Keith Ellison has a real Israel problem.
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Many pro-Israel groups had been skeptical of his candidacy to lead the Democratic National Committee from the start due to concerns over his past affiliation with the Nation of Islam and his criticism of Israel’s use of force in Gaza in response to Hamas rocket attacks.
But the revelation of a 2010 audio clip of Ellison charging that American foreign policy in the Middle East is governed primarily by Israeli interests has significantly complicated Ellison’s efforts to lead the DNC. The Anti-Defamation League, which had initially taken a wait-and-see approach to Ellison, responded to the clip by calling his words “deeply disturbing and disqualifying.” Making the case that Ellison is within the reasonable boundaries of being pro-Israel is far harder now than it was before.
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When taking everything into context, the DNC will be better off without having Ellison at its helm.
The Mearsheimerian allegations of Israeli control over American decision making is indeed, as the ADL says, disqualifying, even if Ellison meant it as an example of American Jewish success that American Muslims should seek to emulate. Ellison’s past defense of Louis Farrakhan from charges of anti-Semitism should also not be given a free pass or chalked up simply to youthful indiscretion. It has been evident for decades to anyone with basic comprehension skills that Farrakhan is a repugnant and unapologetic anti-Semite, and defending him personally cannot be waved away as misguided or an error in judgment.
The concerns about Ellison are valid, and given the growing strains within the Democratic Party over Israel, having a figure at the helm who raises alarm bells within mainstream American Jewish organizations is bad for the party and bad for the American Jewish community at large.
There is a tragedy though in how this saga is playing out, because nothing would be better for the pro-Israel cause than having a Keith Ellison at the DNC who is not Keith Ellison. Much has been made about both Ellison’s background and Ellison’s specific statements, but it is only the latter that should sink his DNC bid. Not only should Ellison’s background not disqualify him, it is actually beneficial. That someone like Ellison has worked so hard to be seen as pro-Israel only demonstrates the strength of Israel’s case and shows how support for Israel can remain broadly bipartisan going forward.
Ellison is not a figure whom anyone would normally expect to be a supporter of Israel. He is an African-American Muslim who did not grow up in a particularly Jewish area of the country, came of age after 1967, when Israel’s image as a David began shifting to that of a Goliath, did not have any prominent Jewish mentors, and has a background in radical politics. As a student, he was harshly critical of Zionism and its legitimacy.
Given this biography, one would expect Ellison to be a loud voice in Congress criticizing Israel given every opportunity, and to perhaps even lead an anti-Israel movement akin to what has become common within Britain’s Labour Party.
Yet Ellison unambiguously self-identifies as pro-Israel, supports a two-state solution without reservation, has repeatedly said that Israel has a right to defend itself and expressed the importance of protecting and maintaining Israel’s security, and there is no evidence that he has ever supported or advocated for BDS.
That is not to say that there are not worrisome aspects to Ellison’s record on Israel, from his 2014 vote against emergency Iron Dome funding to his naive misunderstanding of the lengths to which Hamas will go to maintain its arsenal of rockets in Gaza. Nobody will ever accuse him of being Scoop Jackson, and it obliterates the bounds of credulity to suggest that Israel has no better friend.
But the fact is that in supporting two states, in supporting Israel’s right to defend itself, and in rejecting BDS, Ellison falls within a wide pro-Israel tent. That someone with his background embraces these principles is the best case for Israel that Democrats could possibly make. It shows that those who spend time marinating in a toxic anti-Israel stew can be convinced of the importance of supporting Israel through greater exposure and education, and it gives a green light to those who genuinely want to support Israel on most fronts but are uncomfortable with some of its more hawkish policies to not throw the baby out with the bathwater.
In Ellison’s case, this has to be weighed against the parts of the ledger where he disregarded overt and purposeful anti-Semitism and spouted an ugly conspiracy theory about an Israeli veto over American foreign policy, and it should not come out in his favor. But it does not alter the reality that a different Ellison is what Democrats need.
The shifting demographics of the U.S., and particularly those within the Democratic Party, make future bipartisan support for Israel murkier than it has been in decades. The ubiquity of social media that broadcasts every Israeli misstep and the constant news cycle that keeps Israel in the crosshairs are not going away, and they complicate political support for Israel in real ways.
Having someone lead the DNC who embraces Israel despite not being an obvious candidate to do so should be viewed as a strength rather than a weakness. Democrats should be looking for a new Keith Ellison who isn’t actually Keith Ellison.
Michael J. Koplow is the policy director of the Israel Policy Forum. Follow him on Twitter: @mkoplow