WASHINGTON (JTA) – Haim Saban, a major Democratic Party funder, said Rep. Keith Ellison’s election as chairman of the Democratic National Committee would be a “disaster” for the relationship between Jews and the party, signaling a looming crisis between the party’s progressives and the centrist pro-Israel community.
The scathing broadside delivered Friday by the Israeli-American entertainment mogul from the floor of the annual Saban Forum, an event he funds bringing together U.S. and Israeli leaders and influencers, underscores the degree to which the Minnesota congressman’s campaign for DNC chief could erode relations between establishment Jewish groups and the party.
Additionally, the release Friday of the full transcript of remarks by Ellison delivered in 2010 at a fundraiser organized by Muslim backers, in which he derides Israel as seeing the United States as an ATM, was likely to exacerbate establishment Jewish concerns about Ellison, the first Muslim elected to Congress.
“If you listen to Keith Ellison today, and you see his statements, he’s more of a Zionist than Herzl, and Ben-Gurion and Begin combined,” Saban said during the gala dinner for the event, which is organized by the Brookings Institution. “It’s amazing, it’s a beautiful thing. If you go back to his positions, his statements, his speeches, the way’s he voted, he’s clearly an anti-Semite and anti-Israel individual.”
Saban seemed eager to get his thoughts on Ellison off his chest. He was given the courtesy of posing the first question to the evening’s speaker, Israeli Defense Minister Avigdor Liberman, but instead delivered his statement lambasting Ellison.
“Words matter, actions matter more,” Saban said, a baffled Liberman looking on. “Keith Ellison would be a disaster for the relationship between the Jewish community and the Democratic Party. Now I’ve said what I’ve had to say.”
Haim Saban addressing the Saban Forum in Washington, Dec. 2, 2016. (Courtesy of the Saban Forum)
Saban’s broadside – farther reaching, in calling him an “anti-Semite,” than even some of Ellison’s conservative critics – is significant because of the mogul’s relationship to the DNC.
Saban is better known as a leading backer of Hillary Clinton, the Democratic presidential nominee defeated last month by Donald Trump, but he has also been a major donor to the party. In 2002, he paid $7 million toward the building of the then-new DNC headquarters here.
Ellison has rallied progressive groups to his defense, including within the Jewish community.
“It is time to retire the playbook that aims to silence any American official seeking high office who has dared to criticize certain Israeli government policies,” said a statement Friday, before Saban’s outcry, from J Street, which noted that the group was not endorsing Ellison for the candidacy.
The contest, even if Ellison doesn’t win, is fraying ties between the Jewish organizational establishment and the party, already worn thin by last year’s contentious battle between the Israeli and American governments over the Iran deal, and years of tensions under President Barack Obama over Israel’s settlement policies. Ellison said this weekend that he may leave Congress if he wins, a key demand of some of the grassroots officials who vote for the chairman, and a sign of how serious his bid is.
Ellison, the first Muslim elected to Congress, has come under fire in part because of his youth, spent as an activist with the Nation of Islam and defending some black nationalists who had hostile relationships with the Jewish community.
Running for Congress in 2006, he wrote a letter apologizing for those associations to the Minneapolis Jewish community, and has since enjoyed friendly relations with his state’s Jews.
He went further Friday in an Op-Ed for the Washington Post in berating his younger self for those ties.
“These men organize by sowing hatred and division, including anti-Semitism, homophobia and a chauvinistic model of manhood,” he said. “I should have listened more and talked less.’
Since his election to Congress, however, he also has become a sharp critic of some Israeli actions which have earned him alliances among liberal Jewish groups like J Street, but the wariness of mainstream pro-Israel groups. He spearheaded a letter in 2009 urging the Obama administration to press Israel to loosen restrictions on the Gaza Strip, where the Hamas terrorist group governs.
He led an effort to get Congress to consider parts of the U.N. Goldstone report, which said Israel might have committed war crimes in the 2009 Gaza War; much of Congress, as well as the centrist and right-wing pro-Israel community, said the report was biased beyond redemption.
In 2014, he was one of just eight congressmen who refused to vote for additional funding for Israel’s Iron Dome anti-missile system during that summer’s Gaza War, saying he preferred to agitate for a ceasefire.
He also has led efforts to promote recognition of Israel and rejection of Holocaust denial among Muslims, and is eager to take into account all points of view on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. He has reliably supported defense assistance for Israel. In 2009, he traveled with a colleague to review post-war destruction in Gaza; unlike the colleague, Ellison made the complicated travel arrangements necessary to review the destruction on Israel’s side as well. Last month, in a statement to JTA, he explicitly rejected the boycott Israel movement.
Right-wing groups like the Zionist Organization of America and the Republican Jewish Coalition have said since Ellison announced his candidacy that he is unfit. The RJC has even fund-raised off the matter, listing in a Dec. 1 email pitched subject-lined, “An anti-Semite running the Democrat Party?,” Ellison’s youthful associations, but not noting his multiple disavowals of them.
But his complex record has also meant that, since announcing his candidacy, centrist Jewish groups have agonized over just how to treat it. The Anti-Defamation League at first said his past raised questions that needed answering. Then, this past week, a snippet from the 2010 fundraiser was released by the Investigative Project on Terrorism in which Ellison said, “United States foreign policy in the Middle East is governed by what is good or bad through a country of seven million people.” The ADL said that disqualified him.
The National Jewish Democratic Council said in a statement Friday — before Saban’s comments — that “the accusations that (Ellison) is somehow anti-Semitic are false, reprehensible and shameful.” It also said his record on Israel was “mixed,” notable for a group with a mission of lauding Democratic incumbents, and said it “strongly disagreed” with his 2014 vote on Iron Dome.
Ellison countered that his 2010 remark had been taken out of context and noted that the Investigative Project’s founder is Steven Emerson, who was featured in the Southern Poverty Law Center’s recently released guide to anti-Muslim extremists.
Ellison displayed in his talk to the fundraisers a degree of nuance in his views on Israel and the Jewish community. He held up Jewish lobbying for Israel as a model Muslims should emulate, and admonished his audience when they apparently recoiled after he told them he had met with activists attending the annual American Israel Public Affairs Committee conference.
He said he has a “moral and legal” obligation to meet with all his constituents. “I want to hear what everybody has to say. Right?” he told the group. “And I want you to know that the level of organization that they display is considerable.” He also said that “this is not to say that I don’t want the U.S. to be friends with Israel.”
But he also indulged tropes about Israel and Jews that would likely irk many in the pro-Israel community, and that he has not raised in his meetings with Jews.
In the recorded remarks, he said Israel treats the United States as a cash machine, demanding funding without being responsive to American needs. “We’re Americans, right? We can’t allow another country to treat us like we’re their ATM. Right? And so we ought to stand up as Americans.”
He also depicted Jews as uncritical, saying that Israel “has mobilized its Diaspora in America to do its bidding.” He depicted himself as putting on the spot Israel supporters who questioned Obama’s anti-settlement policies. “That is the policy of my president,” he said, “and I want to know if you’re with the president.”