Wow. That was amazing.
In a fortnight of watching some really excellent documentaries, this one is something else. I highly recommend you watch it.
Kings of Capitol Hill is about the powerful Washington lobbying group AIPAC, which stands for American Israeli Public Affairs Committee. Its job is to ensure the US supports policies that favour Israel, and lobbies lawmakers to get them onside. They are formidable, and are seen as having the ability to make or break politicians.
For the whole of my lifetime, AIPAC has been synonymous with a juggernaut of lobbyist power, and why you’ll never get America to do anything about Israel, in a reigning in sense. So it was really interesting for me to see the founders of AIPAC were actually all a bunch of hippies. This documentary interviews prominent AIPAC office holders from its inception through to 2016. So you really get to see how a well-meaning project designed to protect Jewish lives in the Middle East became a runaway nightmare, monstrous to the people who created it.
AIPAC was originally founded by young activists who been involved in the civil rights movement, in the opposition to the Vietnam War, and other causes for peace and justice. They were concerned that Israel, a state in its infancy at the time, and the people who lived there, including many survivors of the Shoah, were going to be wiped out in a co-ordinated attack by its surrounding countries, like in the 6-Day War. They felt a responsibility as American Jews to do what they could to protect Jewish lives.
Something which started out with a handful of people grew and grew, and eventually reached a point where they were pretty successful in reaching politicians of either party in every state. An early test of their strength was when Senator Charles Percy, a Republican, began to question the amount of aid that was consistently being sent to Israel. Like many Republicans, Percy wasn’t a fan of foreign aid, seeing it as sending American tax dollars abroad, and while I doubt he and I probably couldn’t have less in common, I have to agree he makes a fair point about $3 billion dollars being spent annually on Israel without scrutiny, when you couldn’t spend $3 billion dollars domestically without scrutiny. Now, the guy wasn’t anti-Israel, he wasn’t saying Israel shouldn’t be recognised as a state or some shit. He wasn’t even saying let’s dial back the aid we send to Israel or stop sending it altogether. No, he was saying there isn’t sufficient scrutiny of what we’re sending and why we’re sending it, and for every dollar of foreign aid fought over, debate on this topic is silent, and that’s not a good thing when flinging around billions of dollars. And they canned his ass. I mean, there are lots of reasons not to vote Republican, but AIPAC actively supported his ousting in favour of his more vocally pro-Israel opponent, and it was seen both by politicians and within AIPAC as a show of their might.
And that blind loyalty, and smashing of even calls for discussion on the subject, is how we got here. Because when the 70s became the 80s, and Reagan rose to power, the makeup of AIPAC’s rank and file flipped from being hippie Democrats to being staunchly Republican. The more Reagan emphasised Israel as a key player in his militaristic outlook on the Middle East, the more the view shifted from Israel needs America for its safety and security to American needs Israel for its safety and security. Thus support for Israel became a nationalistic duty, and any failure to commit to it fully was a treachery.
All the old hippies got fired. Executive Director Dine went on record for his support for a Palestinian state, and was promptly given his pink slip. And I don’t think they’d really realised up until that point what a political weapon they’d created. But now it was in the hands of a bunch of hardened neocons.
And then you get the peace process in the 90s. And as one former AIPAC officer puts it, “AIPAC wants peace like Yasser Arafat wants a bar mitzvah.” Because there’s no money in peace. During the Oslo Accords, donations to AIPAC tanked. Because who needs a lobby to protect Israel from its enemies, if Israel makes peace with its enemies?
And even though AIPAC bills itself as bipartisan, that obviously doesn’t seem to extend to Israeli politics, because when the left gets in, when anyone committed to peace gets in, AIPAC’s objectives remain right-wing with an emphasis on military solutions. So even during the Oslo negotiations, AIPAC actively undermined them by lobbying for limitations on what money could be spent in Palestine or on Palestinians. They did their best to narrow the wiggle-room America had during talks, and ensure that all Palestinian engagement was viewed with skepticism and distrust.
Then Rabin gets shot dead by an Israeli right-winger, and the Israeli right-wing comes to power, the Oslo Accords go in the bin, and AIPAC is back in its comfort zone. So what you have in AIPAC is two right-wing blocs coming together, feeding on each other’s fear and paranoia, spurring each other further and further right.
Until eventually, you get Trump. And here we have the situation where a leader of the extreme far-right, who is supported by white nationalists, neo-Nazis, KKK, and antisemites of every stripe, is being supported by AIPAC. And for a lot of people still inside AIPAC at that time, that was a real wake-up call. How can we possibly have drifted into the situation where a Jewish lobbying group who was founded to protect Jewish lives is now supporting the candidate of antisemites and holocaust-deniers?
The people who founded AIPAC look on in horror, feeling like they’ve wandered into a Kafkaesque nightmare, where it’s like a bad joke. You have the biggest antisemitic attack in American history happening during Trump’s presidency, and there’s not a peep. Netanyahu made a statement of offering sanctuary to France’s Jews when hate crimes there rose slightly, but said nada about evaccing residents of Pittsburg after the massacre in a synagogue there. You’ve got an American-Israeli Jewish advocacy group supporting an American president who oversees, or arguably even incites, rising violence against Jews, and Israeli Prime Minister who turns a blind eye to it.
And Trump also put a lot of fear in America’s Jewish community for just the basic fact he was not a massive fan of democracy. He actively undermined democratic processes and norms, that were put in place to protect against a totalitarian regime. So suddenly after all these years of focusing outwardly on sustaining the democracy of Israel, American Jews start to realise that they’ve neglected their vigilance on the democracy of the USA.
So yeah, that’s where we are. And hopefully the tide is turning on AIPAC, and young activists are beginning to rise up against it. But holy shit, that is some journey.
Honestly, you need to watch this documentary. So interesting, what I’ve mentioned here is little more than the timeline it follows, there is so much more packed into the actual film. Including spying, the FBI, and backroom deals, the whole shebang. Highly, highly recommended.