What the row over Keith Ellison says about American Jews
When Keith Ellison threw his hat into the ring to seek the chairmanship of the Democratic Party, he challenged long-held thinking about the type of person that could lead a major American political party. Ellison is both African-American and Muslim, two personal attributes that make him unique as a leading figure in American politics today and that challenge, despite eight years of President Barack Obama, conventional thinking about what a leading American politician should look like.
So it shouldn’t come as a surprise that the first minefield that Ellison has encountered during his candidacy is about whether or not he’s sufficiently pro-Israel and supportive of Jewish values. After all, a tape was recently leaked that purportedly had Ellison making anti-Israel and anti-Jewish remarks, leading to a spike in concerns about him. A public fight has broken out about whether Ellison would be an ally or an adversary for both American Jews and Israel.
It’s important to take these types of issues head-on when they arise. And especially so because 75 percent of American Jews just voted for Democrat Hillary Clinton for president and make up a significant portion of the party’s donor base. What matters to American Jews should be a point for debate when considering the next Democratic Party leader.
Yet as often happens in our outrage-based political culture, this is much ado about nothing.
In fact, what Ellison’s remarks on the tape revealed were that his views fit well within the majority view of American Jews about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, while demonstrating admiration for American Jewish political organizing. And on the substance, Ellison called for an end to Israeli settlement construction and the creation of a Palestinian state alongside Israel with its capital in East Jerusalem. This position mirrors the position of Obama, Clinton and the recent Democratic Party platform.
I empathize with Ellison as he grapples with these unfair charges. As a former congressional candidate in Maryland, I too was labeled as anti-Israel and anti-Semitic when I entered my race. And why? Because I strongly advocated in my professional career for peace between Israel and the Palestinians through a two-state solution. These charges were made despite the fact that I have lived in Israel, went to Brandeis University, worked for a Jewish senator and now send my three daughters to Jewish Sunday school.
To me it’s clear that the problem that Ellison’s detractors have with him is less about him as a person and more about his message. His views on how to resolve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict not only fit well within the majority view of American Jews, but are also shared by a majority of Israelis and much of America’s foreign policy community. Attacking Ellison is therefore aimed squarely at stifling the advancement of this view.
Still, politics is ultimately about the people we select to lead us. So who is Ellison when it comes to Israel and Jewish issues?
I first met Ellison while interviewing him for an endorsement with JStreetPAC in 2008, when I was the organization’s first political director. During that meeting it was clear that he deeply wanted to be associated with a pro-Israel organization. He valued dialogue between Jews and Muslims and wanted to see peace between Israel and her neighbors. Asking for public support from a pro-Israel organization is not what an anti-Israel politician does.
And when I was the State Department’s deputy assistant secretary for relations with the House of Representatives, where Ellison served, I saw him operate as a savvy legislator, both in public and behind the scenes. Ellison fought hard on multiple issues to help his constituents and to move the ball forward on issues like diplomacy with Iran. He’s a serious legislator who knows how to work through the policy process. He was never perceived as anti-Jewish.
If there’s one thing about Ellison that’s consistent above all else, it’s that he’s passionate, energetic, smart and principled. That’s why his local Minneapolis Jewish community adores him, and why leading Jewish Democrats such as Sen. Chuck Schumer of New York and Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont have endorsed him for DNC chair.
As a committed Democrat, I want my party’s leader to stand for the values of inclusion at home and peace abroad. And at this unsettled political moment, the last thing we should do is pay attention to the misrepresentations being made by those who oppose these values. Ellison’s record, which falls squarely within the mainstream opinion of Jewish Democrats today, has become a proxy for this battle.
As American Jews, we should not let these misrepresentations take down this honorable man. For if we do, it will say much more about us than it does about him.
Joel Rubin, president of Washington Strategy Group, is a Pittsburgh native and former congressional candidate.