WASHINGTON – When upstart presidential aspirant Bernie Sanders appointed Rep. Keith Ellison last May to represent him in negotiations over the Democratic Party platform, Zionist leaders shivered throughout the Jewish world.
He was selected by Sanders – who had stated his intention to sharpen the DNC’s language on Israel and its treatment of the Palestinians – alongside Cornel West, an academic, and James Zogby, an Arab-American community activist. The message Sanders was sending to the party was clear: His appointments were going to lobby for a shift in the party’s direction on Israel considerably to the left.
Ellison’s past suggested his line on Israel would be, in the words of one senior Democratic official, “on the aggressive side of the progressive wing of the party.” But he apparently surprised those who were appointed by the party’s ultimate nominee, Hillary Clinton, tasked with preserving the platform’s friendly tone.
“We have discussed his views on Israel at length,” Sen. Chuck Schumer, Democrat from New York likely to become Senate minority leader, said in a statement this past week. Schumer was not on the platform committee, but supported Clinton and closely monitored the process.
“I disagree with some of his past positions,” Schumer continued, “but I saw him orchestrate one of the most pro-Israel platforms in decades by successfully persuading other skeptical committee members to adopt such a strong platform.”
Ellison has convinced many of his colleagues, with whom he has personally worked over several years, that he is sufficiently supportive of the Jewish state. The congressman points to his voting record on US foreign and military aid as proof of his credentials. Yet in recent weeks, his past statements and positions on Israel have become the primary obstacle to his election as chair of the Democratic National Committee.
The first Muslim elected to Congress has over several decades praised the Nation of Islam and its leader, Louis Farrakhan, who in the words of the Anti-Defamation League “has embarked on a wide-ranging campaign specifically targeting the Jewish community.” Ellison has recently expressed regret over his defense of Farrakhan in the 1990s, but Ellison’s own writings reveal that he has, at least at one point in the past, entertained a similar worldview.
“Whether one supports or opposes the establishment of Israel in Palestine and Israel’s present policies, Zionism, the ideological undergirding of Israel, is a debatable political philosophy,” Ellison wrote in 1990, protesting the University of Minnesota’s criticism of a campus visit by Stokely Carmichael, who famously claimed that Zionists collaborated with the Nazis during World War II.
“The university’s position appears to be this,” Ellison continued: “Political Zionism is off-limits no matter what dubious circumstances Israel was founded under; no matter what the Zionists do to the Palestinians; and no matter what wicked regimes Israel allies itself with – like South Africa. This position is untenable.”
His writings and statements later in life suggest a consistency in this political belief well beyond the ‘90s.
“The United States’ foreign policy in the Middle East is governed by what is good or bad through a country of seven million people,” he said at a 2010 fund-raiser for his reelection hosted by a man named Esam Omeish, who had three years prior faced controversy for telling Palestinians that the “jihad way is the way to liberate your land.”
“A region of 350 million all turns on a country of 7 million.
Does that make sense? Is that logic?” Ellison continued.
“When the Americans who trace their roots back to those 350 million get involved, everything changes. Can I say that again?” During the same event, Ellison suggested the US foster closer ties with Saudi Arabia and Libya, which at the time remained under the dictatorial leadership of Muammar Gaddafi.
And in 2014, Ellison was only one of seven House members to vote against supplementary funding for Israel’s Iron Dome missile defense system – a vote he cast during an emergency ballot, when the country was enduring over 4,000 rocket strikes by Hamas.
Confident they have identified a pattern in Ellison’s statements and behavior, Jewish- American groups are now piling on Democratic members of Congress to block his appointment as DNC chair.
And their pressure appears to be building by the day.
While it comes as no surprise that GOP-affiliated groups have targeted the Democrat from Minnesota – the Republican Jewish Coalition calls his record “disturbing” – more notable is the vocal opposition coming out of Democratic organizations that have long been reticent to weigh in on intra-party politics.
In a rare statement, the National Jewish Democratic Council said it is “troubled” by Ellison’s comments and said the position should be filled by someone who can serve on a “full-time basis” – an increasingly popular way for Democratic individuals and organizations to oppose Ellison’s appointment without criticizing him personally.
“It should be a full-time position, and therefore no elected official should be DNC chair as it would be part-time for them,” said one top aide to Rep. Eliot Engel of New York, a top Democratic member who has long prioritized Israel policy. “Next year the Democrats will have no control over the House, Senate, or presidency, so we really should have someone who can focus all of their attention and effort on running the DNC, fulltime.”
Several other Jewish members of Congress told The Jerusalem Post they are concerned about Ellison’s candidacy, but are hesitant to take their questions public.
“When voices for Jewish Democrats, which have been outspoken in their support for President [Barack] Obama, criticize the leading candidate for the DNC chair, people listen,” said a Democratic source familiar with the inner workings of the race for the position. “As much as right wingers or anti- Obama, pro-Israel types have yelled about Keith, it’s important to remember that at the end of the day, the most partisan Democrats are electing their leader – and they just don’t care what anti-Obama partisans think.”
Other Democrats are taking a less diplomatic approach.
“If you go back to his positions, his statements, his speeches, the ways he voted, he’s clearly an antisemite and anti-Israel individual,” Haim Saban, a billionaire and Democratic mega-donor who generously gave to Clinton this election cycle, said before a baffled crowd of top Democratic lawmakers on Friday, including House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi. “Keith Ellison would be a disaster for the relationship between the Jewish community and the Democratic Party.”
That moment divided attendees at the Saban Forum, an annual conference on the US-Israel relationship held by the Brookings Institution. One senior Democratic House official told the Post that the Jewish- American establishment is risking its weight within the caucus by outwardly opposing Ellison’s candidacy.
The Anti-Defamation League nevertheless joined that fight last week, characterizing Ellison’s past comments as “disqualifying.”
Some Democrats see the ADL playing politics: Those in the Caucus leadership believe the non-profit is seeking to demonstrate balance after harshly criticizing President- elect Donald Trump’s appointment of Stephen Bannon, whose career tracks with the rise of the white nationalist and antisemitic alt-right movement.
For his part, Ellison is defending himself against what he characterizes as the “selective editing” of his lifelong public record.
“My record proves my deep and long-lasting support for Israel, and I have always fought antisemitism, racism, sexism and homophobia,” he said. “I believe that this is an attempt by right-wing interests to drive a wedge between longstanding allies in the fight for equal rights.”
And at least one Jewish group is standing with him.
“J Street has always stood for open debate, and we welcome and respect disagreements over policy questions,” the group said in a statement.
“But responsible leaders in the American-Jewish community must take care not to charge that those who are critical of certain Israeli government policies are ‘anti-Israel,’ or worse, and thus not ‘qualified’ to hold high national office. It is time to put away the old playbook.”
The DNC will select its next chairman in February.