Keith Ellison, the Minnesota congressman seeking to become chairman of the Democratic National Committee, is pushing back against critics who claim he has ties to radical anti-Israel and anti-Semitic groups.
“I have always been a fierce fighter against anti-Semitism,” he told The Jewish Week in an exclusive interview. “I oppose it and always have.”
Similarly, he said, he has supported Israel as a member of Congress, voting over the years “for several billions in bilateral aid to Israel. … I have denounced terrorist groups and I am a supporter of a two-state solution. I believe this is the best way [to go] for Israel’s future.”
Ellison’s staff has also put together a five-page list of Jewish groups and individuals who provide testimonials attesting to his character and support for Israel, as well as newspaper clippings and a background sheet spelling out the congressman’s work on behalf of the State of Israel and against anti-Semitism. Among the Jewish groups supporting him are: J Street, Americans for Peace Now and Bend the Arc.
The fact that those groups, identified with the dovish element of the Jewish community, support Ellison’s candidacy are a warning signal to those on the right. Some centrist Democrats worry that having Ellison chair the DNC would symbolize the ascendance of the progressives, who are perceived as less sympathetic to Israel.
Since announcing last week his intention to seek the leadership of the Democratic Party, Ellison has been hailed by his supporters as just what the party needs to rebuild after Hillary Clinton’s stunning presidential election defeat. An African American who in 2006 was elected the first Muslim member of Congress, Ellison currently serves as co-chair of the Congressional Progressive Caucus.
Several columnists and pro-Israel supporters are openly opposing his candidacy — and some are doing so privately. The only major Jewish organization to openly oppose him is the Zionist Organization of America. It points out that Ellison was one of only eight House members to vote against funding Israel’s Iron Dome anti-missile defense system while missiles were being fired at Israel during the 2014 Gaza War.
In addition, the ZOA said Ellison “was a devotee and worked for brazen anti-Semite Louis Farrakhan and the Nation of Islam for many years.”
Ellison told The Jewish Week that he worked with Farrakhan in 1995 when Farrakhan organized the Million Man March on Washington that was designed to promote African-American unity and family values. He said he was an “enthusiastic supporter” of the march, and worked “with many other black people to improve the lives of people in my community — and that is where all of this [criticism] comes from.”
He acknowledged that he later left the Nation of Islam and Farrakhan after it “became apparent to me that he said things about Jews that I disagreed with.”
But Ellison insisted that this all happened many years ago and that he has “always supported the dignity of all people. …The fact that I did not recognize someone else’s bigotry quickly enough …. When it was clear to me he had views I didn’t share, I made it clear” and left.
Regarding his vote not to provide emergency funding for Israel’s Iron Dome, Ellison said he believed “the real energy should be to save lives” rather than funding the war. But he stressed that he had earlier “voted for over $700 million for Iron Dome and I visited its facilities. … I never voted against a foreign ops [operations] bill that contained U.S.-Israeli aid.”
His primary support for the chairmanship comes from the party’s two most powerful Jewish leaders — Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont, whose millions of followers from his unsuccessful presidential bid are seen as critical to rebuilding the party, and New York Sen. Charles Schumer, the next Senate Minority Leader. Schumer has brought Sanders into the expanded 10-member Democratic leadership team, giving him the job of handling outreach to key party constituencies.
In a statement, Schumer’s spokesperson, Marisa Kaufman, said: “Congressman Ellison showed Sen. Schumer he actively supports Israel and will push DNC platform members to also back a strong pro-Israel plank. At the DNC, Congressman Ellison understood the need for a pro-Israel platform and helped persuade other members of the platform committee to back it, making it one of the strongest we’ve had.”
Despite Ellison’s assertions of his support for Israel, the ZOA said that should he become DNC chair he “will likely be empowered to persuade even more Democratic congresspersons to join him in actions hostile to Israel’s security and Israeli civilians’ lives – wreaking enormous damage to the prospects for future bipartisan support for America’s closest ally in the Middle East.”
Brooklyn Democratic Assemblyman Dov Hikind voiced similar concern, telling The Jewish Week: “The Democratic Party already has an Israel problem and this would continue that division.”
Ellison’s candidacy, Hikind added, is “enough to get me to say I don’t want to be a Democrat. He does not represent me in any way. … Ellison is entitled to represent the views of Bernie Sanders, but why would the Democratic Party — after all it’s gone through — make things worse? … His excuse about Farrakhan was that he didn’t realize, he didn’t know. Everybody knew and understood. If he would say I made a mistake and I was young, I could live with that. But to claim ignorance about what this man stood for…”
Critics point out also that Ellison, James Zogby, president of the Arab American Institute, and philosopher Cornel West were among five people appointed by Sanders to the Democratic Party’s platform drafting committee. All three have in the past advocated for Palestinian rights. Critics say the three sought to insert a line in the platform calling for an “end to [Israeli] occupation and illegal settlements.”
The insertion was rejected.
Ellison told The Jewish Week that his work on the platform committee “dealt with the $15 minimum wage” Sanders had championed during the primary. The “occupation” line, he said, “was not the part of the platform I handled.”
“I have long supported a two-state solution and a democratic and secure state for the Jewish people, with a democratic and viable Palestinian state side-by-side in peace and dignity,” he said in an email. “I don’t believe boycotting, divesting and sanctioning Israel helps us achieve that goal. I supported the Democratic Platform, which embraces this position.”
Ellison also dismissed criticism of him for tweeting a window sign in Hebron that falsely accused Israel of expropriation and portraying Israeli security precautions as “apartheid.”
“I didn’t endorse that statement,” he told The Jewish Week. “I take pictures of things to show people what I saw and to share my experiences.”
In a later email, he said flatly that he does not believe Israel is an apartheid state.
Another Democrat who is concerned about Ellison’s candidacy is Alan Dershowitz, emeritus law professor at Harvard University, who describes himself as a “liberal Democrat.” He told The Jewish Week that Ellison’s “voting record is anti-Israel” and that his selection “will push pro-Israel voters away from the Democrats.”
In an email, Dershowitz wrote: “The last thing the Democrats need is to move further to the ideological left and away from the needs of centrist, blue-collar workers whom they lost in this election.”
Among Ellison’s most ardent supporters is Rabbi Marc Schneier, founder and president of the Foundation for Ethnic Understanding, who said he and Ellison have worked to promote Jewish-Muslim relations since his election to Congress.
Although saying that he is not taking sides on who should be DNC chair, Rabbi Schneier told The Jewish Week that Ellison has worked with him in garnering the support of other Muslim leaders to press Hamas leaders to free captured Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit and to return the remains of two Israeli soldiers killed in the last Gaza War.
“Keith Ellison understands that people who fight for their own rights are only as honorable as when they fight for the rights of all people,” he said.
The Anti-Defamation League on Tuesday proclaimed Ellison “a man of good character,” noting that it had consulted with Jewish leaders in Minnesota and other national organizations.
“We have seen him through his work in Congress as an important ally in the fight against anti-Semitism and for civil rights,” it said. “He has been on the record in support of Israel and supports a two-state solution. However, the Congressman also has made statements and taken positions, especially regarding the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and on the [Iran nuclear agreement], on which we strongly differ, and that concerns us.”