For some Jews who support Donald Trump and are feeling under attack by other community members after the appointment of Stephen Bannon to a top Trump White House position, a new line of defense has emerged: The Democrats are just as bad.
This argument has focused in recent days on Minnesota Rep. Keith Ellison, the leading candidate for chairman of the Democratic National Committee. Ellison, a Muslim who is critical of Israel, is just as bad as Bannon, the former publisher of the Breitbart News Network website. He has made the site into a “platform for the ‘alt-right,’” which is the label preferred by contemporary white supremacists and nationalists who traffic in racist stereotypes.
“They’re accusing Bannon of being racist and anti-Semitic… and yet they fail to look at the very clear connections of Keith Ellison to radical Islamist groups, to anti-Semitism,” said Brooke Goldstein, executive director and CEO of The Lawfare Project, in a November 17 Fox News interview. “I mean, it’s boggling.”
The Yeshiva World website called Ellison “The Real Number 1 Anti-Semite in the U.S.”
Ellison, 53, is the first Muslim American elected to Congress. With the backing of his political mentor, Sen. Bernie Sanders, and the endorsement of the incoming Senate Minority Leader, Chuck Schumer, Ellison seems poised to win over the party chairmanship, a position vacant since Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz was forced out on the eve of the Democratic convention this past summer.
The litany of claims hurled at Ellison by Jewish activists, almost all from the right, ranges from his past support for Louis Farrakhan—since renounced; his criticism of Israel’s actions in the West Bank and Gaza, and past associations with Muslim groups in America.
Others in the Jewish community are unequivocal in rebutting the anti-Semitism charge, even while opposing his Middle East views. Jonathan Greenblatt, the head of the Anti-Defamation League, for one, told The New York Times that, to the contrary, Ellison was “an important ally in the fight against anti-Semitism,” though he has taken positions on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict “on which we strongly differ and that concern us.”
Jewish activists who have dealt with him, meanwhile, both in his home state and on the national level, speak of an elected official who is committed to interfaith dialogue and who cares deeply about Middle East peace.
Ellison, who was first elected to Congress in 2006, grew up in Detroit and converted to Islam while in college. His background in civil rights activism and his progressive positions in Congress made him one of Sanders’s most vocal supporters during the recent Democratic presidential primary. Sanders in turn appointed Ellison to the Democratic Party’s platform committee last summer. In Minnesota, he forged close ties with the local Jewish community when he decided to enter politics.
Now that Ellison’s in the spotlight, the Jewish community is looking at two competing images of him. One: an extremist critic of Israel who will drag the Democratic Party away from its support for the Jewish state. The other: a leader who is dedicated to promoting peace and who can help lead Israel toward a two-state solution of its years-long conflict with the Palestinians.
In the 1990s, Ellison did support the Nation of Islam and its leader, Farrakhan, who has been widely denounced for his anti-Semitic comments throughout the years. Before running for Congress, Ellison turned to the Minnesota Jewish Community Relations Council and denounced Farrakhan’s views on Jews.
“I wrongly dismissed concerns that they were anti-Semitic,” Ellison wrote. “They were and are anti-Semitic and I should have come to that conclusion earlier than I did.”
But most of Ellison’s detractors have criticized him for his views on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. In Congress, Ellison took special interest in the plight of Palestinians under Israeli occupation, especially after the 2008 Israeli military operation in Gaza. A tweet of Ellison’s, posted earlier this year after visiting Hebron, brought about allegations of anti-Semitism against him. It showed a window of a Palestinian home, stating that the property was taken “by Israeli apartheid.”
I saw this as I walked down street in Hebron. While window opens to street, no Palestinian can walk/drive on it pic.twitter.com/nMPsM8jqIT— Rep. Keith Ellison (@keithellison) June 2, 2016
The Zionist Organization of America lashed out at Ellison, stating that if he becomes DNC chair, “Ellison 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.”
But his supporters in the Jewish community see a different picture altogether.
They note Ellison’s commitment to bringing peace to the Middle East. “What do you expect? He’s a Muslim and he’s going to identify with the Palestinian cause, but he has demonstrated time and again his support for Israel,” said Rabbi Marc Schneier, founder and president of the Foundation for Ethnic Understanding. Schneier, who is the co-author of the 2013 book “Sons of Abraham: A Candid Conversation About Issues That Divide and Unite Jews and Muslims,” recalled how Ellison, in 2007, spoke out against Iran’s Holocaust-denying conference and later, in 2013, initiated a letter to Hamas leaders, urging the release of the captive Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit. “To demonize him as an anti-Semite is just an outrage,” Schneier told the Forward, adding that comparing Ellison to Bannon is “unfair.”
The Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism also spoke out in favor of Ellison, noting his work with the Jewish community on issues ranging from confronting the Darfur genocide to protecting religious freedoms. On Israel, said RAC’s director, Rabbi Jonah Pesner, the group has not always agreed with Ellison, including when he refused to support funding for the anti-rocket Iron Dome system in Congress, but “there has been plenty of common ground where our work together has made a difference.”
Another claim leveled at Ellison had to do with his association with American Islamic groups, especially the Council on American-Islamic Relations, a group that many Jewish groups refuse to engage with because of its views on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and a past claim of connections to a fundraising operation of Hamas in America.
Much of the backlash against Ellison is directed now at Schumer, the New York senator who is considered a strong defender of Israel and a close ally to the organized Jewish community.
“Does Senator Schumer actually believe that there is literally not a single other person in the Democratic Party, anywhere in the country, who would be a better choice than Ellison?” New York Assemblyman Dov Hikind asked in an interview in the newswire JNS. “Why is Schumer in such a rush to support a candidate who is so unfriendly to Israel?”
Schumer’s office, in response, argued that Ellison’s selection to chair the party will not change the Democrats’ commitment to Israel: “Democrats have an excellent platform, including one of the strongest pro-Israel platforms. Keith Ellison was instrumental in making that happen and persuading others to support it.”
Nathan Guttman staff writer, is the Forward’s Washington bureau chief. He joined the staff in 2006 after serving for five years as Washington correspondent for the Israeli dailies Ha’aretz and The Jerusalem Post. In Israel, he was the features editor for Ha’aretz and chief editor of Channel 1 TV evening news. He was born in Canada and grew up in Israel. He is a graduate of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. Contact Nathan at firstname.lastname@example.org, or follow him on Twitter @nathanguttman