The aggressive, the accepting and the noncommittal: Where Jewish leaders stand on Ellison’s DNC bid
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The aggressive, the accepting and the noncommittal: Where Jewish leaders stand on Ellison’s DNC bid

As Democrats struggle with an electoral crisis and selecting a new party chair, prominent Jews have mixed feelings on the Minnesota congressman’s bid to revitalize a beleaguered party

Eric Cortellessa covers American politics for The Times of Israel.

US Rep. Keith Ellison (D-Minnesota) at a meeting of the Democratic National Committee on Friday, Dec. 2, 2016, in Denver, Colorado. (AP Photo/David Zalubowski)
US Rep. Keith Ellison (D-Minnesota) at a meeting of the Democratic National Committee on Friday, Dec. 2, 2016, in Denver, Colorado. (AP Photo/David Zalubowski)

WASHINGTON — Since Minnesota Congressman Keith Ellison announced his bid to chair the Democratic National Committee, he has spurred a virulent debate within the American Jewish and pro-Israel community about what his ascension would mean for the Democratic Party and its official posture on Israel.

Ellison, the first Muslim ever elected to Congress, has been an outspoken critic of many Israeli governmental policies throughout his career in public life, most notably for its continued settlement enterprise and military response during periods of intensified conflict with the Palestinians.

He opposed efforts on Capitol Hill to castigate the UN Goldstone Report, which alleged that Israel committed war crimes during the 2008-2009 Gaza war, a claim later retracted by the report’s main author, Richard Goldstone, in 2011. He was also one of just eight members of Congress to vote against increased funding for Israel’s sophisticated missile defense system known as Iron Dome amid the 51-day Israel-Hamas conflict during the summer of 2014.

But he has also insisted that his criticism of the Jewish state comes from a place of friendship, emphasizing his support for a two-state solution is because he believes such an outcome is in the best interests of both sides. “The world needs a secure Israel,” he said during a speech on the House Floor in 2010, after a resumption of negotiations between Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas. “And it needs an independent and viable Palestinian state.”

Some of Ellison’s fiercest detractors will also point to his past association with the Nation of Islam and repeated defense of its noted anti-Semitic leader Louis Farrakhan, as well as other radical figures.

During his first run for Congress, in 2006, Ellison apologized to the Jewish Community Relations Council in Minneapolis for failing to “adequately scrutinize the positions” of Farrakhan. “They were and are anti-Semitic, and I should have come to that conclusion earlier than I did,” he said.

Then-Democratic presidential primary candidate Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vermont, is greeted by Rep. Keith Ellison, D-Minnesota, before speaking at a campaign rally, Monday, March 7, 2016, in Dearborn, Michigan. (AP Photo/Charlie Neibergall)
Then-Democratic presidential primary candidate Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vermont, is greeted by Rep. Keith Ellison, D-Minnesota, before speaking at a campaign rally, Monday, March 7, 2016, in Dearborn, Michigan. (AP Photo/Charlie Neibergall)

Ellison was one of Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders’ biggest Congressional backers during his 2016 run for the White House. After Sanders conceded the party primary to Clinton, he appointed Ellison as one of his three delegates to the platform drafting committee at the Democratic convention.

Given that opportunity, Ellison argued vigorously for including language criticizing Israel’s military presence in the West Bank and condemning settlements. When those efforts ultimately failed, Ellison reportedly worked to include language supportive of Israel and a two-state outcome to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, according to those familiar with the process, which some of his supporters now will highlight.

But the real boiling point over Ellison’s DNC bid came when the Anti-Defamation League rebuked him last week for newly revealed 2010 comments in which he implied US foreign policy is dictated by Israel’s interests — remarks the Jewish civil rights group deemed “disqualifying.” Ellison responded in an open letter to the ADL, saying he was “taken out of context” and that the audio from his address, given at a private fundraiser, was “selectively edited.”

Since then — and since past DNC chair Howard Dean said he wouldn’t seek a second stint in that post — the debate about the fate of Ellison and the DNC has intensified, with a plethora of Jewish leaders and organizations either opposing, supporting or staying neutral on the Minnesota congressman.

Below is an aggregation of what American Jews have been saying about Ellison’s record and stances on Israel, the accusations he’s anti-Semitic and whether there are other issues that should hinder his candidacy. Most commonly, some party leaders are demanding that the next chair does not hold a seat in Congress, allowing him or her to devote their full-time efforts to the job.

All of these conflicting assessments are currently being played out vigorously in Washington — and especially by Democrats — as the major party struggles to select who becomes one of their most critical leaders at a time of unprecedented changes in the landscape of American politics.

The unequivocal opposition

Anti-Defamation League: “Rep. Ellison’s remarks are both deeply disturbing and disqualifying,” the group’s CEO Jonathan Greenblatt said in a statement. “His words imply that US foreign policy is based on religiously or national origin-based special interests rather than simply on America’s best interests. Additionally, whether intentional or not, his words raise the specter of age-old stereotypes about Jewish control of our government, a poisonous myth that may persist in parts of the world where intolerance thrives, but that has no place in open societies like the US.”

Haim Saban speaks at the Friends Of The Israel Defense Forces 2014 Western Region Gala at The Beverly Hilton Hotel on November 6, 2014 in Beverly Hills, California. (Tiffany Rose/WireImage)
Haim Saban speaks at the Friends Of The Israel Defense Forces 2014 Western Region Gala at The Beverly Hilton Hotel on November 6, 2014 in Beverly Hills, California. (Tiffany Rose/WireImage)

Haim Saban: “The fact that Keith Ellison is a Muslim is a non-issue,” he said at the annual Saban Forum last weekend hosted by the Brookings Institution. “If you listen to Keith Ellison today and you see his statements, he’s more of a Zionist than Herzl, Ben-Gurion, and Begin combined. It’s amazing. It’s a beautiful thing. If you go back to his positions, his papers, his speeches, the way he has voted, he is clearly an anti-Semite, anti-Israel individual.

“Words matter and actions matter more. Keith Ellison would be a disaster for the relationship between the Jewish community and the Democratic Party.”

Zionist Organization of America: “ZOA is pleased that ADL/Greenblatt have finally joined the ZOA and numerous others in calling for Ellison’s disqualification as DNC Chair, after weeks of silence, shockingly followed by wrongly praising Ellison,” the organization’s president, Morton Klein, said in a statement. “Ellison was involved as a spokesperson and activist with Louis Farrakhan’s virulently anti-Semitic Israel-hating Nation of Islam for a decade. Ellison repeatedly defended Louis Farrakhan and cop killers. In Congress, Ellison was one of only 8 Congresspersons who voted in 2014 against Iron Dome funding (which would have left innocent Israeli civilians at the mercy of Hamas rockets).”

Republican Jewish Coalition: “Representative Keith Ellison’s past statements, actions, and associations prove a long history of anti-Semitism that has no business in government,” said executive director Matt Brooks in a statement. “Whether it’s his past defenses of a college speaker who stated that Zionists collaborated with Nazis in World War II, his long association and praise of known anti-Semite Louis Farrakhan, or his past involvement with the Nation of Islam, it’s clear Ellison has spent decades defending and associating with hateful groups and figures. None of these revelations about Ellison are new, and it’s deeply troubling how many prominent national Democrats rushed to endorse his candidacy for chairman of the Democrat National Committee. It is the responsibility of every single Democrat to declare that these beliefs long held by Ellison are not what this country stands for, and demand that he withdraw his candidacy for DNC Chair.”

Alan Dershowitz, prominent attorney, author and Israel advocate: “Keith Ellison is, by all accounts, a decent guy, who is well liked by his congressional colleagues. But it is hard to imagine a worse candidate to take over the DNC at this time,” he wrote in a Fox News op-ed. “Ellison’s voting record also does not support his claim that he has become a ‘friend’ of Israel … His appointment as head of the DNC would be a self-inflicted wound on the Democratic Party at this critical time in its history. It would move the party in the direction of left-wing extremism at a time when centrist stability is required.”

The defensive

J Street Executive Director Jeremy Ben-Ami addressing the group’s conference in Washington, March 21, 2015. (Courtesy JTA/J Street)
J Street Executive Director Jeremy Ben-Ami addressing the group’s conference in Washington, March 21, 2015. (Courtesy JTA/J Street)

J Street: “The recent spate of attacks on Rep. Keith Ellison’s record of support for Israel and the Jewish community need to come to an end. 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 J Street press release.

“Since Rep. Ellison announced his candidacy for the chair of the DNC, J Street has been clear that while we do not take positions on internal Democratic Party deliberations, we believe he is one of a number of worthy candidates who warrants serious consideration for the position,” the statement went on. “Attempts to paint Rep. 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.”

New York Senator Chuck Schumer: “I stand by Rep. Ellison for DNC chair,” he said in a statement shortly after the ADL rebuked the Minnesota Democrat for his 2010 comments. “We have discussed his views on Israel at length, and while I disagree with some of his past positions, I saw him orchestrate one of the most pro-Israel platforms in decades by successfully persuading other skeptical committee members to adopt such a strong platform. As Chair of the DNC he has committed to continuing to uphold that platform and to convince others that they support it as well.”

Senate Minority Leader-elect Chuck Schumer of New York in an interview with The Associated Press in his office on Capitol Hill in Washington, Friday, Nov. 18, 2016. (AP Photo/Alex Brandon)
Senate Minority Leader-elect Chuck Schumer of New York in an interview with The Associated Press in his office on Capitol Hill in Washington, Friday, Nov. 18, 2016. (AP Photo/Alex Brandon)

MK Tamar Zandberg: “This kind of figure is exactly what the global left needs to combat the wave of populism on the right: a left that is clear and unapologetic, that connects between various struggles and minority groups, and one that certainly does not cede to a divide-and-conquer strategy,” she posted on Facebook. “The fact that the allegations of anti-Semitism have come from those who are willing to overlook the people giving the Nazi salute or the resurgence of the Ku Klux Klan is frightening and grotesque.”

Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers: “I can feel and smell anti Semitism,” she said on Facebook. “Keith Ellison is no anti-Semite and it is maddening when anyone who doesn’t know him or his record makes that ugly accusation. So let’s have a fair discussion about DNC chair — but don’t dismiss Keith on ugly and specious charges that are easily refuted simply by looking at his record. There’s a lot of anti Semitism-and Islamophobia in the world. Don’t pretend it exists in Keith Ellison’s heart or soul.”

Not endorsing, not opposing — and other considerations

National Jewish Democratic Council: “On the candidacy of Rep. Keith Ellison specifically, the right-wing attacks have been over the top and the accusations that he is somehow anti-Semitic are false, reprehensible and shameful,” the group said in a statement. “His relationship with the Jewish community in Minnesota is a close one and he has voted for more than $27 billion in aid to Israel … Yet now we are troubled by fresh reports [of Ellison’s 2010 remarks]. Putting aside Rep. Ellison’s record, NJDC believes it is most important that the DNC chair focus on grassroots organizing and winning elections. As Jewish Democrats, we are concentrating our efforts into ensuring that support for Israel remains bipartisan and in getting out the Democratic vote for the 2018 and 2020 elections.”

‘The choice should be about the next elections not the last one. For me, anyone holding elected office is disqualified due to the nature of the position which requires a full-time chair.’

Susan Turnbull, former vice chair of the Democratic National Committee and former chair of the Jewish Council for Public Affairs: “The DNC Chair election is not nor should it be a referendum on Congressman Keith Ellison. As a former officer of the DNC and an elected member of the DNC for more than 19 years, I am convinced that this election must be about the future of the party and not a single person’s political positions,” she told The Times of Israel.

“The choice should be about the next elections not the last one. For me, anyone holding elected office is disqualified due to the nature of the position which requires a full-time chair. If Ellison were to agree to resign if he is elected, then he should be considered along with everyone else. There will be a campaign and a process which will hopefully will be forward looking and fair. I am confident that the race will include a number of impressive candidates.”

Ron Halber, executive director of the Jewish Community Relations Council of Greater Washington: “It’s a positive development that Congressman Ellison has continued to repudiate anti-Semitism, I’m also glad to note that he has had a consistent record of supporting aid for Israel,” he told The Times of Israel.

“I have several concerns in his voting record and on things he has said in the past. Of greatest concern to me was his failure to vote in support of emergency funding for Iron Dome during the war and his leadership in Congress to try and prevent the denunciation of the Goldstone Report. If he becomes the DNC chair and remains a member of Congress, I think he needs to publicly state that he will change his voting pattern to be more mainstream and more reflective of the platform of the Democratic National Committee, which he voted for and would represent.”

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