When my grandmother, a Polish Holocaust survivor, passed away in 1998, my family set up an annual memorial lecture in her honor at her Cincinnati synagogue. When I was twelve years old, my father’s close friend and then-colleague in the Minnesota House of Representatives, Keith Ellison, flew from Minnesota to Ohio to support our family and attend the lecture.
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After listening to the story of my grandmother’s life and hearing from groups fighting hate speech in the United States, my dad, Keith and I took a trip to the newly opened National Underground Railroad Freedom Museum on the other side of town.
I remember Keith telling me of his ancestors’ history from slavery to the Civil Rights movement. He spoke about how his connection to his family’s history of survival and resistance motivated him to dedicate his life to fighting for justice for all people.
Our generational histories of trauma are very different, but our trip to Cincinnati has stayed with me as I participate in the fight for social justice, grounded in my own Jewish community and history.
In the fourteen years since, Congressman Keith Ellison has remained a close friend to my family, and a supportive mentor and role model to me. As a rabbinic student, I have therefore been baffled and deeply disturbed that claims of Congressman Ellison’s anti-Semitism have gained traction within the Jewish community and beyond.
The Anti-Defamation League’s accusation that Congressman Ellison made anti-Semitic statements (based on out of context quotes), coupled with Haim Saban’s recent claims that he is “clearly an anti-Semite and anti-Israel person” could not be farther from my own experiences with Congressman Ellison over the past decade and half.
I have watched Congressman Ellison take the time to deeply understand the Middle East. When I lived in Jerusalem as a high schooler, I attended an Israeli state dinner at the Knesset with him. I lived in Israel for a year after high school as well.
When I returned home to Minnesota, I had several conversations with him about his own visits to the Middle East. He had taken the time to hear from Israelis and Palestinians about their own lived experiences, and bore witness to the reality of their day-to-day lives over many visits.
Through working to understand the conflict by seeing it firsthand, he had come to a similar conclusion as I had: The status quo is untenable. He has worked hard to promote thoughtful solutions to the conflict that allow for freedom and dignity for both Israelis and Palestinians.
This position does not make Congressman Ellison anti-Semitic and it does not even make him anti-Israel. Rather, it puts him in line with the majority of American Jews and the base of the Democratic party.
It would be tragic if a smear campaign espoused by the Jewish community kept Congressman Ellison from the leadership position Democrats desperately need him to fill. We live in troubling times. The Democratic Party has failed to convincingly promote a visionary program based on the economic interests of everyday people.
The void they left has been filled by an administration that used a potent combination of racism and anti-elitist themes, often including a healthy dose of anti-Semitism, to rise to power. Fighting this white supremacist right-wing force fits squarely within both the moral and material interests of the American Jewish community.
Congressman Ellison’s energy, authenticity, and vision for what this country can be serves as a powerful antidote to the hate, fear, and hopelessness that have gotten us to this scary place.
Last summer, when I asked Congressman Ellison to travel halfway across the country to Middleton, Massachusetts to speak to a group of union members, he said ‘yes’ without hesitation. In addressing the majority white, working-class crowd at The North Shore Labor Council (AFL-CIO), he promoted the kind of progressive, multi-racial populism that is our only answer to an empowered and terrifying right-wing movement.
People left that night feeling energized and ready to fight for justice because he was honest with them, and spoke from a place of genuine understanding. He was a breath of fresh air to a room accustomed to mistrusting politicians. This is the kind of leadership we need right now.
As a young person, I know my generation will have to live with the impacts of decisions made now for a very long time. I know very few people, let alone people with a real shot at leading the Democratic Party, with as much integrity as Congressman Ellison. He understands the political moment we are in and I trust him to lead in a way I trust very few people in national politics.
If the Jewish community knew Congressman Ellison as I have gotten to know him through the years, they would know there is nothing “disqualifying” about his role as friend and champion to the Jewish community.
The totality of his work in partnership with the Jewish community on behalf of working families, against racism and anti-Semitism, and for expanded democratic rights should absolutely outweigh unfair accusations from those who have never worked with him directly.
American Jews should join with a growing progressive movement in doing everything they can to support Keith Ellison’s re-energizing and much needed bid for DNC chair.
Rebecca Zimmerman Hornstein was born in raised in Minneapolis, Minnesota and is currently a rabbinic student at the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College. Previously, she worked as a labor organizer with the North Shore Labor Council of Massachusetts, AFL-CIO. Follow her on Twitter: @rebeckzh