Minnesota Congressman Keith Ellison proposes to change how the Democratic National Committee operates, and his campaign for the chairmanship has unsettled a number of political and media insiders. That’s understandable. Democrats who disagree with Ellison have every right to dissect and dissent from the Congressional Progressive Caucus co-chair’s proposals to focus on grassroots organizing and recruitment of younger and more diverse candidates. They can even raise questions about whether a sitting member of Congress is the right choice to lead a party that has a lot of rebuilding to do.
But the suggestion that Ellison, a Muslim who has been in the forefront of efforts to promote international dialogue and understanding, is a divisive figure who would have trouble working with Jewish Democrats is as absurd as it is unsettling.
Ellison, who was an ally of the late Minnesota Senator Paul Wellstone, has as a state legislator, congressional candidate, and member of the US House worked across lines of religion, ethnicity, and race with an agility so great that in 2007 then–Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and top State Department officials invited him to assist public diplomacy efforts in the Middle East. Yet The Washington Post is now suggesting that Ellison would be a “controversial” pick for DNC chair because of past statements and writings—some from a quarter-century ago—that critics suggest display insensitivity toward Israel or even anti-Semitism. After Ellison was criticized by the Anti-Defamation League, Politico wrote, “The ADL statement underscores the shadow of past controversial statements that have loomed over Ellison as he runs for DNC chair.” And NBC’s Chuck Todd asked, “Keith Ellison—is his candidacy toast?”
Those who know Ellison reject the charges as political smears that are at dramatic odds with reality.
American Federation of Teachers president Randi Weingarten—a firm supporter of Israel who supported Hillary Clinton for the Democratic presidential nomination when Ellison was backing Bernie Sanders—defended the congressman, emphatically: “Keith Ellison is no anti-Semite and it is maddening when anyone who doesn’t know him or his record makes that ugly accusation. Keith is an agent of change—a fierce fighter for working folk and someone who understands that one has to both fight against bigotry and hate.”
J Street, the “pro-Israel, pro-peace” group that has earned wide regard for its advocacy on behalf of diplomacy in the Middle East, joined the defense of Ellison.
“Attempts to paint Representative Ellison as anti-Israel or anti-Semitic aid a concerted and transparent smear campaign driven by those whose true objections may be to the Congressman’s religion, strong support for the two-state solution and/or concern for Palestinian rights. These opponents seek to unearth the slightest inartful statements from decades in public life, take them out of context and use them as a weapon to silence responsible and important voices like Representative Ellison’s,” reads a detailed statement from the group.
“Their charges [against Ellison] often have little to do with meaningful debate over whether particular policies advance Israel’s security and future,” adds the latest J Street statement. “Indeed, Rep. Ellison has been criticized for taking positions, on Iran, Gaza and other issues that are perfectly consistent with the views of the majority of American Jews and many in the Israeli security establishment.”
Ellison, the first Muslim elected to the US House of Representatives, has from the start of his decade-long career on the national stage welcomed scrutiny, offered to address “legitimate concerns in the Jewish community” and explained that “I have a deep and personal aversion to anti-Semitism regardless of its source.” He has even criticized himself, acknowledging in 2006 that as a young man he had “wrongly dismissed concerns that [comments by Nation of Islam leader Louis Farrakhan] were anti-Semitic. They were and are anti-Semitic, and I should have come to that conclusion earlier than I did.”
Ellison’s approach has won him many friends and allies, and they are stepping up now to support his candidacy—and to defend against attacks that have grown increasingly outrageous.
Shortly after the congressman announced his bid for the DNC post—with support from Senate minority leader Chuck Schumer, Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders, and Massachusetts Senator Elizabeth Warren—one of the first groups to endorse Ellison was Bend the Arc Jewish Action.
“Representative Keith Ellison is an extraordinary leader and one of our closest allies in Congress,” said Bend the Arc Jewish Action CEO Stosh Cotler.
He is a strong supporter of the values for which Bend the Arc advocates, and for years he has been very close to the Jewish community in Minnesota, especially Jewish Community Action, the Twin Cities affiliate with Bend the Arc. When Rep. Ellison spoke at our ‘Pursuing Justice’ conference in June, he discussed the importance of increasing voter turnout and the need to build a grassroots infrastructure of activism and advocacy. This is exactly the strategy the Democratic National Committee needs to successfully move forward during this difficult and critical time for our country. We believe Rep. Ellison would be an excellent choice for the next chair of the DNC.
Bend the Arc Jewish Action reaffirmed its support this week, with Cotler saying:
While we welcome debate about substantive policy positions held by Ellison and other candidates for the job, the rehashed accusations of antisemitism currently being leveled against Rep. Ellison are simply without merit. Antisemitism is a real, ongoing threat in the United States, but that threat comes overwhelmingly from the extreme right. For example, President-elect Donald Trump’s selection of Stephen Bannon, a peddler of white supremacist and antisemitic conspiracy theories, as his chief adviser is infinitely more concerning than the regurgitated innuendo being circulated about Rep. Ellison, much of it originating from right-wing sources.
J Street, which is not endorsing in the DNC chair race, identifies Ellison as “one of a number of worthy candidates who warrants serious consideration for the position.” The group adds that “Representative Ellison is and has long been a friend of Israel, a champion of pro-Israel, pro-peace policies and an admirable elected official whose thoughtful and considered leadership has shown deep respect for Jewish values and the Jewish people.”
That’s a sentiment that has been expressed in Israel, as well. An opinion piece published Tuesday by the liberal newspaper Haaretz was headlined: “Anti-Semitic? Disqualifying? Keith Ellison’s Views on Israel Are the Same as Most U.S. Jews.” And Israeli Knesset member Tamar Zandberg defended Ellison, expressing her frustration that right-wing attacks on the congressman had been echoed by Democratic donors such as Haim Saban.
“From personal experience I can say that Ellison’s position on Israel is the same as on every other issue: a progressive position, peaceful, promoting justice and equality, opposing racism, Anti-Semitism, chauvinism and homophobia of any kind and from every direction,” wrote Zandberg, who serves as a representative of Israel’s Meretz Party. “His example is exactly what the international Left needs in order to face the wave of right-wing populism: a clear and unapologetic Left, which unites struggles between minorities, and does not allow us to be divided and conquered.”
Offering the clear-eyed assessment of one who knows Keith Ellison well, Randi Weingarten concluded her defense of the congressman by observing: “There’s a lot of anti-Semitism and Islamaphobia in the world. Don’t pretend it exists in Keith Ellison’s heart or soul.”