Common Grounds


Israeli Filmmakers Put AIPAC and U.S. Evangelicals Under the Spotlight – and Are Alarmed at What They Find

September 10, 2020

Source: Haaretz

https://www.haaretz.com/us-news/.premium-israeli-filmmakers-put-aipac-and-u-s-evangelicals-under-the-spotlight-1.9141924?utm_source=smartfocus&utm_medium=email&utm_campaign=haaretz-news&utm_content=5025992

 

By Allison Kaplan Sommer

Published 9 September, 2020

 

Two new documentaries, 'Kings of Capitol Hill' and 'Til Kingdom Come,' offer a fascinating snapshot of the past, present and future of pro-Israel lobby groups in Washington

Israeli Filmmakers Put AIPAC and U.S. Evangelicals Under the Spotlight – and Are Alarmed at What They Find

The Christians United For Israel Summit in Washington, from "'Til Kingdom Come."Credit: Abraham (Abie) Troen

 

Ada Horwich was once a proud member and supporter of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee. She served as chair of AIPAC’s Southern California chapter and was also a member of the pro-Israel lobby’s national board from 2000-2016. In a new documentary, however, she explains why she decided to leave the organization: “I think we’re on the road to Israel being called an apartheid state. AIPAC won’t go there. They won’t discuss it. And that became more and more important to me.”

 
The interview with Horwich is one of several attention-grabbing moments in “Kings of Capitol Hill,” a new documentary by Israeli director Mor Loushy tracking the rise, and potential fall, of AIPAC’s influence in Washington. Loushy’s film just premiered at Docaviv, Tel Aviv’s international documentary festival, which became an online event this year due to COVID-19

 

 'Til kingdom come' - trailer, director Maya Zinshtein

Watch the video Here

 

A second Israeli film that also just debuted there is “’Til Kingdom Come,” by Emmy Award-winning director Maya Zinshtein. Her film focuses on the growing influence of a very different pro-Israel lobby in America today: evangelicals.

 

Together, the two films tell a big story about the past, present and future of American attitudes toward Israel. As one lobby group, which cherishes bipartisanship and is mostly reliant on the Jewish community, is slowly losing influence, another hyperpartisan group, tied tightly to the Republican Party and the Trump presidency, is growing stronger and stronger.

 

Unprecedented crisis

 
Loushy’s film premiered at a time of unprecedented crisis for AIPAC. For the first time in decades, the organization’s annual Policy Conference – its ultimate demonstration of grassroots influence, which can attract as many as 18,000 supporters – won’t be happening in 2021. The cancellation was announced a few weeks after it became clear that this year’s Policy Conference, in early March, was responsible for multiple cases of COVID-19 in both the United States and Israel.

 

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu waving to delegates at the AIPAC Policy Conference, in a scene from "Kings of Capitol Hill."Credit: Amos Ben Gershom

 

All this at a time when the organization’s founding premise – unconditional bipartisan support for Israel – is being challenged from both sides: by pro-Trump Republicans and the ascendant progressive wing of the Democratic Party. AIPAC is also facing growing disaffection among many in the American-Jewish community over the policies of the Netanyahu government.

 

If the subject of Loushy’s film is a powerhouse coping with increasingly daunting challenges, the evangelical supporters of Israel portrayed in “’Til Kingdom Come” are experiencing a time of dizzying success.

 
Zinshtein’s previous film, “Forever Pure,” about far-right Israeli soccer fans, won an Emmy Award in 2018. Her latest takes a deep and unflinching look at what motivates this community, the Israelis who benefit from their financial largesse and political support, and how that dynamic became unexpectedly supercharged in the age of Donald Trump.

 
The pairing of the two films drives home in stark terms the radically different characters of these two vastly different pro-Israel communities. As Loushy’s film chronicles, AIPAC’s ethos was built on the principle of “shared democratic values,” formulated by American Jewish Zionists with deep personal and religious ties to Israel. The organization was positioned as a tool for American Jews who cared about Israel to do all they could to keep it safe.

 

For decades, the organization navigated the choppy waters of changing governments in Israel with the line that AIPAC needed to respect the policies of Israel’s democratically elected government, no matter who Israelis voted for. Loushy’s chronology shows how, over time, adhering to this line became more and more difficult for the organization, as Israel’s lurch to the right pushed away Democrats.
 
This became a full-blown crisis in 2015 when Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu came to Washington in the midst of an Israeli election to give a speech before Congress against then-President Barack Obama’s Iran policy.


In the film, Loushy interviews several members of the organization’s founding generation, including former Executive Director Tom Dine, who was the face of the organization from 1980-1993, as well as former senior officials Steve Rosen, Keith Weissman and Douglas Bloomfield. She also focuses on the alienation of a group of young American Jews who once felt part of the AIPAC effort and the mainstream pro-Israel movement, but are increasingly concerned with Palestinian rights and are horrified by Netanyahu’s embrace of Trump.

 

"Kings of Capitol Hill" director Mor Loushy.Credit: Tomer Appelbaum

 

“The American Jewish community and Israeli Jewish community are going in opposite directions right now. Israeli Jews see Donald Trump through the lens of their existential crisis. Israelis see Trump understanding their existential dread; American Jews see Trump as their existential dread,” New York Times Washington domestic policy editor Jonathan Weisman explains in the film.

 
Horwich shudders when she thinks of how her community could, in any way, support “this terrible man.” She remembers feeling: “I can’t be there at that table. I couldn’t imagine myself sitting there one second. So I told people I’m stepping down from the board. … I’m a changed person.”

 
It’s particularly striking to hear a prominent figure like Dine, who’s arguably one of the people most responsible for building AIPAC into the powerful institution it has become, express deep unease regarding the future of the U.S.-Israel alliance. “I feel it with my own daughters,” he says in the film. “I feel it with my friends. I feel it with senators I still talk to. People are worried that Israel is not going in the healthiest direction.”

 
‘Heartbroken’

 
In her previous films – “Censored Voices,” about the Six-Day War; and “Oslo Diaries,” about the peace negotiations of the early 1990s – Loushy focused on fundamentally Israeli stories. Her decision to make a film on American Jews came after she and her professional and life partner, Daniel Sivan, temporarily relocated to Los Angeles.

 
“I almost immediately knew when I got there that I wanted to make a film that dealt with the divide between the American Jewish community and Israel. The Jews I was meeting there were so Zionist, on the one hand, but on the other hand so very Democratic and liberal,” she told Haaretz in a phone interview.

 
She found AIPAC to be key to the American Jewish relationship with Israel in those conversations, and when she began speaking to the group’s former officials, she decided it was their story and emotional journey she wanted to tell.

 

U.S. Vice President Mike Pence speaking at the AIPAC Policy Conference in Washington, March 2019.Credit: KEVIN LAMARQUE/REUTERS

 

“They were heartbroken,” she says. “These were people who were inside the organization, who have given their lives to Zionism. And you can see their pain looking at where Israel is today – and it’s a pain you see across the liberal Jewish community.”

 
The film includes no interviews with current AIPAC leaders, though not from lack of trying. Loushy made multiple attempts to interview its leaders on or off-camera, but was unsuccessful. 

 
The impenetrability of AIPAC, well-known in Washington for its tough approach regarding any kind of media access, has come with a price. Until Loushy’s appreciatively critical look at the organization, nearly every documentary about AIPAC was aimed at exposing it as a highly malevolent force. Though her film presents deep criticism of the organization, Loushy emphasizes that she “came to listen” and not to delegitimize.

 
“I had no desire to try to bring in hidden cameras or anything like that. My film comes from a caring, loving, Zionist place,” she says. “So much of AIPAC’s power is the grassroots of the Jewish community. I wanted to ask: What do you do when those grassroots are asking more and more questions?”

 
While she hopes for a wide international audience, Loushy’s greatest wish is that Israeli viewers will watch it (the film will be screened in Israel on the Yes Docu channel) and understand “how important the American Jewish community is, and how much it matters to our daily life.”

 
It’s a message she feels personally: “If the young generation of American Jews disengage from Israel, my kids will be in a very difficult position. Israel cannot survive without the Jewish community in the United States – we need them.”

 
Religious bedrock

 
While being the kings of Capitol Hill is clearly a complicated affair, seeking to become part of God’s kingdom seems a much simpler matter. “’Til Kingdom Come,” which will be broadcast on Kan public television after the festival ends, examines a radically different U.S.-Israel partnership – one that isn’t built on the shifting sands of democracy but on the religious bedrock of biblical prophecies.   

 


Binghamtown Baptist Church, Middlesboro, Kentucky, in a scene from "'Til Kingdom Come."Credit: Abraham (Abie) Troen

 

Like Loushy, what drove Zinshtein to her subject matter was the feeling that she needed to know more about people who were far from her Israeli “bubble,” yet were deeply affecting her life in ways of which she was unaware. She chose to tell the story of the growing philanthropic and political partnership between Israel and the evangelical community through the portrait of a small-town Kentucky congregation, with a church in which a shining Star of David hangs over a wooden cross.

 
Her protagonists, pastors William and Boyd Bingham – father and son preachers at Binghamtown Baptist Church – are both deeply connected to Israel through the International Fellowship of Christians and Jews, an organization that was founded in the 1980s by the influential American Rabbi Yechiel Eckstein.

 
We meet young Rev. Boyd Bingham in the woods with his rifle at target practice, explaining to Zinshtein that under Obama, “it was tough for evangelicals,” but today “we’re the people who brought Donald Trump to power, and he pushes our agenda.”

 
We quickly learn that Israel is a central piece of that agenda. In the church, his father preaches an unambivalent message to the congregation – supporting Israel is a holy enterprise: “Every nation that has blessed Israel, God has blessed them. And every nation that has opposed Israel, God has been in opposition to them.”

 

"'Til Kingdom Come" director Maya Zinshtein.Credit: Tomer Appelbaum

 

Evangelicals like those in Binghamtown have little use for discussions on the occupation or Palestinian rights, the topics that are eroding support for Israel within America’s Jewish community. Their interpretation of gospel dictates that the entire Land of Israel belongs to the Jews by divine right, period. This stand has endeared them to the Israeli political right, particularly the settler movement.

 
This specific congregation is also dear to the heart of the Fellowship’s Yael Eckstein, daughter of the late Rabbi Eckstein. She travels across the American heartland to such communities, collecting more than $100 million annually, which the Fellowship uses to operate charity programs in Israel.

 
The Kentucky church is one small cog in a massive philanthropic machine, pouring millions from Christian communities into Israel.

 
And that’s just the philanthropic side of the relationship; evangelicals have an even larger impact when it comes to policy.

 
“One of the reasons I love documentaries is because reality often turns out to be crazier than any plot twist you can think of,” Zinshtein told Haaretz. “When I started my research, I was told by the leader of an evangelical organization in September 2017 that if I was patient, maybe in a few years the evangelicals would get Trump to move the U.S. Embassy to Jerusalem. And then – just a few months after that conversation – it happened.”

 
‘A more effective AIPAC’

 
While Loushy’s film chronicles the pinnacle of the AIPAC experience in the form of the Policy Conference in D.C., Zinshtein brought her cameras to the evangelical equivalent: the annual Washington summit of Christians United for Israel, which one participant jokes is a “more effective AIPAC.”

 
She recalls how, at the 2018 summit, participants prepared to go to Capitol Hill and lobby their members of Congress. They were given specific marching orders to demand that funding be cut to the UN Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East (UNRWA), which was described as hostile to Israel. A few months later, the funding was cut. “It’s amazing how the president knows his survival depends on them,” Zinshtein notes.

 

Yael Eckstein receiving a check from Pastor Boyd Bingham on her visit in Binghamtown Baptist Church, Middlesboro, in a scene from "'Til Kingdom Come."Credit: Abraham (Abie) Troen

 

The moments causing the most discomfort in Zinshtein’s film occur when she shows the poverty of the Kentucky community in which the church is located. Half of the children who put their coins in the charity box for Israel live below the poverty line. When Eckstein accepts their donations with a smile before jetting off to her next destination, isn’t that exploitative?

 
“They definitely don’t feel exploited,” Zinshtein says. “You can ask how they got to a place where they feel that way, but it’s true.”

 
Throughout “’Til Kingdom Come,” Zinshtein is unrelenting when it comes to addressing what she calls “the elephant in the room”: The fact that for at least some evangelicals, passionate support for Israel is impossible to detach from the apocalyptic End Times scenario prophesied in the book of Revelation – one that doesn’t bode well for Jews.

 
“The people in Kentucky were more hospitable than you can imagine. And they would say things that make you squirm – they were great people who have very difficult opinions,” Zinshtein says. “I know they look at me and think I’m going to hell. Even though they like me and they don’t want me to, it’s what they believe.”

 
While she says their love for the Jews in Israel is undeniable, it’s nonetheless “a strange love – they love me just because I’m Jewish. We Jews have a role in their story. We’re the key for their redemption. They’re lovely and charming, but you don’t really feel like they see you as a real person.”

 

The exterior of Binghamtown Baptist Church in Middlesboro, Kentucky, in "'Til Kingdom Come."Credit: Abraham (Abie) Troen

 

That duality is on display as Rev. William Bingham interrupts a sermon to affectionately address the filmmakers – “our wonderful Hebrew friends from Israel” – and with a smile encourages them to consider avoiding a dreadful fate by seeing the light and coming to Jesus.

 
Zinshtein repeatedly confronts both sides on the issue and records their attempts to avoid the issue, showing the “unspoken” tension at the heart of the love affair between Israel and the evangelicals. Jews in particular “just don’t want to talk about it,” Zinshtein explains, “but the fact that we don’t want to talk about it, and decide we want to close our eyes and not confront it, doesn’t mean it doesn’t exist.”

 
In a final confrontation, Zinshtein pushes Rev. William Bingham to address the issue. With a smile, he tries to convince her that she doesn’t want to hear what he really thinks – but ultimately reveals his belief that the “arrogant” Jews are going to be “humbled” by God’s plan.

 
His full quote tells the whole story in two paragraphs: “You don’t want to come across and hear me say ‘You blind, stupid Jewish people: Can’t you see this evidently set forth before you, the historical biblical evidence is here.’

 
“Now you’re going to go through the tribulation and get your tail busted – and get humbled down there so you’ll say: ‘You know that little crazy wacky preacher over there in Kentucky? All those things he was saying – he’s right! And now we’re going through this whole big mess over here in Israel. It’s unbelievable. Why didn’t we see this before? Now we’ve been humbled. We’re not so arrogant now. Now we see it!’”

 

A delegate at the AIPAC Policy Conference in Washington.Credit: KEVIN LAMARQUE/REUTERS

 

The themes of the two films intersect when, in “Kings of Capitol Hill,” former AIPAC legislative director Doug Bloomfield recalls an argument with an Israeli official over the Jewish state’s increasingly cozy relationship with evangelicals. How can Israel embrace the evangelicals, he asked his Israeli counterpart, “when we American Jews are so distrustful of them and everything they stand for?”

 
The answer was part explanation and part self-fulfilling prophecy. “When the going gets tough, they come here and they send money,” the Israeli official said. “You Jews stay home.”



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