Defending Keith Ellison

Some of us may disagree on whether Rep. Ellison is our very first choice to be party chair, but he will be a perfectly great chair regardless.

US Rep. Keith Ellison (photo credit: REUTERS)
US Rep. Keith Ellison
(photo credit: REUTERS)
They say you are often judged by the company you keep.
Prof. Alan Dershowitz, who is never shy about calling out antisemitism and anti-Israel sentiment, terms US Rep. Keith Ellison (D-Minnesota) – under serious consideration as the next head of the Democratic National Committee – “a decent, good person.”
Sen. Chuck Schumer (D-New York), the outspoken new Senate minority leader and strong supporter of Israel, was among the first to endorse Ellison as DNC chair. Marshall Breger, an observant Jew who served as president Ronald Reagan’s liaison to the Jewish community, has expressed his gratitude to Ellison for hosting a delegation to combat the use of the Holocaust to foment antisemitism.
And Minneapolis Rabbi Michael Latz describes Ellison as “an exquisite mensch, brilliant, a terrific community organizer who represents his constituency with great integrity.” The rabbi also said that Ellison “represents the best of our constitutional democracy and the best of America.” Meanwhile, Rabbi Marc Schneier, a co-founder of the Foundation for Ethnic Understanding and an Orthodox rabbi, called it “outrageous” for anyone to “vilify” Ellison as anti-Israel or antisemitic.
And the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism, Judaism’s largest movement, has long been a friend and ally.
I don’t know Ellison personally, but those praises from diverse members of the Jewish and pro-Israel community coupled with what I do know about his record in Congress convince me that Jews shouldn’t worry if he becomes the next DNC chair.
No, his record on Israel isn’t perfect. But it’s one that has included supporting and voting for more than $27 billion in bilateral aid and assistance to Israel. Several times throughout his tenure in Congress, he has issued statements calling on Hamas to stop launching rocket attacks on Israel. Speaking to a Capitol Hill event 2009 sponsored by the Arab-American Anti-Discrimination Committee, he rejected the notion of the US using foreign aid to pressure Israel: “If you have sympathies to the Palestinian cause, I urge you to put on the shoes of someone who is Jewish,” he said.
This fall, he was among 10 US Muslim leaders urging Hamas to return to Israel the remains of two of its soldiers. In 2011, he hailed the release of Gilad Schalit. Last fall, Ellison introduced a resolution to commemorate the 20th anniversary of the assassination of prime minister Yitzhak Rabin.
Sure, he was one of Sen. Bernie Sanders’ appointments to the Democratic Party platform committee, where he worked with a group that sought to change the traditional language on Israel in the party platform. I disagreed with Ellison – along with my old friend Jim Zogby, head of the Arab American Institute, for whom I have the utmost respect – on their push to move away from that language. In fact, I worked behind the scenes to make sure they didn’t succeed and the bottom line is that the platform section on Israel remained virtually unchanged. It was a strong one that supported Israel’s right to defend itself and opposed any efforts to delegitimize Israel. But in the end, a Schumer spokesperson credited Ellison with “making that happen and persuading others to support it.”
Rep. Ellison favors a two-state solution and is sympathetic to the cause of the Palestinians, as am I – and as are the majority of American Jews. They deserve the dignity that our party platform calls for.
He has a close relationship with the Jewish Community Action, a St. Paul, Minnesota, group that promotes racial and economic justice, and he stands out among his colleagues when it comes to the battle against antisemitism and Holocaust denial and the fight for religious freedoms. He has strongly condemned the Nation of Islam and other groups that promote antisemitism, intolerance and bigotry.
In 2009, Ellison condemned hate crimes in a statement following the shooting at the US Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, saying he was “appalled by reports that the gunman was motivated by racist views against Jews and African Americans.”
The following year, he voted to strengthen hates crimes legislation.
In 2010, Ellison hosted a briefing on antisemitism and Holocaust denial, inviting a group of Jewish, Muslim and Christian faith leaders who recently had visited the Dachau and Auschwitz concentration camps. In 2014, he held a briefing for to hear from imams who had visited Auschwitz on a study tour; that briefing was the only event on Capitol Hill that year to honor International Holocaust Remembrance Day.
Last year, following a spate of antisemitic incidents in Europe, he joined with Minnesota State Rep. Fred Hornstein to condemn antisemitism. “As a person of the Muslim faith, I urge everybody, not just the leaders, but including the leaders to condemn these antisemitic acts,” Ellison said. “This is reprehensible. This is wrong.”
It’s also wrong for the focus to be on Ellison’s Muslim religion. The Democratic Party prides itself on its diversity and on being the party open to people of every (or no) faith. The party is licking its wounds following a bruising election that saw states that should have supported Hillary Clinton instead support Donald Trump and that saw too many voters who should be part of the Democratic base fail to cast a vote for president.
The next DNC chair needs to focus first on grassroots organizing and winning elections. And Jewish Democrats should put our efforts into ensuring that Democrats come out to vote in 2018 and in 2020.
Yes, of course the J Street Left supports Ellison, and well they should. And American Jewish World Service, Bend the Arc, Americans for Peace Now, Senators Sanders and Al Franken and others are all advocates and allies. But for me, it’s much more noteworthy – and no disrespect intended – what the Alan Dershowitzes and the Chuck Schumers, the Marshall Bregers and the Michael Latzes, the Marc Schneiers and the Religious Action Centers and the Jews of Minnesota all say.
Some of us may disagree on whether Rep. Ellison is our very first choice to be party chair, but he will be a perfectly great chair regardless – and a sharp contrast to the bigotry and danger we see from the president-elect and his top appointments.
The author, writing only for himself, is a long-time Jewish Democratic activist, Bill Clinton White House aide, National Jewish Democratic Council leader and co-founder of the pro-Hillary Clinton super PAC Jews for Progress.