(photo credit: )
As the first Muslim member of the US Congress, Minnesota's Keith Ellison realizes that every step he takes regarding the Arab-Israeli conflict will be closely scrutinized by both American Muslims and Jews.
A trip to Israel for this freshman congressman from Minnesota's 5th Congressional District is, therefore, one fraught with potential pitfalls.
But Ellison has not shied away.
In fact, Ellison left Israel on Saturday after a six day-visit as part of a Democratic congressional delegation brought here by the American Israel Education Foundation, an independent, nonprofit charitable organization affiliated with the America Israel Public Affairs Committee. This was Ellison's second visit here since he was elected just nine months ago.
Ellison deftly avoided the pitfalls by adopting a policy that seemed to rest on two pillars: staying far out of the limelight and saying he was in a learning mode.
In an exclusive interview with The Jerusalem Post, Ellison said what few politicians anywhere are willing to say about anything: "I don't know, I'm just learning."
"I need to build up some knowledge and expertise," he said, when asked if, as a Muslim, he brought a perspective to the region different from that of the other congressmen in his delegation.
"I'm in a learning mode like everyone else," Ellison said. "Until you reach a certain level of competence, it is not responsible to tell the world what you will do. I need to learn the dynamics of the region and understand some of the issues and personalities better."
As to whether he felt he had a greater sensitivity to the Arab perspective than other congressmen, he said, "I know Islam, I know the religion, I read the Koran every day. When I went to the [Aksa] Mosque, it wasn't just a tourist site for me, it was a holy site. I felt the affinity for it."
But what he doesn't understand, Ellison said emphatically, were those - he called them "crazies" - who read the same Koran he did and came away with a license to murder.
"The murderers and the extremists are into something I don't know about," he said. "I don't know how they read what they read and come out with what they do. They wouldn't consider me a Muslim because I'm American, because I believe in the unity of people and that we are all on the planet to work together."
"The people who did 9/11 are hostile to everyone, and in fact if you are not the type of Muslim they want you to be, they would be happy to kill you too," Ellison said. "I am not a Muslim in their eyes because I am for tolerance and inclusion, and they don't want an Islam that is inclusive."
Since he is the first Islamic member of Congress, and indeed was sworn into office on a Koran that belonged to Thomas Jefferson, Ellison has been thrust into the national spotlight. Yet he doesn't view himself as a symbol - as some have described him - for Muslim Americans, and certainly not for Arab Americans.
"I'm not a symbol," he said, emphasizing that the Jewish newspaper in Minneapolis endorsed his candidacy. "The people in my district don't know me as a Muslim congressman, they know me as Keith."
Before he was elected to Congress form a district in Minneapolis that is heavily Jewish, Ellison served as a state legislator.
"Religion never came into it," he said. "I don't see myself as a religious leader or a religious scholar. I don't represent a religion, I don't represent the Muslims. I represent the Muslims and Jews and Hindus and Christians and those who don't follow anything in my district."
"When you get to the bottom line," he said, "the main reason I'm here [in Israel] is to be able to talk to the people of the 5th Congressional District about something a lot of people care about - what happens here in Israel" and in the Palestinian Authority.
Ellison said he never sought recognition as the first Muslim congressman, but that if his electoral success inspired some Muslims on college campuses to think to themselves that they, too, could be in Congress someday, that "religion won't be a barrier to serving their country," then he would be pleased.
"But I didn't seek it out," he said. "I didn't go out and market myself in that way."
Ellison said when he goes back to the voters next year for reelection, he is not going to talk about religion but rather "how I stood up for peace. I'm going to talk about the problems of the middle class, the environment, civil and human rights, and about bills I initiated. I'm not going to talk about religion; it wouldn't be appropriate. We all experience the Divine in a unique way. There are different ways to be Muslim, Jewish and Christian. Not everyone is one category."
The 18-member Congressional delegation that Ellison was a part of in Israel met Israeli and Palestinian leaders, including Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and PA Prime Minister Salaam Fayad.
Ellison said he did not think the Palestinians, or anyone else, looked at him as their conduit to Capital Hill.
"I think that the Palestinians and everyone else looks at me as a freshman congressman who will hopefully be humble enough to learn and listen," he said.
Ellison took to task those who make "off-the-cuff comments" about the situation here without first seeing it up close to gain a better understanding of the issues. Taking this to heart, he deflected any question over policy matters here, saying that at this point whatever he said would be "misunderstood by somebody."