It looks as though opposition is mounting, perhaps approaching a critical mass, against the bid by Minnesota Rep. Keith Ellison to become chair of the Democratic National Committee. A small flood of messages and articles is circulating through the Jewish community and precincts of the Republican right, supposedly documenting his hostility to Israel and support for Louis Farrakhan, the notoriously anti-Semitic leader of the Nation of Islam.
It’s a little bit reminiscent of the whisper-and-email campaign that ran through the Jewish community in early 2008, claiming that then-presidential contender Barack Obama was secretly a non-citizen and a Muslim. The big difference being that this time, the target, Ellison, really is a Muslim.
It would be unfortunate at this moment if the opposition campaign were to succeed and Ellison be denied the chairmanship. Not that he’s necessarily the best candidate for the job; I’m decidedly agnostic on that. But there’s been a furious effort by Jewish activists in the past week or two to block him on the grounds that he’s anti-Israel, anti-Semitic or both.
If the campaign were to succeed at this point, it would be easy to make the case that “the Jews” had blocked the advance of an African American and a Muslim to a deserved leadership post. That would likely stir resentment and reinforce those old rumors about Jews controlling American politics by bullying and strong-arming whoemver we don’t like.
The right couldn’t have done a better job to fan the flames of anti-Semitism among America’s rising minorities if they’d planned it that way.
Of course, if the image of Ellison that’s been laid out for us in the past few days were remotely true, any effort to stop him would be justified. But it isn’t.
If you stand back, it’s been fascinating to watch the anti-Ellison campaign as it’s snowballed over the past few days. It consists almost entirely of some things he said years ago, defending Farrakhan from the charge of anti-Semitism (which is now somehow described in some accounts as “defending Farrakhan’s anti-Semitism”). Also an association of indeterminate length and depth with Farrakhan’s organization. Also a handful of recorded snippets that could be interpreted — if you’re inclined that way — as hostile to Israel.
To make the case work, though, you have to ignore the considerably larger body of evidence showing him to be supportive of Israel and its right to defend itself, and of U.S. support for Israel. To find them, simply go to YouTube and plug in the search words “Keith,” “Ellison” and “Israel.”
Some of the evidence against him is downright hilarious. One video clip from 2007 was posted to my Facebook page by an irate reader, as evidence that Ellison blames “Jews” for the 9/11 attacks. It’s circulating around the web with explanations that you can hear audience member saying, “Jews benefited from 9/11,” and Ellison replying, “Well, I mean, you and I both know.”
Except that’s not what’s on the video. For context, Ellison is likening the 9/11 attacks to the Reichstag fire, the 1933 burning of the German Parliament that was used by the Nazis as an excuse to crack down on leftists and consolidate their power. In post-9/11 America, Ellison says, bigots used the attacks to justify a crackdown on “religious minorities.”
At this point, someone off-camera can be heard saying, “But who benefited from 9/11?” Ellison replies, “Well, I mean, you and I both know.” The questioner then answers his own question: “Yeah, Bush.” “Who,” not “Jew.” (Cue the Woody Allen routine.)
The latest bit of supposed evidence for the prosecution is a 36-second audio clip of the congressman addressing a 2010 fundraiser, organized on his behalf by a Muslim-American businessman. The clip has been described as a slur on American Jews, implying that they control American foreign policy. In some versions he’s described as saying Jews control America. The Anti-Defamation League, which had spoken in Ellison’s favor just days earlier, now says the remarks are “disqualifying” in his quest for the Democratic National Convention chairmanship, because they “raise the specter of age-old stereotypes about Jewish control of our government.”
Well, that’s one way of looking at it, though it takes a bit of imagination, since what he actually says is that Israel’s welfare is central to America’s Middle East policy, something we Jews have insisted on for decades. Speaking to a group of fellow Muslims, he’s plainly describing how American Muslims could have greater influence on American policy if they learned to organize. He seems to cite the successful mainstreaming of Israel as an example of how it works — not something to denigrate, but to emulate. Here’s what he says to his listeners:
“United States policy in the Middle East is governed by what is good or bad through a country of 7 million people. A region of 350 million all turns on a country of 7 million. Does that make sense? Is that logic? Right? When the Americans who trace their roots back to those 350 million get involved, everything changes. Can I say that again?”
Can I be sure that his intentions were as benign as I’m suggesting? No. You could read them either way, depending on what you’re looking for. My reading seems to me to be the most obvious understanding of his words, but we can’t be certain, because all we have is a 36-second excerpt from an evening’s worth of discussions. It would have been helpful to hear some of the context, but the group that released the clip, Steven Emerson’s Investigative Project on Terrorism, chose to cut out the rest of it.
Another key piece of evidence for the prosecution involves several columns Ellison wrote for the University of Minnesota daily student paper in 1989 and 1990, when he was a third-year law student. He wrote them under the name Keith Hakim, which is supposed to scare us. At other times, his critics remind us, he’s called himself Keith Ellison-Muhammad and Keith X Ellison. (Did I mention that he’s Muslim?)
You can read his defense of Farrakhan from the charge of anti-Semitism. They’re written by a fairly recent black convert to Islam who’s quick to defend a black Muslim leader from white attacks, without (by his own public admission) really understanding what anti-Semitism is about.
I wrote about the Ellison brouhaha a few days ago, after interviewing Ellison himself by phone. I didn’t go into detail about each individual allegation against him, focusing only on the claim that he had a long association with Farrakhan and continues to sympathize with him. (An article in The Weekly Standard in 2006, just before Ellison’s first election to Congress, was written by a conservative Minnesota blogger who’s been energetically trolling Ellison for years. It was titled “Louis Farrakhan’s First Congressman.”)
As for the other allegations — that he supports Hamas; that he favors boycott, divestment and sanctions; that he supports terrorism — I didn’t go into them at length. That’s partly because after looking into them, I found the evidence to be either frivolous, distorted or simply false. Instead, I summed up that stuff as follows:
“Ellison’s detractors, most but not all Republican partisans or pro-Likud activists, cite a series of actions and statements over nearly a decade. Ellison himself portrays the allegations as exaggerated, sometimes simply fabricated.”
In the interest of full disclosure, there’s another reason that I didn’t go through the whole list of allegations in my last column: I never intended to be Ellison’s defense attorney. I still don’t. I don’t particularly care who ends up heading the DNC. There are other fine candidates in the mix.
It must be acknowledged that Ellison’s first loyalty in the Middle East is not to Israel. He is a Muslim, and he makes no secret of his sympathy for the Palestinians. That said, he is a Muslim peacenik. Since entering politics, he has consistently spoken out in favor of the two-state solution, by which he means Israel and a Palestinian state living side by side in peace and security. He’s been active on that front, frequently partnering with J Street and other liberal Zionist groups on efforts to promote peace and security.
One could, I suppose, target him in an attempt to combat the visible presence of Muslims at all levels of American society, on the assumption that what’s good for Muslims must be bad for Israel. The trouble with that approach is that Muslims are going to grow as a proportion of American society, as are various other minorities that don’t share European Christendom’s feelings of shame and guilt toward Jews. As those demographic groups grow, it doesn’t make sense to turn them into enemies. On the contrary, the smart thing to do is to recognize leaders among them who are willing to express friendship and understanding, as Ellison does, and reciprocate.
That said, here are a few examples of Ellison’s support for Israel, drawn from a quick search of YouTube:
Speech to Congress, March 2008, explaining why he voted for a resolution condemning Hamas rocket attacks against Israel, despite regret that it doesn’t also mention Gaza Palestinian deprivation.
Speech to Congress, January 2009: “I believe every country has a right to defend itself” (but he can’t vote either for or against a congressional resolution supporting Israel’s Gaza incursion should also mention Palestinian civilian deaths).
Attempt to address a January 2009 rally for Palestinians under Israeli bombardment: Ellison is drowned out by hostile Hamas supporters after he says he “hopes to bring a greater level of understanding between people” and is “not here to condemn anyone.”
Speech to Congress, May 2010, congratulating Mahmoud Abbas and Benjamin Netanyahu on resuming talks: “The world needs a secure Israel. And it needs an independent and viable Palestinian state.”
Speech to Congress, January 2012, urging funding be restored to the Palestinian “Sesame Street,” and warning of the danger of Hamas hate and extremism filling the vacuum in Palestinian children’s TV.
Interview in House office, March 2013, explaining why he believes Israelis and Palestinians have much in common and should learn each other’s languages: “Hebrew-speaking Israelis are there. They ain’t going nowhere. Everybody’s got to get used to the fact that everybody’s there and ain’t leaving.”
Interviewed on “Meet the Press” August 2014: Ellison explains why he voted against emergency funding for Israel’s Iron Dome anti-rocket defense despite having consistently supported Iron Dome in the past: “Because a cease-fire is what we should prioritize now.”
Jonathan Jeremy “J.J.” Goldberg is editor-at-large of the Forward, where he served as editor in chief for seven years (2000-2007).