Keith Ellison thinks he should be the next chair of the Democratic National Committee. And a lot of powerful Democratic leaders and constituencies do too — outgoing Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid, his successor Chuck Schumer, Bernie Sanders, Elizabeth Warren, the presidents of two major public-sector unions and leadership of the AFL-CIO, and a wide range of progressive activist groups have all thrown their support behind the Minnesota congressman.
And it’s not hard to see why. As an African-American Muslim who backed Bernie Sanders in the this year’s primary, Ellison both embodies and practices the synthesis between identity politics and economic populism that the left longs to achieve. And he has established that such a synthesis can routinely win reelection in a heavily white (albeit, also heavily liberal) district. Further, he’s shown a knack for generating voter turnout, lays claim to Sanders’s grassroots base and said, “Ya know, the sky isn’t falling yet, but it totally could,” long before most anyone else did:
After quickly consolidating the support of Democratic leaders both left and center, Ellison appeared on the path to victory.
But in recent days, that path has grown more thicketed, and its ultimate destination, less clear.
Specifically, the Obama White House leaked its skepticism about handing the keys to the DNC to a Sanders proxy last week. And then Ellison’s past involvement with the Nation of Islam — and his more recent criticisms of Israel — came under renewed scrutiny.
This backlash culminated in the Anti-Defamation League declaring its official opposition to Ellison’s bid in a statement Thursday night. The ADL had previously accepted Ellison’s contrition for his decades-old association with Louis Farakhan’s organization. But a newly surfaced speech on American foreign policy, which Ellison delivered in 2010, struck the ADL as less forgivable.
“The United States foreign policy in the Middle East is governed by what is good or bad through a country of seven million people,” Ellison told a group of supporters. “A region of 350 million all turns on a country of seven million. Does that make sense? Is that logic? Right? When the Americans who trace their roots back to those 350 million get involved, everything changes.”
ADL CEO Jonathan A. Greenblatt described those remarks as “deeply disturbing and disqualifying.”
“His words imply that U.S. foreign policy is based on religiously or national origin-based special interests rather than simply on America’s best interests,” Greenblatt continued, in a written statement. “Additionally, whether intentional or not, his words raise the specter of age-old stereotypes about Jewish control of our government, a poisonous myth that may persist in parts of the world where intolerance thrives, but that has no place in open societies like the U.S.”
Ellison, for his part, issued a statement that reiterated his unequivocal support for the Jewish state and its security, saying of his past remarks, “My memory is that I was responding to a question about how Americans with roots in the Middle East could engage in the political process in a more effective way. My advice was simply to get involved. I believe that Israel and the U.S.-Israel relationship are, and should be, key considerations in shaping U.S. policy in the Middle East.”
It seems doubtful that a staunchly pro-Israel organization — which already had doubts about where Ellison stood on the Israel-Palestine conflict — will find much solace in this explanation. Read in conjunction with Ellison’s past reflects on Israel, there’s little doubt that if the would-be DNC chair were king of America, he would not pursue Jonathan Greenblatt’s preferred Middle East policy.
Which doesn’t mean that Ellison’s comments can be fairly characterized as anti-Semitic. While hyperbolic in his claims about the degree to which Israeli interests shape American foreign policy, there is little doubt that the U.S. geopolitical strategy is influenced by “religiously or national origin-based special interests” — and it should be!
We live in a democracy. Many voters’ views of foreign affairs are colored by their religious and ethnic identities. Those voters often organize to lobby their elected leaders on behalf of those views. Can anyone seriously claim that American foreign policy would be identical if there were as many Palestinian-Americans as Jews in the United States — and if the former population had invested copious resources into funding groups to lobby Congress on behalf of Palestine’s interests? (To be sure, most members of AIPAC and the ADL believe that it is in the interests of the United States to pursue a foreign policy that favors Israel in its dispute with the Palestinians. But you don’t need to embrace anti-Semitic tropes about dual loyalty to recognize that Arab Americans often hold the opposite view, and thus, that the greater political power of American Jews is a factor that shapes American policy.)
Ellison’s broader history on the subject of Israel-Palestine further suggests that his present unqualified support for the Jewish state is less than sincere — even as his condemnation of anti-Semitism is wholly earnest. In its review of Ellison’s most controversial statements and associations, CNN’s KFile found no “examples of Ellison making any anti-Semitic comments himself.”
But they did find Ellison defending a speech that radical civil-rights leader Kwame Ture (a.k.a., Stokely Carmichael) gave at his law school, in which Ture reportedly said, “the Zionists joined with the Nazis in murdering Jews, so they would flee to Palestine.”
“Concerning Zionism and Ture’s speech, the ASCC’s position is simply this: 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 an op-ed, referring to the African Student Cultural Center’s decision to invite Ture to campus. “Anyone, including black people, has the right to hear and voice alternative views on the subject — notwithstanding our nominal citizenship.”
That political Zionism is an ideology — which one can oppose while also rejecting anti-Semitism — is reflected in the existence of anti-Zionist Jews. And the point may be even more obvious when viewed in the abstract: Plenty of people who don’t have strong views on Zionism, per se, believe in open borders — an ideal incompatible with the nation-state, let alone with the concept of a nation-state that is religiously defined.
Still, Ellison papered over Ture’s most libelous and offensive claim, which wasn’t that Zionism is a flawed ideology, but that Zionists “joined Nazis in murdering Jews.” And Ellison was guilty of similar elisions throughout his time as a young black radical, repeatedly defending Louis Farrakhan against credible accusations of anti-Semitism.
Ellison reiterated his regret over his defenses of the indefensible, in a post on Medium this week.
“In my effort to pursue justice for the African-American community, I neglected to scrutinize the words of those like Khalid Muhammed and Farrakhan who mixed a message of African American empowerment with scapegoating of other communities,” Ellison wrote. “These men organize by sowing hatred and division, including, anti-Semitism, homophobia and a chauvinistic model of manhood. I disavowed them long ago, condemned their views, and apologized.”
That Ellison always defended these leaders by denying their anti-Semitism — as opposed to justifying it — lends credence to the claim that he was attracted to the Nation of Islam for its veneration of black empowerment, not its demonization of Jews.
And that claim is further bolstered by his warm relations with the Jewish community in his subsequent career in state and federal politics, as well as his decision to endorse a Jewish presidential candidate in 2016. (Ironically, as mentioned above, that endorsement is Ellison’s chief disqualification in the eyes of many who oppose his bid for chair.)
All of which is to say: If it’s important to you that the Democratic Party not elevate members who dissent from the status quo policy of challenging Israeli settlements only rhetorically — while providing its military billions of dollars in unconditional aid — you should probably oppose Ellison’s campaign for DNC chair. (Or, put more generously: If you do not wish to see the Democrats elevate one of the few people in Congress who has ever publicly evinced sympathy for anti-Zionism, Ellison is not your man).
The ADL might not phrase its position on Israel-Palestine in these terms, but it’s fair to say that it does not wish to see America’s current policy on the conflict challenged from the left. And so the organization’s rebuke of Ellison is perfectly understandable.
But if you are a Democrat who does not share the ADL’s concerns about American policy toward Israel — but does share the organization’s concerns about anti-Semitism — you shouldn’t mistake its rebuke of Ellison as a sign that he is tainted by the latter.