Muslim Congressman Walks a Tightrope, And Manages To Keep His Balance

By Nathan Guttman

Published April 01, 2009, issue of April 10, 2009.
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“Did you lose your family, brother?” Rep. Keith Ellison asked as he gently touched the arm of the young Palestinian standing outside the ruins of what was his Gaza home. After hearing that the man had lost both his parents, Ellison promised, “We’ll go back and tell them what we saw.”

The exchange was caught on a home video camera by Minnesota Democrat Ellison and by his fellow congressman Brian Baird of Washington, the first American lawmakers to visit Gaza after the Israeli military campaign.

Their visit resulted in a seven-minute video clip documenting the destruction in Gaza and also looking at the suffering of Jewish residents of nearby Sderot. Although the emphasis in the clip is put on the heavy price paid by the Palestinians, Ellison made clear that the Gaza story has more than one side. “It’s an awful situation, for both,” he concluded in his on-the-scene narration ending the clip.

Ellison, the first Muslim member of Congress, has been walking a fine line ever since his election in 2006. Embraced by both the Muslim and the Jewish communities, Ellison has been trying to strike a new tone, one that is simultaneously supportive of the Palestinian cause and sympathetic to the Israeli side.

Ellison’s ability to dismantle this seemingly explosive tension was demonstrated recently when he presented the findings of his February 19 trip to Gaza at a Capitol Hill event sponsored by the Arab-American Anti-Discrimination Committee.

The second-term congressman did not mince words when describing the hardship that Gaza residents are facing in the aftermath of the Israeli attack, or in addressing Israel directly on what actions ought to be taken to ease the suffering. “I come here with one message only,” he told the audience: “Open up the crossings, open up the crossings, open up the crossings.” Later in his speech, Ellison once again chose the triple-repetition technique when calling on Israel to “stop, stop, stop the settlement expansion.”

But Ellison also worked hard during the March 17 event to fend off calls from the audience to use his congressional power to sanction Israel. He ducked questions regarding calls for divestment from Israel (saying there was no current legislation on this issue) and turned down suggestions to use foreign aid from the United States for pressuring Israel.

“What you’re calling for will politically draw you into a lot of fire,” Ellison told one audience member. “If you have sympathies to the Palestinian cause, I urge you to put on the shoes of someone who is Jewish.”

The 45-year-old congressman later told the Forward that he believes unilateral measures, such as those suggested against Israel, are counter-productive. “When you start talking about who you want to sanction and who you want to divest from, it immediately sends the other side to the corner,” Ellison said. “Starting off with harsh economic measures won’t lead anywhere.”

Ellison, who grew up in Michigan and converted to Islam at 19, sought out the Jewish community for outreach when first embarking on his national political career in Minnesota.

His first move was to clarify remarks he had made as a young student in favor of Nation of Islam leader Louis Farrakhan. During the 2006 congressional campaign, Ellison wrote a letter to Minnesota’s Jewish Community Relations Council, assuring its constituents that he no longer holds those views. He said his involvement with the Nation of Islam was limited and that he “wrongly dismissed” concerns over Farrakhan’s antisemitic remarks.

Steve Hunegs, executive director of the Minnesota JCRC, calls Ellison a close friend of the community. The Muslim congressman meets with the local Jewish leadership regularly and attends the council’s events. “He takes his ties with the Jewish community very seriously,” Hunegs said. The group met with Ellison before and after his recent Gaza trip and tried to “provide him with the perspective of the American Jewish community.”

Ellison forged strong relations with Jewish groups on the national level, as well. He received backing from the Anti-Defamation League when coming under attack from right-wing activists for using a copy of the Quran, instead of the Bible, for his ceremonial swearing-in into Congress.

In his freshman year in Congress, Ellison also attended a trip to Israel organized by the American Israel Education Foundation, an offshoot of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, the pro-Israel Washington lobby.

But as a lawmaker, Ellison did not always toe the AIPAC line. While supporting foreign aid to Israel, he chose to vote “present” on a resolution last January that expressed support for Israel during the Gaza military operation. Backed strongly by AIPAC, the resolution passed 390-5.

Hunegs said this is one of the cases in which local Jews were at odds with their representative, but “the hallmark of a good relationship is the ability to talk about differences.”

In the 2008 election cycle, Ellison was endorsed by the dovish JStreetPAC and received $3,362 in funding from the group, which supports candidates seen as strong on promoting a two-state solution.

Ellison once again broke ranks with the mainstream pro-Israel line when hosting a March 31 Capitol Hill briefing in support of the efforts to provide aid to Gaza through the United Nations Relief and Works Agency. Major Jewish groups are still backing congressional proposals meant to increase control over UNRWA’s actions in the Palestinian territories.

In a sense, Ellison is walking a tightrope, one that does not place him squarely in either the “pro-Israel” or “anti-Israel” camp in Congress. But he says he does not feel any push-back from either side, not even from the pro-Israel lobby, which is often charged with using political strong-arm tactics. “I heard talk about that, but I never encountered it,” he said.

By maintaining ties with both communities, Ellison believes he can help move Congress to take actions that will promote a peaceful resolution of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and strengthen the viability of a future Palestinian state. He also thinks lawmakers should send a message to the new government in Israel “that the U.S. is committed to a two-state solution.”

How can lawmakers communicate America’s commitment to this goal to Israel’s newly installed hard-line prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu?

Ellison made clear he is not seeking pressure. “We just need to tell him,” he said.

Contact Nathan Guttman at

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