or Jews and dual loyalty, are, apparently, neutralized by professing support for Israel — and above all its settlement project.

The Israeli settler right has, to that end, scored an incredible string of victories thanks to the Trump campaign, which has also handed the Israeli government no end of diplomatic coups. Occupation denialism is now State Department policy; the White House embraced Israel’s annexation of the Golan Heights; the U.S. embassy was moved to Jerusalem; and anti-free speech laws targeting the Palestinian-led boycott movement have accumulated at a dizzying pace across U.S. state legislatures.

This political maneuvering has engineered the conditions for reappraising the meaning of antisemitism. For the Trump administration and the GOP, as well as for the American Jewish institutions who have sided with them, antisemitism’s animating force is criticism of Israel — even as far-right antisemitism, much of it inspired and echoed by the government, is at fever pitch.

An ultra-Orthodox Jewish man looks at a large billboard of U.S. President Donald Trump and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, as part of the Likud election campaign, at the entrance to Jerusalem, Feb. 3, 2019. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)
An ultra-Orthodox Jewish man looks at a large billboard of U.S. President Donald Trump and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, as part of the Likud election campaign, at the entrance to Jerusalem, Feb. 3, 2019. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

For groups such as AIPAC, this political realignment has been a simple matter of expediency: the Trump administration has been unfailingly supportive of the Israeli government, and therefore these institutions have embraced the U.S. government. In this, they have prioritized pro-Israel policies above the safety of American Jews. For even more far-right American Jewish groups, the alliance is yet more ideological: the Zionist Organization of America, for example, is invested in the Trump administration not only for the free rein it has given to the Israeli government, but also for its single-minded persecution of Muslims.

Given these immense shifts, it makes sense to wonder whether any of the deterioration that occurred over the past four years might be rolled back under a Biden presidency. For example, how would a Democratic administration impact the extraordinary influence of Evangelicals on U.S. foreign policy? Or the relative quietism from the American Jewish establishment regarding far-right antisemitism, compared with its outspokenness on criticism of Israel?

‘As long as he likes Israel’

Both “Kings of Capitol Hill” and “Till Kingdom Come” offer some clues. In Loushy’s film, former AIPAC stalwarts guide us through the group’s early years, painting a picture of a small, scrappy organization run by a handful of liberals who believed they were doing their bit to help Israel and, by extension, American Jews. As the film wears on, they express their disillusionment and deep anxiety over what the organization has become — not least over its increasing thrall to the far right.

On the face of it, “Kings of Capitol Hill” is not a particularly radical documentary. There is precious little mention of the occupation, and the interviewees’ rosy-eyed rendering of the early decades of Israel’s history and relationship with American Jews is largely unchallenged. But the film’s power lies in its intimate, critical portrayal of an immensely impactful lobbying organization that — until a string of costly, high-profile electoral setbacks this year — appeared to be unstoppable.

Indeed, in watching Loushy’s documentary, one is reminded of just how influential and impervious to criticism AIPAC has been over the past decades. As former insiders line up to recount the group’s seemingly benign early years and its descent into deranged, NRA-style “with-us-or-against-us” partisanship, it is difficult not to be astounded afresh at the level of deference AIPAC has enjoyed in Washington. 

Audience members at the AIPAC Policy Conference, Washington, D.C., March 26, 2017. (Paul Kagame/Flickr)
Audience members at the AIPAC Policy Conference, Washington, D.C., March 26, 2017. (Paul Kagame/Flickr)

AIPAC’s arc is, in some senses, reflective of the American Jewish institutional community writ large. Founded in 1963, riding a wave of American Jewish activism, the organization’s orientation was rooted in a wide-eyed liberal Zionism that viewed a strong U.S.-Israel relationship to be crucial to both countries. However, as the group became increasingly beholden to wealthy conservative donors — whose contributions came with strings attached — AIPAC shifted even further right, eventually espousing the kind of hardline positions that have put it in lockstep with the current Netanyahu and Trump administrations.

The latter alignment in particular seems to have been the catalyst for many of those speaking out in this documentary, dismayed by what they see as AIPAC’s deterioration into a cheerleader for Israeli and American governments that are utterly out of control. Ada Horwich, a former AIPAC board member, predicts — correctly — that the lobby group would not object to Israeli plans to annex large swathes of the West Bank; clearly pained, she acknowledges that “we’re down the road to being called an apartheid state.”

Former AIPAC employee MJ Rosenberg, meanwhile, takes on the group’s alliance with Christians United For Israel, the hard-right Evangelical lobbying group and the largest pro-Israel organization in the country. The fact that high-profile members of CUFI have a track record of antisemitic statements is of little concern to AIPAC, he says; rather, the group’s line is: “I don’t care if he’s antisemitic as long as he likes Israel.”

That privileging of support for Israel above all else has led to a proliferation of disquieting endorsements by AIPAC, as evidenced by the hair-raising list of speakers at its most recent policy conference. It is difficult to see what will undo that calculus, now that it has emerged as a legitimate political strategy. Indeed, a Democratic administration may further harden, rather than undermine, such alliances, tied up as they are in America’s culture wars.

‘AIPAC took people out’

Inevitably, a central strand of Loushy’s film examines AIPAC’s financial activities surrounding national and state congressional elections. Rosenberg, who last year wrote an op-ed supporting Congresswoman Ilhan Omar’s controversial characterization of AIPAC’s influence in Washington, lays out the group’s mode of indirect political fundraising.

At AIPAC’s annual policy conference, side meetings are held in rooms that have not been booked by AIPAC itself. Congresspeople pitch donors for funds, and via one indirect route or another, the donations agreed upon in the margins of the conference — but not, of course, directly solicited or presented by AIPAC itself — makes its way into political campaigns.

As Rosenberg points out in the film, AIPAC’s modus operandi is entirely congruent with its political environment. Stopping just short of saying “It’s all about the Benjamins,” he argues that “every single issue in the United States is dictated by money” — and AIPAC is no different.  

U.S. House Speaker John Boehner delivers remarks at the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) policy conference, May 23, 2011. (Speaker John Boehner/Flickr)
U.S. House Speaker John Boehner delivers remarks at the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) policy conference, May 23, 2011. (Speaker John Boehner/Flickr)

The lobby group’s open-secret fundraising is intimately connected to the film’s other main concern: the organization’s growing intolerance and the malign consequences for any policies and politicians that don’t adhere to a strict pro-Israel line. The group’s sway in elections is legendary; remarking on AIPAC’s ability to make or break a campaign, the New York Times journalist Jonathan Weisman notes that the organization “took people out.” 

The group’s success in getting its preferred candidates elected began to gather steam in 1984, we are told, when AIPAC apparently jeopardized Illinois Republican Senator Charles Percy’s reelection bid over his perceived lack of support for Israel. Percy lost to his Democratic opponent, and his defeat was, according to the documentary, a turning point for the role of Israel in American domestic politics.

What the documentary doesn’t discuss, though, was that 1984 was a turning point in Israeli domestic politics, too: earlier that year, the Israeli security services arrested the ringleaders of the Jewish Underground, a terrorist group who were plotting to blow up the Dome of the Rock; and at the same time, Israeli voters sent the ultra-nationalist Rabbi Meir Kahane to the Knesset. 

The juxtaposition of Israel’s rightward lurch and AIPAC’s heightened pressure on U.S. politicians to uncritically support the Jewish state — precisely during one of its ugliest moments — was a harbinger of things to come. Later in the film, Rosenberg recalls AIPAC’s disdain for Yitzhak Rabin and Shimon Peres, owing to a very basic calculus: if Israel made peace with the Palestinians, it would no longer need a lobby. Indeed, the group faced a drastic budget crunch during the Oslo years. 

From that, Rosenberg draws out the group’s true raison d’etre: “AIPAC’s role is to defend Israel when it’s wrong, not when it’s right.” On that reckoning, a Biden victory — even with the growing prevalence of Palestine in U.S. progressive politics — will do little to make AIPAC change course.

‘Israel, their people, the Jews — they’re better than all of us’

If Loushy’s film explores the shifting politics of a once bipartisan lobbying powerhouse, in “‘Til Kingdom Come,” Zinshtein documents a more traditionally far-right constituency: Israel’s Evangelical supporters. Zinshtein opens with William Boyd Bingham IV, a baby-faced pastor from Binghamtown Baptist Church in Bell County, Kentucky, firing off a few rounds with a rifle in the woodlands.

Shortly after, talking in his car, he readily admits that children in the Evangelical community undergo “indoctrination” surrounding a religious imperative to love and support Israel. For Bingham, there is no question about the righteousness of this process: “Israel, their people, the Jews — they’re better than all of us,” he says.

About 3000 evangelical Christian Israeli supporters from all over the world attend a festival at the International Conference Center in Jerusalem, September 6, 2009. (Miriam Alster/Flash90)
About 3000 evangelical Christian Israeli supporters from all over the world attend a festival at the International Conference Center in Jerusalem, September 6, 2009. (Miriam Alster/Flash90)

Zinshtein’s documentary shares some common themes and inflection points with “Kings of Capitol Hill,” including the phenomenon of antisemitic “friends of Israel” and the transfer of the U.S. embassy to Jerusalem. But it is a very different kind of film, which foregrounds the personal stories of its main subjects, Bingham and Yael Eckstein, president of the International Fellowship of Christians and Jews. Zinshtein’s approach here is deft: rather than pressing too hard on her interviewees’ contradictions — for example, when they discuss the Bell County church’s fundraising for Israel despite acknowledging the depth of local poverty — she simply allows their thought processes to play out on screen.

The trade-off that organizations such as the IFCJ help orchestrate is thrown into troubling relief early on in the film, when we see a destitute elderly Israeli woman, weeping over a box of provisions that IFCJ donations have paid for. We are told that, thanks to the Fellowship, Christians are the largest supporters of humanitarian projects in Israel. Never mind that the goods and services they’re providing are making up for the Israeli government’s neoliberal dismemberment of its welfare sector, or that many of those Christians may themselves be struggling to make ends meet.

A conservative Bell County talk radio host, who acknowledges the poverty around her, claims that local deprivation is the very reason supporting Israel is necessary; doing so, she says, will bring God’s blessings to the community. Eckstein is only too happy to encourage such magical thinking, telling the Binghamtown congregation that “The destiny of the Jewish people is the destiny of this church, and the destiny of this church is the destiny of the Jewish people.”

During the same service, Bingham’s father, Pastor William Boyd Bingham III, launches into a rant about wealthy Jewish NBA owners and movie moguls. Asked later about her thoughts on what Bingham III said in the church, Eckstein, visibly stumped, pauses for several moments before conceding her discomfort with the theological differences between Evangelicalism and Judaism.

The annual Christmas eve procession into the Church of the Nativity in the West bank city of Bethlehem, December 24, 2018. (Wisam Hashlamoun/Flash90)
The annual Christmas eve procession into the Church of the Nativity in the West bank city of Bethlehem, December 24, 2018. (Wisam Hashlamoun/Flash90)

One outright accusation of antisemitism does appear in the documentary, however. On a visit to Israel-Palestine, Bingham sits down with Reverend Dr. Munther Isaac, a Palestinian minister at a Lutheran church in Bethlehem, who patiently explains the ways in which Evangelical theology contributes to Palestinian oppression.

After the meeting, Bingham tells the documentary crew that Palestinians do not exist, and that Dr. Isaac’s interpretation of scripture is “theological antisemitism.” He does not explain what he means by that, nor how his community’s end-times theology — in which all Jews are destined to either convert to Christianity or be killed — escapes the same charge.

‘Demented alliances’

That underbelly of the Judeo-Christian partnership, which downplays antisemitism so long as it is accompanied by Zionism, haunts both documentaries. The brokers of this project, those in the Trump and Netanyahu governments above all, seem willing to deny that “Judeo-Christian” is in fact a stand-in for Christian hegemony with an optional, and disposable, Jewish filter.

What American writer Gore Vidal once characterized as a “series of demented alliances with the Christian (anti-semitic) right,” currently embodied by the alignment of AIPAC and CUFI, is not new. But it has become a high-profile cause for progressive American Jewish activists who have witnessed antisemitism proliferate at the upper echelons of their government, even as many of their communal representatives praise Trump’s ratification of Israel’s military occupation.

While these “demented alliances” increasingly put Jews in the crosshairs, they have also, as Isaac points out in Zinshtein’s film, deepened and broadened Israel’s crushing of Palestinian rights and freedoms. Yet one would not think it looking at both documentaries. Palestinian interviewees are entirely absent from “Kings of Capitol Hill,” and, with the notable exception of Isaac, are largely peripheral in “‘Till Kingdom Come.” Tragically, this is a reflection of the current state of the U.S. conversation on Israel-Palestine, which mostly considers Palestinians surplus to discussions regarding their fate. Whether that will change under a Biden presidency remains to be seen.