Tuesday, November 22, 2016

Can Keith Ellison Become America's Sadiq Khan?

In 2006, Keith Ellison was elected to the United States Congress, representing Minnesota's 5th Congressional District. In doing so, he became the first Muslim-American ever to serve in Congress. I was living in Minnesota at the time and so I had the opportunity to follow both his campaign and how it was covered and perceived in both the national press and the local Jewish community.

The first post I ever wrote on Keith Ellison, in October of 2006, I think nails down the story pretty well:
  • Ellison had some past associations with the Nation of Islam and past anti-Semitic remarks which were genuinely problematic.
  • But he put in the work to heavily court the Twin Cities Jewish community, persuading them that those days were behind him and gaining their trust and backing.
  • His position on Israel well-recognized the significant security threats it faced and the culpability of groups like Hamas in the conflict. This view was not remotely in tension with his support for Palestinian rights.
  • He pledged to visit Israel after his election (a pledge he followed through on).
The other major theme in early Ellison coverage was the tragically unsurprising bigoted backlash he faced from elements of the American (including, unfortunately, Jewish) right. The most prominent manifestation came when Dennis Prager (a Jewish writer notorious for being wholly enthralled by the Christian right) accused Ellison of "undermin[ing] American civilization" by swearing his congressional oath of office on Thomas Jefferson's copy of the Koran. 

Now Ellison is a front-runner to take over the Democratic National Committee  (he's already secured the endorsement of Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer), causing him to again to return to the front pages of national media. Many conservatives -- desperate to draw attention away from the mainstreaming of anti-Semitism brought about by the Trump campaign and seeking to return to the "good old days" where the only anti-Semitism that mattered was on the left -- have sought to portray Ellison as a radical anti-Semite and anti-Israel extremist. I've read several of these dispatches (this one by Jeff Ballabon in Tablet is representative), and it inspired me to once again sort through my thoughts.
  • Ellison's past associations with groups like the NOI were genuinely problematic, and I am convinced that Ellison consciously sought to downplay them. It is reasonable to interrogate them and insure that they no longer are reflective of Ellison's views. 
  • That said, I am equally convinced that he's completely repudiated them.  These links are now well more than a decade old; since being elected to Congress he has completely followed through on his friendship to the Jewish community.
  • On this score, his letter to the Minnesota JCRC on is simply excellent -- a clear, unambiguous admission of responsibility and a full and complete disavowal of the views he once held. In contrast to "apologies" which functionally deny wrongdoing and defiantly assert that it is wholly irrational to even consider one a racist or anti-Semite, Ellison's frank admission that his prior actions did give rise to concern and did demand a response that fully demonstrated an actual change in attitude is refreshing in its honesty. That letter should be distributed far and wide as a model of how one can successfully reengage with a community after committing genuine wrongdoing.
  • It is clear that Keith Ellison cares about Palestinian rights. So do I. So does the majority of the American Jewish community. He has also been clear, time and again, that the full measure of responsibility does not fall on Israel's shoulders, and has always taken care to condemn Palestinian terrorism and incitement. A tweet noting that West Bank Palestinians are accusing Israel of practicing "apartheid" does not falsify this.
  • There is no evidence of any sort I've seen indicating that Ellison supports BDS, and considerable evidence (from his own personal statements to his repeated trips to Israel) cuts the other way. The declaration in Tablet's headline that Ellison "Supports BDS" appears to be flatly inaccurate, and should be corrected (the article presents zero evidence in support of this proposition).
  • The effort to act as if Ellison is the equivalent of -- or, more implausibly, is worse than -- Steve Bannon is both opportunistic and flatly ridiculous. The simple difference is that Ellison has put in the work to earn the support of his local Jewish community on a community-wide basis, and has a few partisan detractors. Bannon, by contrast, has alienated and infuriated the American Jewish community on a community-wide basis, and has a few partisan defenders. Ultimately, if the relevant question on anti-Semitism is "do you trust the instincts of the broad Jewish community," that suggests that Ellison is kosher, and Bannon is treyf.
  • Finally, Shmuel Rosner's assessment back in 2006 that a Muslim congressman giving support to Israel is exceptionally valuable even if he doesn't get a 100% AIPAC scorecard remains absolutely true. A high-profile Muslim leader who does not take the "Israel is always wrong" route, who does not endorse BDS, is a gift for the Jewish community that we would be fools to pass up.
On that final note, the person Keith Ellison may be most likely to emulate is London Mayor Sadiq Khan. Like Ellison, Khan has been a trailblazer for Muslims in Western politics. Like Ellison, Khan had some genuinely troubling associations with Muslim extremists early in his career; and like Ellison, he has since repudiated them. Like Ellison, Khan put in the work to earn Jewish support (and unlike Ellison, Khan had to deal with a political climate where his left-of-center party -- Labour -- was in more-or-less open warfare with the UK Jewish community); like Ellison, he successfully persuaded them that he was a genuine Jewish ally. Since his election, Khan has upheld his promises -- being a steadfast critic of anti-Semitism (including in his own Party) and coming out against BDS.

I think there is a strong chance Keith Ellison could fill a similar role. If he becomes DNC chair, I am confident he will oppose BDS and anti-Semitism. I am confident that he will support Palestinian rights, perhaps more so than has been seen in the official DNC line; I am also confident he will do so in a way that is cognizant and respectful of Israel's genuine security needs.

Keith Ellison's greatest strength is not that he says he's an ally of the Jews. It is not that he publishes loud columns talking about how much he loves Netanyahu or hates the Palestinian Authority. Keith Ellison's strength is that he acknowledged past wrongs, committed to better choices, and has taken it on himself to earn the Jewish community's trust. He put in the work. And that makes him very, very different from certain other alleged anti-Semites who are now demanding Jewish respect as an entitlement.

UPDATE: JTA just put up a very good article on Rep. Ellison, including an explicit rejection by him of BDS.


Mordy said...

There is no evidence of any sort I've seen indicating that Ellison supports BDS, and considerable evidence (from his own personal statements to his repeated trips to Israel) cuts the other way. The declaration in Tablet's headline that Ellison "Supports BDS" appears to be flatly inaccurate, and should be corrected (the article presents zero evidence in support of this proposition).

I guess this is really the sticking point. His re-tweeting of a Palestinian banner calling Israel apartheid strongly suggests an affinity for a narrative that generally includes BDS. Outside that I also see little evidence that he explicitly calls for a boycott but it's something I'd like to ask him. I certainly don't feel as confident as you do that he would certainly fight BDS as DNC head.

David Schraub said...

Ellison just put out a statement on BDS: "I have long supported a two-state solution and a democratic and secure state for the Jewish people, with a democratic and viable Palestinian state side-by-side in peace and dignity. I don't believe boycotting, divesting, and sanctioning Israel helps us achieve that goal. I supported the Democratic Platform, which embraces this position."

Mordy said...

Good to hear. It's important to note that if Ellison's position on Israel/Palestine becomes de rigor in the Democratic Party it /will/ represent a more neutral position than it would have under a Hillary POTUS administration. He also voted against the Iron Dome funding during the Gaza War because he felt it was a distraction from helping trapped/victimized Palestinians. I don't think this is unreasonable, but I also think it's fair to note that he will pull Democrats closer to J Street than to AIPAC. Maybe a good thing, but not just value neutral (and certain to contrast even more dramatically with the Republican party and exacerbate the politicization of Israel and post-bipartisan era).