Support for Rep. Keith Ellison’s bid for chair of the Democratic National Committee hit a snag with the American Jewish community following the revelation of an excerpt from a 2010 speech in which he said that U.S. foreign policy in the Middle East was “governed” by Israel.
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The Anti-Defamation League released a statement Thursday saying that Ellison’s remarks in the speech raised “serious doubts about his ability to faithfully represent the party’s traditional support for Israel.” Ellison dismissed the accusations, saying that his remarks were taken out of context.
In the recording, Ellison 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 36-second audio recording of a snippet of Ellison’s speech was published by the Investigative Project on Terrorism on November 29. According to the IPT, the recording had been made at a fundraiser for Ellison's re-election campaign, hosted by Esam Omeish, past president of the Muslim American Society.
“Rep. Ellison’s remarks are both deeply disturbing and disqualifying,” Jonathan A. Greenblatt, CEO of the ADL said in the organization's’ statement. “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. 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.”
Shortly after the statement was released, Ellison had responded to Greenblatt, saying he was “saddened” by the ADL statement and that the audio clip released had been “selectively edited and taken out of context.” Ellison also said Steven Emerson, founder of The Investigative Project, the group that released the audio, had been called an “anti-Muslim extremist” by the Southern Poverty Law Center.
"My record proves my deep and long-lasting support for Israel, and I have always fought anti-Semitism, racism, sexism, and homophobia – the same values embodied by the Anti-Defamation League," Ellison said.
"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," he added.
Ellison is considered the front-runner for the DNC leadership position, and has been endorsed both by Senate Minority Leader Charles Schumer and former presidential candidate Senator Bernie Sanders. A five-term congressman, he is the first-ever Muslim member of the House of Representatives and the first African-American to represent Minnesota in Congress.
Late Thursday night, Schumer issued a statement declaring "I stand by Rep. Ellison for DNC chair."
Schumer said that he and Ellison "have discussed his views on Israel at length, and while I disagree with some of his past positions, I saw him orchestrate one of the most pro-Israel platforms in decades by successfully persuading other skeptical committee members to adopt such a strong platform." He said that Ellison has committed "to continuing to uphold that platform and to convince others that they support it as well" if he is elected head of the DNC.
In his statement, Greenblatt noted that before hearing the 2010 speech, the ADL had “appreciated” Ellison’s “contrition” for statements he had made in the past, “acknowledged areas of commonality” yet “expressed real concern where Rep. Ellison held divergent policy views, particularly related to Israel’s security.”
Greenblatt’s mention of “contrition” referred to Ellison’s statements when he was a young supporter of the Nation of Islam led by Louis Farrakhan in the 1980’s and 90’s.
On Thursday, that period of Ellison’s life was also in the spotlight after CNN featured an article on Ellison’s past, reporting that the frontrunner for DNC chairman “faces renewed scrutiny over past ties to Nation of Islam, defense of anti-Semitic figures."
CNN said that an examination of those writings failed to reveal examples of anti-Semitic statements by Ellison himself, but pointed to numerous times when he defended Nation of Islam leader Louis Farrakhan and others accused of anti-Semitism. The CNN piece highlighted a “scathing” article Ellison wrote for the University of Minnesota newspaper in 1990 under the name “Keith Hakim.”
In the article, Ellison defended the Africana Student Cultural Center’s invitation to a speaker, militant civil rights and black power leader Stokely Carmichael, also known as Kwame Ture who had, in the past, accused Zionists of Nazi collaboration in World War II and called for the destruction of Zionism, after the university president denounced Ture’s positions.
Ellison wrote, "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. Anyone, including black people, has the right to hear and voice alternative views on the subject — notwithstanding our nominal citizenship."
He charged that the university, in opposing the speaker, was maintaining a position that “political Zionism is off-limits no matter what dubious circumstances Israel was founded under; no matter what the Zionists do to the Palestinians; and no matter what wicked regimes Israel allies itself with — like South Africa. This position is untenable."
Ellison renounced his support for the Nation of Islam in 2006, when he first ran for Congress, declaring that “at no time did I ever share their hateful views or repeat or approve of their hateful statements directed at Jews, gays, or any other group” and stating that he “rejects anti-Semitism in any form and from whatever source.”
In a post he published on Medium on Thursday, Ellison revisited his position, writing that “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. 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.”
During his decade in Congress, Ellison has worked closely with Jewish organizations on the left, who are now supporting his candidacy for the Democratic leadership post enthusiastically, along with the rest of the progressive wing of the party. Meanwhile, in right-wing media outlets, blogs and organization, and on alt-right social media a consistent stream of negative information and opinion against him has been flowing since his candidacy has been announced.
Ellison supports a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and has supported defense assistance to Israel, though many mainstream Jewish organizations have expressed concern over the fact that Ellison voted against supplementary funding for Israel’s Iron Dome anti-missile system in 2014 and his strong support of the Iran nuclear deal.