Opinion

The ADL's Bad Call on Keith Ellison

For the sake of Jewish-Muslim coalition building in the age of Trump, let's hope the organization’s unendorsement of the DNC chair candidate isn't its final word.

Representative Keith Ellison, a Democrat from Minnesota, pauses while speaking during the Democratic National Convention (DNC) in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, U.S., on Monday, July 25, 2016.
Andrew Harrer, Bloomberg

I can understand why Steve Emerson would choose only those thirty-six seconds of audio that might make you think Congressman Keith Ellison is an anti-Semite. A thoroughly disreputable anti-Muslim bigot, Emerson was once called "a complete idiot" and compared to an April fool’s joke by former British Prime Minister David Cameron. The highly-regarded Southern Poverty Law Center has written extensively on the roots and fruits of his unbounded anti-Muslim rage.

And I am not surprised Haim Saban would run with the audio Emerson’s website leaked. Saban, a purported Democrat, promptly pronounced Keith Ellison an anti-Semite. The same Saban who endorsed Trump’s “extreme vetting” of Muslims, on which Islamophobic proposal he was rebuffed by the Clinton campaign itself. Because religious tests are baldly unconstitutional. But why would the Anti-Defamation League accept Emerson’s argument, and declare Ellison unqualified for the position of DNC Chairperson? 

When Bernie Sanders first suggested Minnesota Congressman Keith Ellison for the vacated post of DNC Chairperson, there was plenty of enthusiasm. Hillary Clinton had won the popular vote, but lost the White House – and her party failed to make much progress in Congress. Ellison, a popular U.S. Midwestern politician, who bucked the establishment in endorsing Sanders’ insurgent campaign, seemed like just what the party needed to turn its fortunes around. 

Ellison quickly had other influential senators, like Elizabeth Warren and Chuck Schumer in his corner. But it’s also unsurprising that there would be a backlash. What was unnerving was that the ADL, based on Emerson’s leak alone – without investigating the larger context, or even contacting Congressman Ellison – would rescind its prior endorsement of him for chairperson of the DNC, and throw his chances into doubt. This was less the new ADL that rightly denounced the prospect of a Muslim registry, and more of the old ADL, which sided with Pamela Geller and against First Amendment freedom of worship in opposing the so-called Ground Zero Mosque in lower Manhattan.

But a closer look at the ADL under former head Abe Foxman reveals an organization torn between conflicting impulses; even as the ADL shamefully opposed Muslim freedom of worship, piling on a beleaguered community in a moment of escalating bigotry, it also continued to strongly oppose Geller (as someone who “consistently vilifies the Islamic faith under the guise of fighting radical Islam”) and other Islamophobes. 

Read more: Anti-Semitic mud thrown at Rep. Keith Ellison to counter attacks on Steve Bannon | America's right-wing's hate has a new target: DNC chair contender Keith Ellison | ADL slams Keith Ellison’s 'disturbing and disqualifying' remarks on Israel | J Street comes to the defense of Rep. Keith Ellison over Israel remarks | Top Democratic donor Haim Saban: Keith Ellison is 'clearly an anti-Semite and anti-Israel'

I think I might have a sense of what’s going on here. I sometimes see Muslim leaders forfeit their moral courage, taking stances that make next to no sense. Until you factor in the pressure they must face from powerful fundraisers and bankrollers. 

I worry that some of the ADL’s decision to withdraw its prior endorsement of Congressman Ellison might be similarly explained. Just as there are prominent Muslim anti-Semites – though Keith Ellison is not one of them – who stymie Muslim-Jewish dialogue, so there are prominent Jewish Islamophobes. Though of course ADL CEO Jonathan Greenblatt is not one of them, either, but perhaps the sudden appearance of a controversial audio file in a climate of escalating anti-Semitism provoked a rushed response, influenced by those more skeptical of anything and anyone Muslim.  

The subsequent release of Ellison’s full, twenty-two minute speech out of which Emerson’s thirty-six seconds were so maliciously pulled, offers us an opportunity to defuse this controversy, and put in its place something better. And let it be clear I am one of the many Muslims who wishes to bring misters Ellison and Greenblatt back together, with the help of other Muslim and Jewish leaders, to make sure we learn from this moment and move forward together. We have no choice but to do so.  

In this crisis, the ADL is not only failing to model what it itself demands of a pluralistic society, the very values it has often been at the forefront of defending, but doing so in such a way that only empowers opponents of Muslim (and Jewish) life in America. As we confront the rise of forces brazenly hostile to democracy itself, we must ask whether we can muster a coalition large enough to defend the old republic. Many of Trump’s policies target Muslims, but anti-Semitism is not far behind. The normalization of hate affects all of us. 

This threat requires cooperation, and cooperation depends on our tolerance of legitimate differences of opinion. Ellison’s record as a congressman clearly demonstrates sympathy for Israel and puts him squarely in the political mainstream. His speech did not appear in any respect anti-Semitic, though he was at times critical of Israeli policies. Imagine if a similar level of rigidity was reciprocated by those of different faiths or politics – we would have no meaningful political engagement across religious lines. 

The ADL’s statement decrying Ellison’s (purported) anti-Semitism endorses Israel as a democracy, a commonplace of course, but one which requires us to overlook the systemic oppression of Palestinians, a mostly Muslim people. Do their rights not matter? Right there, we have anti-Muslim sentiment embedded in a concern over anti-Semitism. Asking whether Keith Ellison is an anti-Semite – of which there is no evidence except the misleading audio provided by a conspiracist – while not asking why the ADL so often empowers Islamophobia seems to be unfair and needs to be addressed as such.

I am deeply grateful that Jonathan Greenblatt condemned discussions of a Muslim registry. That is not enough however for me to overlook his dependence on the very kind of Islamophobia that brought us to a point where a registry of Muslims has become acceptable policy conversation. I certainly don’t believe Mr. Greenblatt or the ADL acted out of willful animosity; a snippet of audio provoked understandable concerns. But it is not reasonable to proceed on those concerns absent a conversation with Keith Ellison, or basic journalistic investigation. Not least in a moment shaped by an epidemic of fake news.

Though the ADL did not exercise ordinary discretion, Congressman Ellison still requested a dialogue in an open letter responding to Emerson’s reportage. 

Since we now know those thirty-six seconds are not the full twenty-two minutes, why not pursue that lead towards dialogue? Though that dialogue might begin with the congressman and the ADL, it does not need to be limited to them. Diverse Muslim and Jewish communities must extend the model represented by the Islamic Society of North America and the American Jewish Committee and establish mechanisms for ongoing dialogue with a view to mutually fruitful collaboration, ways to work together without reaching unanimity over every issue. The ADL must be part of that work; it is too important not to be. 

That dialogue is where like-minded people of good faith and moral decency belong, and strongly distinguishes us from those whose purpose is to deepen division and increase mistrust. In a society where neither community is a majority, our respective mistrust of each other will only and inevitably empower those who hate us most. Steve Emerson only ends in Steve Bannon. Together, let’s surprise the both of them.

Haroon Moghul is a senior fellow at the Center for Global Policy. He is president of Avenue Meem, a new media company. Follow him on Twitter: @hsmoghul