WASHINGTON (JTA) — Rep. Keith Ellison, the second in charge at the Democratic Party, pushed back against criticism for his attendance at a 2013 dinner hosted by the Iranian government, saying he was advocating for the Iran nuclear deal and for the freedom of a captive American.
“As part of the 2013 U.N. General Assembly, and as negotiations were under way for what would become the Iran deal, I attended a meeting with President [Hassan] Rouhani and nearly 50 American Muslim leaders,” Ellison, D-Minn., said in a statement Monday night. “This was not a private dinner, I didn’t know in advance who else would be there, and my decision to attend was not an endorsement of the political views of other attendees.”
Ellison, the first Muslim elected to Congress, was responding in part to a Wall Street Journal Op-Ed last week, which noted that Louis Farrakhan, the virulently anti-Semitic leader of the Nation of Islam, was also at the event. The Journal Op-Ed quoted a Nation of Islam publication as saying the meeting was “private.”
“I attended the meeting to advocate for a peaceful resolution to the Iranian nuclear issue and to press President Rouhani face-to-face for the release of former U.S. Marine Amir Hekmati, who was illegally detained and tortured by the Iranian regime,” Ellison said. “As always, I disavow anti-Semitism and bigotry in all of its forms.”
The United States, leading a coalition of six nations, signed the deal with Iran in 2006, which swapped sanctions relief for Iran’s rollback of its nuclear program. Hekmati, who had been sentenced to death on spy charges, was released by Iran in January of 2016 in a prisoner swap that was coincident with the Iran deal.
Ellison, who a year ago ran to lead the Democratic National Committee and now is its deputy chairman, maintained various associations with the Nation of Islam until at least the late 1990s. Running for Congress for the first time in 2006, he wrote a letter to Minnesota’s Jewish community, disavowing Farrakhan and his anti-Semitism.
The Wall Street Journal story came shortly after a picture surfaced of Farrakhan and former President Barack Obama, then a senator, at a 2005 meeting of the Congressional Black Caucus. That photo led to calls from Jewish groups on Obama to renounce Farrakhan, although Obama has done so multiple times. Additionally, while the photographer had repressed the photo to protect Obama, the CBC meeting with Farrakhan was not a secret.
The U.N. dinner hosted by Rouhani, and Ellison’s presence, was also never a secret, but the Wall Street Journal Op-Ed prompted similar calls this week from Jewish groups on Ellison to renounce Farrakhan.
“Still gathering information about this meeting,” Jonathan Greenblatt, the CEO of the Anti-Defamation League, said Monday on Twitter. “Based on what we know, its extremely disturbing that Democratic represntatives or members of any political group would attend a session hosted by hatemongers.”
Also attending the dinner were Rep. Andre Carson, D-Ind., and Rep. Gregory Meeks, D-N.Y.
“It’s very disturbing that Keith Ellison attended a dinner with Louis Farrakhan and the President of Iran in 2013,” David Bernstein, the president of the Jewish Council for Public Affairs said on Twitter. “Dining with hatemongers is not ok.”