Analysis

For (And Against) Keith Ellison as the New Democratic Party Chairman

Asserting that America's Israel policy is influenced by American Jews isn't anti-Semitism, but bringing up Ellison’s past ties with Farrakhan is no mere smear.

U.S. Rep. Keith Ellison, D-Minn., addresses a forum on the future of the Democratic Party, December 2, 2016.
David Zalubowski, AP

From an Israeli point of view, Keith Ellison is probably the ideal candidate to serve as the next Chairman of the Democratic National Committee. Ellison would go out of his way, in a sort of Nixon-to-China twist, to make sure no one detects even a whiff of anti-Israeli sentiments, never mind anti-Semitism, in his decisions and actions, as Michael Koplow also submitted, somewhat differently, in a recent article. Ellison would be eternally vigilant against anti-Israeli trends that might sully his own reputation. Thus, the Minnesota Congressman may the best and perhaps last hope of arresting the growing anti-Israeli sentiments in the left wing of the Democratic Party. 

That is, if he gets the job. If he doesn’t, that will truly be bad news for Jews. They will be blamed for having blocked Ellison’s appointment. They will be viewed as targeting Ellison because of his Muslim religion. They will be accused of putting the interests of Israel above their own party’s. If Ellison is as rabidly anti-Jewish as his detractors claim, he could become the standard bearer for a wave of anti-Jewish sentiment on the left that would complement the surge of anti-Semitism on the right in the wake of Donald Trump’s election. American Jews would be crowded into the constantly diminishing confines of the political center.

Personally, I have yet to be convinced that Ellison is an anti-Semite, as billionaire Haim Saban rashly asserted in public at the Saban Forum. There are enough Jews, including New York Senator Chuck Schumer, who have known Ellison well enough for many years to swear that he is not a hater, and I take them at their word. Some of those accusing Ellison of being anti-Semitic don’t really think he hates the Jews per se, but are trying to further their own agenda of equating most criticism of Israel with anti-Semitism, while tarring Muslims in the process. By their standards, which are widely shared by many right-wingers in Israel as well, most of the Israeli left is, in its essence, anti-Semitic as well.

Which is why it was especially disappointing to have the Anti-Defamation League turn on Ellison and object to his appointment because of his recently uncovered 2010 speech in which he said “The United States foreign policy in the Middle East is governed by what is good or bad through a country of 7 million people.  A region of 350 million all turns on a country of 7 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.” The ADL said Ellison’s 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” and they reinforce anti-Semitic stereotypes.

Give me a break. Ellison’s support in the past for Louis Farrakhan and the Nation of Islam passed the ADL test but this rather innocuous statement didn’t? Or was it simply a deft political maneuver meant to placate ADL donors who bristled at National Director Jonathan Greenblatt’s forceful and often admirable pushbacks against manifestations of Trump’s bigotry?

The U.S. has lots of good reasons to support Israel but the scope of its support is not “simply America’s best interests,” as the ADL and other Jewish groups often try to assert. It’s called a “special relationship” for a reason, and thank God for that. There are significant psychological, emotional and political factors at play that have nothing do with America’s realpolitik-style “best interests,” beyond the haunting legacy of the Holocaust and the perception of Israel, post 9/11, as a front line bastion in the battle against militant Islam. For example, many Evangelicals love Israel for completely irrational reasons that have more to do with Armageddon and the End of Days than with “America’s best interests,” but their support is a major reason why Benjamin Netanyahu’s government nurtures them and why the GOP is such a fervent backer of Israel. American Jews, most of whom support Israel to one degree or another, give more money, are more active politically and vote in far greater numbers for the Democratic Party than most other groups, and therefore, their sway is more powerful as well. That’s democracy, not anti-Semitism.

AIPAC is one of the most powerful lobbies in Washington D.C., though possibly less today than when Ellison made his original statement in 2010, a year before AIPAC was largely responsible for stopping President Obama’s wish to advance a peace process based on the 1967 borders with modifications. And AIPAC, to put it mildly, does not always ignore the wishes and aspirations of the Israeli government, even when these seem to collide with what the U.S. administration seems to believe is in its best interests. To assert that Israel gets more foreign aid than any other country on the face of the earth, that Congress passes more international resolutions concerning Israel than the rest of the world combined or that the willingness of so many American politicians to allow Israel to design the contours of much of America’s Middle East policy is simply because this is in “America’s best interests” is just as ludicrous as some of the truly anti-Semitic drivel that often makes the rounds on this topic.

So for an American Muslim lawmaker who supports Palestinian statehood to suggest that American Muslims should organize so that American foreign policy does not seem to revolve around one country in the Middle East may not make American Jews or the ADL happy, but anti-Semitism it is not. And for him to call on American Muslims to organize so that they can try to emulate the Jews on behalf of the 350 million strong Arab world isn’t either. America’s remarkable support for Israel cannot be explained based only on the suggested prowess of American Jews, but no rational explanation can leave them out, either.

Frankly, I am more troubled by Ellison’s support for Farrakhan and more surprised by the ADL’s previous willingness to forgive and forget the Minnesota lawmaker’s past transgressions on behalf of the Nation of Islam. One can excuse the kind of youthful exuberance that made many of my childhood friends extol the virtues of Stalin and the Soviet Union, but Ellison was still defending Farrakhan when he was in his mid-30’s and only got around to renouncing him when he was 43 and about to reignite his political career. Frankly, given Farrakhan’s harsh and unabashed anti-Semitic rhetoric, and the publicity it sparked, it is hard to understand how Ellison could fail to “adequately scrutinize” the black firebrand’s rhetoric, as he wrote in his 2006 letter to the Minnesota Jewish Community Relations Council.

Of course one should give Ellison the benefit of the doubt and accept his recantation as sincere – the Talmud says that in the place that the penitents occupy, even the perfectly righteous cannot stand.  But that does not erase the political significance of his past dalliance with Nation of Islam. Imagine if a white Congressman vying for chairmanship of the GOP would have been associated for many years with the Ku Klux Klan but would then express regret – would liberals proclaim his past support null and void because he’s no longer a racist? I don’t think so. And while Ellison may be worthy of an affirmative action “double standard” on this matter, because of American history, bringing up his past associations with Nation of Islam cannot be described as “smearing.”

Which brings me to my final point: Ellison’s appointment is complicated. It’s not a slam-dunk as his progressive friends would you have you believe but it’s not a travesty of historical proportions as his opponents claim either. Ellison’s past may have been maliciously inflated by right wingers out to tar the left, but it is not unreasonable for moderate Democrats to prefer another candidate whose past does not necessitate such an intricate set of explanations and clarifications.

Some people think Ellison would bring renewed energy to the Democratic Party and would represent its ascendant progressive wing while others fear he would not be able to devote as much time to the job as full-on executive appointment. Then there are those who fear that the GOP would be able to use Ellison’s past positions and, unfortunately, his religion as well, to undermine the Democrats. In a perfect world such tactical considerations might be considered deplorable but in real life it’s the stuff that politics are made of. 

Although one would prefer for Israel not to feature at all in a debate over who should run and revive the Democratic Party, Ellison’s past statements make that wish impossible to fulfill. On Israel, at least, Ellison occupies a space that is far away from the American center, which is where elections are won and lost. So it is legitimate to think that he is not the best man for the job. Even though, as we pointed out in the beginning, he actually is.