I Worked with Keith Ellison. Here’s Why Pro-Israel Jews Should Be Cautiously Optimistic.
There is a good possibility the next Chair of the Democratic National Committee (DNC) is going to be my friend and Congressman, Keith Ellison. In the decade since he was first elected to Congress, Rep. Ellison and I have fostered a close relationship. I respect Rep. Ellison and strongly support many of his domestic policies and priorities.
Yet, as a pro-Israel activist and Jewish student leader, there have been times when I’ve been frustrated with Rep. Ellison over his criticism of Israel and public silence as the Boycott, Divest, and Sanction (BDS) movement has gained a following on the far-left. Too often, my Congressman’s voting record in Congress and public statements have unfairly painted Israel as the aggressor and the Palestinians governing the West Bank and Gaza as victims. Rep. Ellison’s insinuation on Twitter during a visit to Hebron this June that Israel is an apartheid state was particularly egregious.
In recent days, Rep. Ellison’s past statements and associations regarding the anti-Semitic Nation of Islam (NOI) have been used as the basis for rejecting his selection to chair the Democratic National Committee (DNC). Some commentators acknowledge the May 2006 letter which then-State Representative Ellison sent to the Jewish Community Relations Council (JCRC) regarding the NOI, but few, if any, actually quoted it.
In his letter, Rep. Ellison was humble, honest, and conciliatory: “I did not adequately scrutinize the positions and statements of the Nation of Islam, Louis Farrakhan, and Khalid Muhammed,” Rep. Ellison writes. “I wrongly dismissed concerns that they were anti-Semitic. They were and are anti-Semitic and I should have come to that conclusion earlier than I did. I regret that I didn’t.”
For me, and the vast majority of Jewish Minnesotans, this full-throated apology for past mistakes is exactly the kind of t’shuvah (repentance), which our tradition honors.
It should go without saying that if I in any way believed that Rep. Ellison was the kind of monster his most ardent critics are making him out to be, then not only would I not be writing this op-ed, but there would be no basis for any relationship whatsoever.
As someone who has worked with him in and out of his office, I believe selecting Rep. Ellison as Chair of the DNC could provide a tremendous opportunity to fight the far-left’s campaign to delegitimize Israel. There is also, however, a strong possibility that Rep. Ellison’s selection will increase alienation of Jews from the Democratic Party and deepen divisions within the pro-Israel community, which are still raw in the wake of the passage of the Iran Deal and the recent election cycle. Given these two seemingly diametrically opposed possibilities, it is worth exploring further why this is so.
As a student on a progressive college campus, I am intimately and painfully familiar with the challenges Israel faces from the far-left. Under the banner of intersectionality, I watched with deep sadness this spring as the University of Minnesota’s minority groups lined up to demonize and delegitimize Israel behind the anti-Israel student group Students for Justice in Palestine (SJP) and their UMN Divest campaign. In the process, the Jewish community’s status as a minority group was thoroughly stripped. Many Jewish students felt isolated, targeted, and attacked. The rights of Jews to define hatred against ourselves was mockingly questioned as UMN Divest took it upon themselves to define what was and was not anti-Semitic.
After months of work from a committed and inspired team of pro-Israel students and Jewish community leaders, UMN United defeated UMN Divest. By exposing the zero-sum nature of SJP’s approach to a complex, two-sided conflict, we amended the BDS resolution — over the bitter objections of UMN Divest — to omit any mention of Israel and the companies selected for divestment due to their relationships with the Jewish state.
Just over one year ago, Rep. Ellison reiterated his commitment to a two-state solution in a resolution he introduced with Sen. Dianne Feinstein to commemorate the 20th anniversary of the assassination of Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin: “Prime Minister Rabin gave his life to the heroic work of ending decades of war. The violence that killed Prime Minister Rabin stems from the same place as the violence we see today: the lack of two states for two peoples, living side-by-side in peace and security. We need Prime Minister Rabin’s courage now.”
Later this spring, in my role as a student leader and board member of the Jewish Community Relations Council of Minnesota and the Dakotas (JCRC), I joined local rabbis and other community leaders for a meeting at Rep. Ellison’s office to discuss issues of importance to the Jewish community and his upcoming J Street-organized trip to Israel and the Palestinian territories. Before raising our concern over incitement coming from the Palestinian Authority — an issue we hoped he’d address during his meetings in Ramallah — I began the meeting by detailing the concerns of Jewish students on campuses in his district. I expressed our collective opinion that BDS not only sharply divided the campus community but is antithetical to the cause of a two-state solution that Rep. Ellison so routinely champions.
Rep. Ellison listened intently to my concerns and agreed that attempts to boycott and isolate Israel would prove ineffective in the fight for peace. We were thankful for his private support, but wished Rep. Ellison would take the same stance publicly.
Despite strong support from Hillel, the JCRC, and the Minnesota Rabbinical Association, I knew that having my friend Rep. Ellison in our corner would have made a huge difference to the Jewish students on campus being told we couldn’t be marginalized because we were “white.” More importantly, it could also make the many progressive student groups lined up against us think differently about divestment if they saw someone they deeply admired on the other side of the issue.
Throughout his decade in Congress, Rep. Ellison has maintained an open door with his district’s Jewish community. My initial opportunity to see this in person was when my father brought me to my first AIPAC Policy Conference in 2010.
After two years of attending these meetings together, my dad was tapped to speak during our district’s session with Rep. Ellison. An immigrant from Israel, he was both a resident and business-owner in Rep. Ellison’s district. With over 30 of his constituents packed into the Congressman’s office, my dad shared stories from his childhood growing up on a moshav (cooperative village) less than 3 kilometers from Gaza, a community ever-vigilant against terrorists who would launch attacks on the nascent Israeli communities.
Just as he would listen to me years later, Rep. Ellison listened attentively as my dad spoke about his parents fleeing Iran in 1949 and why the Islamic Republic’s rogue nuclear program worried him for the safety of our family in Israel and for other American interests.
Congressman Ellison thanked my father for sharing his story and for coming to Washington on his own time and dollar to engage in the political process. He told us that while he, too, was determined to prevent Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon, and he supported sanctions in the past, he didn’t think further antagonizing Iran and causing the Iranian people to suffer was the answer.
Rep. Ellison was just as frank with us concerning the situation between Israel and the Palestinians. My Congressman has traveled to the region several times, visiting both the Gaza Strip and Israeli communities, including Sderot, which has suffered bombardment by Hamas’ rockets for years. It was obvious that the conflict brought him pain and frustration and that Rep. Ellison yearned for a two-state solution. Rep. Ellison promised us that he would remain committed to supporting the $3.1 billion in foreign aid given to Israel that year and maintain his open-door policy to members of the Jewish community.
We also thanked Rep. Ellison for his leadership in organizing a letter from high-profile Muslim Americans to Hamas leader Khaled Mashaal calling for the release of Gilad Shalit and for his commitment to Holocaust education.
A few months later, in Aug 2012, Rep. Ellison joined Minneapolis Mayor R.T. Rybak and U.S. Undersecretary of Commerce Francisco Sanchez for a tour of my dad’s business, Accent Signage. They were highlighting the company’s achievements as an innovative firm that maintained sustainable business practices and was exporting products overseas. Tragically, that would be the last time they met.
Less than two months later, on the day after Yom Kippur, an employee who was being let go brought a gun to work and started shooting, killing my father and five other fathers.
The entire city was shaken by this senseless act of violence, including Rep. Ellison and Mayor Rybak, who were both fond of my dad’s charisma, creativity, and commitment to family and community. As I continued to grieve the loss of my role model, mentor, and father, I became an outspoken activist for reforming state and federal gun laws, specifically calling for background checks on all gun sales.
This cause is also near to Rep. Ellison’s heart; he has invited me to share my story in multiple panel discussions and town hall forums on preventing gun violence. In January 2013, he invited me to be his guest at President Obama’s State of the Union address (members of Congress are allotted one guest ticket each).
In August 2013, I left for a gap year in Israel before starting at the University of Minnesota. The following summer I served as an intern in Rep. Ellison’s District Office, where I sat in several meetings with the Congressman and his constituents. He and his dedicated staff make time to meet with people of all backgrounds and listen to their concerns on a range of issues. Rep. Ellison is a passionate advocate for immigrants, students, working families, low-income earners, small business owners, at-risk youth, veterans, seniors, and the environment. He directs his staff to do everything in their power to help people navigate complicated federal bureaucracies.
Midway through my internship in Rep. Ellison’s office, the United States and other world powers signed the nuclear accord with Iran. While much of my Facebook feed was filled with posts urging Congress to oppose the deal, the office staff celebrated the deal’s signing. Feeling vindicated after a brutal fight through Congress where Republicans and some Democrats came close to blocking the agreement, Rep. Ellison released the following statement: “This deal is a triumph of diplomacy over war and proves negotiation is an excellent method of peacemaking. It throws a wrench in the war machine and tells those who profit from conflict: we choose peace.”
It was far from the first time Rep. Ellison would be at odds with the pro-Israel community in his district, many of whom opposed the deal. Some of his votes in Congress have deeply disappointed me, perhaps none more so than a vote to deny emergency aid funding to refuel the life-saving Iron Dome missile defense system during the height of the 2014 conflict with Hamas in Gaza. He defended that vote on Meet the Press by asserting that the United States’ priority should have been a cease-fire. “A cease-fire protects people on both sides,” Rep. Ellison said. “It doesn’t just say we’re only concerned about people on one side.” However, negotiating a cease-fire and refueling our ally’s defensive systems, when they are under attack, are in no way contradictory. I find his vote against Iron Dome funding in the middle of a war when dozens of missiles and rockets were fired daily at Israeli civilians inexplicable.
I’ve also disagreed with Rep. Ellison over his position on lifting the blockade of Gaza, which he advocated for during Operation Protective Edge. Rep. Ellison wrote an op-ed in The Washington Post titled “End the Gaza blockade to achieve peace.” Again, Rep. Ellison is well-intentioned in his sympathy for Gaza, but Israel has a duty to protect itself from Hamas’s attacks against its civilians, which it would be failing to do if it allowed unchecked cargo and freedom of movement to and from the terrorist-run coastal enclave. I agree that Gazans deserve hope for a better future, but as long as they continue to be ruled by a terrorist organization actively working to destroy Israel, the status quo, tragic as it may be, is unlikely to change. Israel unilaterally lifting the blockade would do little to empower ordinary Gazans, but would surely strengthen the ability of Hamas to kill innocent Israelis.
Today, there’s no active war between Israel and Hamas raging, but a different kind of attack is being waged against the Jewish state. There is a troubling campaign to demonize and delegitimize Israel on college campuses, in academic associations, and international institutions. As the Democratic presidential nominee, Secretary Hillary Clinton fiercely defended the U.S.-Israel relationship and committed to taking a strong stand against the BDS movement.
However, Secretary Clinton’s loss in the presidential election has thrown the direction of the Democratic Party into question. Before formally entering the race for DNC Chair, Rep. Ellison said that the most important criteria for the next chair is “vision.” Rhetorically, he asked the next chair, “do you have the vision to help empower and channel the energy at the grassroots level?”
As a friend and constituent, I want to ask Rep. Ellison: what is your vision for channeling the grassroots energy toward greater understanding in the fight for peace? Will you work to maintain the bipartisan nature of the U.S.-Israel relationship? Or will you allow an opening for the far-left’s anti-Zionist ideology, which does not envision a two-state solution, to gain prominence in the party? Will you stand with me not just privately, but publicly, in opposition to those calling for our universities, businesses and institutions to boycott, divest from and sanction Israel? Will you send a message to the millions of young people who so rightly admire you on college campuses, and the millions more who will soon come to know you as the bold progressive leader that you are, that the BDS movement is supremely counterproductive for Israelis and Palestinians, as well as Americans who still strive for two states for two peoples?
Whichever path is taken, I’m confident Rep. Ellison will always keep his door open, but I worry that in these uncertain times, that may no longer be enough.