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Director interview'People devoted their lives to AIPAC; it broke their hearts'

New Israeli film projects AIPAC’s steady drift from idealistic bipartisan roots

‘The Kings of Capitol Hill,’ airing on Israel’s YesDocu before going global, examines how the pro-Israel lobby eschewed mainstream US Jewry for Evangelical Christians and the right

  • Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu delivers a speech at an AIPAC conference in Washington, DC. (Courtesy GPO/Amos Ben Gershom)
    Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu delivers a speech at an AIPAC conference in Washington, DC. (Courtesy GPO/Amos Ben Gershom)
  • US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo waves as he speaks at the 2019 American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) policy conference, at Washington Convention Center, in Washington, Monday, March 25, 2019 (AP Photo/Jose Luis Magana)
    US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo waves as he speaks at the 2019 American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) policy conference, at Washington Convention Center, in Washington, Monday, March 25, 2019 (AP Photo/Jose Luis Magana)
  • US Ambassador to the United Nations Nikki Haley speaks at the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) policy conference in Washington, DC, on March 5, 2018. / AFP PHOTO / Nicholas Kamm)
    US Ambassador to the United Nations Nikki Haley speaks at the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) policy conference in Washington, DC, on March 5, 2018. / AFP PHOTO / Nicholas Kamm)
  • US Ambassador to Israel David Friedman at the annual AIPAC conference in Washington on March 26, 2019. (Jim Watson/AFP)
    US Ambassador to Israel David Friedman at the annual AIPAC conference in Washington on March 26, 2019. (Jim Watson/AFP)
  • US Vice President Mike Pence addresses AIPAC's policy conference in Washington DC, March 25, 2019. (Jim Watson/AFP)
    US Vice President Mike Pence addresses AIPAC's policy conference in Washington DC, March 25, 2019. (Jim Watson/AFP)
  • 'Kings of Capitol Hill' director Mor Loushy. (Meir Loushy/ courtesy)
    'Kings of Capitol Hill' director Mor Loushy. (Meir Loushy/ courtesy)

NEW YORK — It is fair to call director Mor Loushy’s films critical of Israel. The documentarian’s first feature, “Israel Ltd.,” took a skeptical look at the Israel Experience tour program aimed at Diaspora youth. “Censored Voices” dug up audio recordings made by IDF soldiers immediately after the Six Day War that do not exactly jibe with the greater narrative of that military triumph. She next co-directed “The Oslo Diaries,” which also revealed never-before-seen footage of harried peace negotiators.

“I am a Zionist. I love this place,” Loushy tells The Times of Israel via Zoom from Israel. “My work,” she continues, “comes out of love, dedication, and from being worried about what kind of future we are leaving for my children.”

Her newest, “The Kings of Capitol Hill,” is less about unearthed imagery and more about looking at facts that are hiding in plain sight. Her subject is the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC), and it is basically a biopic of the powerful, and increasingly controversial lobbying group.

The film traces AIPAC’s arc and just had its premiere at the virtual DocAviv Festival where is still available for viewing through September 15. It will then be broadcast by YesDocu in Israel before traveling worldwide.

The lobbying group began, the film argues, as an existential necessity during Israel’s early years and became a peace-minded force of goodwill in the 1970s and early 1980s. But according to the film, it has since evolved into an arm of the right wing.

This, Loushy shows, is a contradiction of AIPAC’s initial goal of bipartisanship. Additionally, the film contends, this is a failure of representation: AIPAC’s aims do not mirror those of the bulk of American Jewry. There’s also way too much money involved.

Illustrative: Vice President Mike Pence speaks at the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) 2020 Conference, in Washington, March 2, 2020. (Alex Brandon/AP)

Fighting words! And Loushy knows it. But the film, which I have seen, threads the needle effectively.

It shows AIPAC making its bones as a powerful lobby in 1984, when Illinois Democrat Paul Simon beat Republican incumbent Senator Charles Percy, one of the few in Congress who wanted to pump the breaks on foreign aid to Israel. From that point onward, candidates recognized that AIPAC’s endorsement (and its corridor to private contributions) was an easy win. Few constituents got upset about supporting Israel, and every campaign needs more dough.

Loushy gets many former AIPAC leaders on the record, including retired executive director Tom Dine, director of foreign policy Steve Rosen, and high-level workers Keith Weissman, M.J. Rosenberg, and Ada Horwitch. Some of these individuals have been involved in scandals (some addressed in the film, others not) that may certainly give them a jaundiced rear-view. Nevertheless, the film is automatically of interest for the simple fact that we are hearing their point of view. (Current AIPAC leadership declined Loushy’s interview requests.)

‘Kings of Capitol Hill’ director Mor Loushy. (Meir Loushy/ courtesy)

My conversation with Loushy is her first interview concerning her new film. Even with COVID-19 disrupting typical film distribution methods, this is a documentary that ought to spark controversy in the Jewish community. The transcript has been edited for clarity.

The Times of Israel: After “Censored Voices” and “Oslo Diaries,” did something specific inspire you to make AIPAC the subject of your next film?

Mor Loushy: My partner Daniel Sivan did a show for Netflix, “The Devil Next Door,” so we moved to Los Angeles for a while. I found myself in the Jewish community there, with kids in Jewish day school. At the same time I was reading headlines about gaps among Jewish communities, and I don’t think many Israelis know about this. I determined the gap between the liberal Jewish community in the United States and Israel would be my next project.

As a filmmaker, I go out and listen. I met these wonderful people who told me about their lives, and how so much of it was dedicated to AIPAC, and now their hearts are broken. I realized this was the story. AIPAC is a center of the conversation for so many in Jewish life; I realized this was a look at Israel from a different point of view.

It isn’t my story. I came as an outsider, as a listener, but, of course, as an Israeli, it does impact my daily life.

Illustrative: Yesha Council CEO Shiloh Adler (standing) speaks to settler advocates on the sidelines of the AIPAC policy conference in Washington, DC, on March 4, 2018. (Courtesy)

Did you have to twist the arms of the former leadership of AIPAC to speak, or were they bursting to get this out on the record?

I didn’t have to force anyone to speak. They have all seen the film and they stand behind it. These are people who are open and concerned.

They’d never really been interviewed about this before, have they?

M.J. Rosenberg has given some talks, but the others not as much.

And you tried to get current AIPAC leadership on the record and they refused, right? Did they just ignore the request or did they tell you “no.”

We have an official decline.

Well, I guess that’s good, at least they responded. Or maybe not? Is that better or worse, do you think?

It would have been a huge contribution to the film if they agreed to be interviewed. It should be a debate. A debate that is important to put out there. With the younger generation you can see how it’s either indifference or involvement.

Of course the arguments are all already out there, you know? To sweep it under the rug isn’t going to help anyone. It’s not just about AIPAC, it’s about asking “what is the identity of a Jewish American?”

Illustrative: Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu speaks on a video from Israel to the 2019 American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) policy conference, at Washington Convention Center, in Washington, DC, March 26, 2019. (AP Photo/Jose Luis Magana)

So you are back in Israel now, yes?

Yes, I love Los Angeles but, you know, I want my friends at home, I want my mom, I want my culture. You can see it from my films: I am a Zionist. I love this place. My work comes out of love, dedication, and from being worried about what kind of future we are leaving for my children.

I am a Jew living in New York and working in media so I am extremely aware of AIPAC. I wish I was less aware, to be honest. For the average Israeli — maybe someone without close relatives in the US — how aware are they of this group?

AIPAC is not on the radar at all. I think people may know the name because [Prime Minister Benjamin] Netanyahu goes to give a speech now and then and to get his picture taken, but the degree of their involvement is not widely known. This is why I think this is an important movie.

The US influence on Israel is huge. We can’t survive without the US, we know this. One hundred percent. But it goes the other way, too. The community I was in, when I was in the US, whether they want it or not, the situation in Israel is a reflection on them. So we cannot be detached from one another. It’s such a dangerous gap.

Blue and White leader Benny Gantz addresses AIPAC’s policy conference in Washington DC, March 25, 2019. (Jim Watson/AFP)

Your film is for grown-ups, for mature viewers ready to accept difficult topics in good faith. Unfortunately, there are not a lot of grown-ups around these days, especially in some corners of sensational media and in positions of leadership. There will be people who will refuse to listen to this movie, and will just dismiss it out of hand because “it’s bad; it shows that Jews and all their money pull all the strings.” How are you prepared to meet that reaction?

If I am frightened by that, there won’t be any debate. And if there isn’t any debate, it is a danger for a healthy democratic society. Part of our culture is debating and discussing, and looking in the mirror to be a better society and a better place.

Part of our culture is debating and discussing, and looking in the mirror to be a better society

I learned about the concept of tikkun olam [repairing the world] when I lived in Los Angeles. Israel does not have that phrase. I love tikkun olam so much. And that is the purpose of this film. If people want to see it in a different way, I have no control.

The [anti-Semitic trope] is already out there anyway, and in unfair ways. So let’s have a mature discussion with this film. I don’t think there are any dangers. Look, I’m Israeli. The film is supported by the Israeli culture ministry, YesDocu is the Israeli broadcaster. This film is 100% Jews — the commentators, the funders, everyone.

File photo: US Senator Kamala Harris, a Democrat from California, speaks at AIPAC’s 2017 Policy Conference at the Washington Convention Center on March 28, 2017 (screen capture)

AIPAC did not invent lobbying, of course. Did you consider highlighting lobbying groups from the “other side,” or even other groups in general?

Well, let me correct you, there is moment where M.J. explains how everything in America is run by money and lobbying. This was important.

Israel doesn’t really have a lobbying system in the way it is rooted in US culture. So I think we get into describing lobbying in general, and in a fair way, without getting too far out of our story which is: This is a film about Israel and the US, and anyone who cares about that relationship should watch this.

Illustrative: Evangelical Christians from various countries wave flags as they march to show their support for Israel in Jerusalem. (AP Photo/Sebastian Scheiner, File)

How aware, do you think, is the average Israeli of the fact that much of the American money comes from, or because of, the Evangelical Christians, and how it ties to their biblical prophecy? You delineate it in your film: these Christians — many of them, anyway — support Israel not so much because of a love of the Jews, but it fulfills an end-of-days scenario in which, surprise, all the Jews ultimately get left behind.

This is a film about Israel and the US, and anyone who cares about that relationship should watch this

I don’t think so many people are aware. For me, certainly, it was fascinating to hear about that. I think there may be some increasing awareness, especially with so many Evangelical Christians coming to Israel for tourism. You see them here in Israel all the time, so there’s a general knowledge, but when [New York Times reporter] Jonathan Weisman explained it in the film, well …

Illustrative: Evangelical Christian pilgrims from Brazil attend a mass baptism ceremony, in the waters of the Jordan River at Yardenit in northern Israel on October 7, 2017, during the Jewish holiday of Sukkot. (AFP PHOTO / MENAHEM KAHANA)

It’s touchy, because tourism is a huge part of the Israeli economy.

I consider myself a liberal person, so to anyone who wants to come to Israel and visit, I say please come. I don’t care about the purpose or their beliefs.

As to their donations to the settlements, or how much influence they have on my daily life, or if they inspired the move of the embassy to Jerusalem, this is a different topic.

The older subjects in your film come to the basic conclusion that when AIPAC started, when it was truly bipartisan, it was a force for good, and as it has shifted it hasn’t just lost sight of its original goal, it is no longer a force for good. Does Israel even need a bipartisan AIPAC anymore? Do you think the ship can ever be righted?

I’m not a politician and I am not a prophet. I’m a filmmaker. I bring a mirror and this is the reflection I get.

Can any of us know, had [former prime minister Yitzhak] Rabin not been assassinated, what the path to peace would have been? Would there be changes? Probably. But history shifts. If our government hadn’t gone so right wing, would things be different with AIPAC? It’s a difficult question.

We all want one thing — or, I should say, I want one thing: I want to live in a peaceful way. I hope a two-state solution is still possible, even if I’m not sure it is. I want to give my kids a better future. That’s what I want.

IfNotNow protesters demonstrating at the AIPAC policy conference in Washington, DC, March 26, 2017. (Ron Kampeas/JTA)

You spend time in the film with the younger guard, with people from IfNotNow. There’s an implication of a passing of the torch. The Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement hasn’t really altered American policy, but it remains a hum in the background. Do you think substantial change is coming in the US with its attitude toward Israel?

Living in Los Angeles and going to Washington, DC, so many times, I felt that the danger with the next generation is indifference, that they don’t want anything to do with Israel. Israel is something that embarrasses them, in a way. So I’m appreciative of the young people that are choosing to engage, whether it’s IfNotNow or J Street or any organization. Just so long as they don’t disconnect with Israel. That’s the real war.

Other organizations must not ignore the young generation. And if the young people have gone more to the left than their parents, it has to be met. Otherwise we won’t have a generation that cares about Israel, and we can’t afford that.

Illustrative: A young Jewish woman in an IfNotNow shirt is part of a chain of protestors attempting to block the doors at an AIPAC conference in 2017. (Gili Getz)

Part of what resonates with me about your film is that, for so long, when American Jews have criticized Israel, Israelis might say “well, you don’t know what it’s like to live here.” And they’re right! But this movie turns that around somewhat and says to Israelis, “hey, you don’t quite know what it’s like to be an American Jew, either.” The stakes may be different, but it’s still worth saying. I think about this a lot when I speak with Israelis who can look at what’s happening in this country and still say they support US President Donald Trump.

Well, I can assure you that in my circles, we are all for [Joe] Biden. And people understand this is a crucial election. In the film Jonathan Weisman puts it nicely where he says, basically, Israelis look at Trump as their help, Americans look at him as our danger.

My other favorite thing — a cinematic note — after an introductory montage, you show Steve Rosen, with the weight of American Jewry on his shoulders and all that tsuris, and there, prominently, on his desk is a bottle of Tums.

I need to thank my cinematographer for that.

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