Rep. Keith Ellison, a leading contender to head the Democratic National Committee, has had a rocky relationship with the Jewish establishment. The Minnesota Democrat’s Jewish critics cite his involvement in law school with the Nation of Islam, an African-American group that has been described as anti-Semitic, and his criticism of Israel over the years.
A profile in Mother Jones published Tuesday cited sources claiming that Ellison was once a member of the group — the lawmaker has said he worked with them but was never a member — and clashed with Jewish students in law school at the University of Minnesota.
A spokesman for Ellison told JTA that he was not a Nation of Islam member and that other aspects of the Mother Jones article were false.
Before he became the first Muslim elected to Congress in 2006, Ellison apologized for his involvement in the Nation of Islam and denounced the group.
“I have long since distanced myself from and rejected the Nation of Islam due to its propagation of bigoted and anti-Semitic statements and actions of the Nation of Islam, [its leader] Louis Farrakhan, and [Farrakhan’s late assistant] Khalid Muhammed,” he wrote in a two-page letter to the Jewish Community Relations Council of Minnesota and the Dakotas in May 2006 after winning the Democratic primary.
He was warmly accepted by liberal Jewish groups and the Minneapolis Jewish community, with whom he has close ties.
Ellison’s actions in Congress, however, have troubled some in the pro-Israel community. Though Ellison has rejected the movement to boycott, sanction and divest from Israel and expressed support for the two-state-solution, he sought to accommodate a more sympathetic reading of the UN’s Goldstone report on the 2009 Gaza war that Israel, Jewish groups and most of the Congress rejected as a one-sided attack on Israel. The congressman also voted against funding for Israel’s Iron Dome missile defense system in 2014.
Then, in December, a short audio recording from a 2010 private fundraiser was released in which Ellison said that American foreign policy is “governed” by Israeli interests.
Shortly thereafter Israeli-American businessman Haim Saban, a major Democratic Party funder, slammed the lawmaker as “an anti-Semite and anti-Israel individual” whose election as chairman of the Democratic National Committee would be a “disaster” for the party’s relationship with Jews. In January, however, Ellison said he had talked to Saban and that they were “on the road” to mending ties.
While the Anti-Defamation League called the 2010 comments “deeply disturbing and disqualifying,” Ellison retained the support of the left-wing Middle East policy group J Street as well as some 300 Jewish leaders of liberal groups who signed a letter in support of him.
Defenders have also noted Ellison’s record backing defense assistance to Israel, his multiple visits to the country and his support for Holocaust education in the Muslim community.