Ever since he announced his candidacy to lead the Democratic National Committee, Keith Ellison, the first American Muslim elected to the U.S. Congress, has been the target of a defamation campaign that is deceitful, repugnant, and yet quite predictable. At first expressed in whispers, but now being yelled from the rooftops by some of the party’s most influential figures, Ellison is being smeared as both an anti-Semite and enemy of Israel — the same smears virtually any critic of the Israeli government reflexively encounters, rendered far worse if the critic is a prominent American Muslim.
Three days ago, the now ironically named Anti-Defamation League pronounced Ellison’s 2010 comments about Israel “deeply disturbing and disqualifying.” Other Israel advocates have now joined in. What are Ellison’s terrible sins? He said in a 2010 speech that while he “wanted the U.S. to be friends with Israel,” the U.S. “can’t allow another country to treat us like we’re their ATM.”
Stop, you know why are we sending a mill — $2.8 billion dollars a year over there when they won’t even honor our request to stop building in East Jerusalem? Where is the future Palestinian state going to be if it’s colonized before it even gets up off the ground? …
… Now you got Clinton, Biden, and the president who’s told them — stop. Now this has happened before. They beat back a president before. Bush 41 said — stop, and they said — we don’t want to stop, and by the way we want our money and we want it now. [Ellison laughs.] Right? You know, I mean we can’t allow, we’re Americans, right? We can’t allow another country to treat us like we’re their ATM. Right? And so we ought to stand up as Americans.
Equally sinful in the eyes of the ADL was this statement on U.S. foreign policy:
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? [A male says “no.”] Is that logic? Right? When the people who, when the Americans who trace their roots back to those 350 million get involved, everything changes.
As J.J. Goldberg of The Forward noted, Ellison wasn’t lamenting the insidious influence of U.S. Jews — as the ADL shamefully claimed — but rather was “plainly describing how American Muslims could have greater influence on American policy if they learned to organize.”
And agree or disagree with those positions, it is an indisputable fact that Israel receives far more in U.S. aid than any other country yet continually does exactly that which numerous U.S. presidents have insisted it not do, often to the detriment of U.S. interests. And many prominent foreign policy experts — including David Petraeus — have warned that excessive U.S. support for the worst actions of the Israeli government endangers U.S. national security by alienating Arabs in the region and fueling support for anti-American terrorism. The idea that a member of Congress is not permitted to debate these policies without being branded an anti-Semite is sheer insanity: malicious insanity at that.
But that insanity is par for the course in Washington, where anyone who even questions U.S. policy toward Israel is smeared in this way — from James Baker to Howard Dean to Bernie Sanders and even Donald Trump. So pernicious is this framework that the U.S. Senate just passed legislation expressly equating what it regards as unfair criticism of the Israeli government with “anti-Semitism.” And when one is an American Muslim, ugly stereotypes and pervasive Islamophobia are added to this toxic brew to make the smears worse by many magnitudes.
This smear campaign against Ellison received a major boost Friday night when the single largest funder of both the Democratic Party and the Hillary Clinton campaign, the Israeli-American billionaire Haim Saban, said at the Brookings Institution, a part of which he funds: “If you go back to his positions, his papers, his speeches, the way he has voted, he is clearly an anti-Semite and anti-Israel individual.” Saban added: “Keith Ellison would be a disaster for the relationship between the Jewish community and the Democratic Party.”
That Saban plays such a vital role in Democratic Party politics says a great deal. To the New York Times, this is how he described himself: “I’m a one-issue guy and my issue is Israel.” In late 2015, Ali Gharib wrote in The Forward: “Saban’s top priority isn’t a liberal vision of American life. It’s Israel.” When Hillary Clinton in 2015 condemned the boycott movement aimed at ending Israeli settlements, she did it in the form of a letter addressed personally to Saban.
The Democratic Party’s central reliance on billionaire funders like Saban is a key reason that debates over Israel policy are not permitted within the party. It’s why any attempt to raise such issues will prompt systematic campaigns of reputation destruction like the one we’re witnessing with Ellison.
To get a sense for just how prohibited the most benign and basic debates are when it comes to Israel, consider the quotes from Ellison’s college days dug up by CNN as supposedly incriminating. In 1990, while a law student at the University of Minnesota, Ellison blasted the university president for condemning a speaking event featuring the anti-Zionist civil rights icon Kwame Ture (also known as Stokely Carmichael); Ellison’s argument was that all ideas, including Zionism, should be regarded as debatable in a college environment:
The University’s position appears to be this: 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.
In other words, Ellison — 26 years ago, while a student — simply argued that college campuses should not be deemed “safe spaces” in which debates over Israel are barred: an utterly mainstream view when the topic to be debated is something other than Israel.
Leave aside the bizarre attempt to use someone’s college-aged political activism against them three decades later. As my colleague Zaid Jilani very ably documented several days ago, even the most inflammatory of Ellison’s campus statements — including his long-ago-renounced praise for the Nation of Islam — were grounded in righteous opposition to “white supremacy and the policies of the state of Israel” and “show him expressing sympathy for the plight of underprivileged whites and making clear that he was not antagonistic toward Jewish people.” Writing about the smear campaign circulating on the internet against Ellison, The Forward’s Goldberg said he found “the evidence to be either frivolous, distorted or simply false.”
As CNN itself acknowledged when digging up these old Ellison quotes: “None of the records reviewed found examples of Ellison making any anti-Semitic comments himself.” How is that, by itself, not the end of the controversy?
The reason why it isn’t is a glaring irony. With the advent of Donald Trump and policies such as banning all Muslims from the country, Democrats this year incorporated anti-Islamophobia rhetoric into their repertoire. Yet what is being done to Ellison by the ADL, Saban, and others is Islamophobia in its purest and most classic form.
Faiz Shakir is a senior adviser to Harry Reid who previously worked for Nancy Pelosi and the ThinkProgress blog at the Center for American Progress. He explains, from personal experience, that the vile treatment to which Ellison is now being subjected is common for American Muslims in political life:
Keith Ellison is being smeared like so many before him. If you're Muslim in public life or even sympathetic to Muslim concerns, watch out!— Faiz (@fshakir) December 3, 2016
Just Google what Frank Gaffney was saying about Suhail Khan and Faisal Gill in the Bush White House.— Faiz (@fshakir) December 3, 2016
In that last tweet, Shakir is referring to the fact that, to their credit, other Democratic voices — such as American Federation of Teachers President Randi Weingarten, J Street, and, most important, Chuck Schumer — continue to defend Ellison. J Street’s statement made the critical point: “It is time to retire the playbook that aims to silence any American official seeking high office who has dared to criticize certain Israeli government policies.”
But even these commendable defenses of Ellison illustrate how constricted the permissible range of views on Israel is within the Democratic Party. J Street vouched for Ellison by saying that he “is and has long been a friend of Israel” and is “a champion of pro-Israel, pro-peace policies.” Schumer went further, saying that while he disagrees with Ellison on numerous issues, “I saw him orchestrate one of the most pro-Israel platforms in decades.” Notably, demonstrating steadfast support for the polices of the Israeli government is literally a job requirement to lead the Democratic National Committee — and for every other significant position in Washington.
But Ellison has actually fulfilled that requirement. Even his opponents admit: “Ellison unambiguously self-identifies as pro-Israel, supports a two-state solution without reservation, has repeatedly said that Israel has a right to defend itself and expressed the importance of protecting and maintaining Israel’s security, and there is no evidence that he has ever supported or advocated for BDS.” It’s true that, as Jay Michaelson wrote in an excellent Daily Beast column, Ellison “has been critical of Israeli settlements, of right-wing Israeli governments, and of America’s unconditional support for Israel.” But even his Israel advocacy is rather banal, as Goldberg wrote:
It must be acknowledged that Ellison’s first loyalty in the Middle East is not to Israel. He is a Muslim, and he makes no secret of his sympathy for the Palestinians. That said, he is a Muslim peacenik. Since entering politics, he has consistently spoken out in favor of the two-state solution, by which he means Israel and a Palestinian state living side by side in peace and security. He’s been active on that front, frequently partnering with J Street and other liberal Zionist groups on efforts to promote peace and security.
In other words, Ellison is a mainstream liberal Democrat, albeit situated on the left wing of the party as it is currently constituted in Congress (which is not very far to the left given that Nancy Pelosi resides in a nearby ideological precinct).
What makes him such an easy and vulnerable target for smear campaigns such as the one Saban and the ADL are pursuing is that he is Muslim — a black Muslim to boot. Just look at the obvious codes in this paragraph from Michael J. Koplow, the policy director of the Israel Policy Forum, writing in Haaretz under the headline “Keith Ellison Has a Real Israel Problem”:
Ellison is not a figure whom anyone would normally expect to be a supporter of Israel. He is an African-American Muslim who did not grow up in a particularly Jewish area of the country, came of age after 1967, when Israel’s image as a David began shifting to that of a Goliath, did not have any prominent Jewish mentors, and has a background in radical politics. As a student, he was harshly critical of Zionism and its legitimacy.
While Koplow cites these facts not to endorse the stereotypes but to affirm Ellison’s bona fides as someone one would not expect to be an Israel supporter, those are the demographic attributes giving the fuel to this revolting campaign. As Michaelson, who previously worked with the ADL, acknowledged: “There’s plenty of Islamophobia within my Jewish community as well,” and “the ADL is a perfect example,” citing the group’s shameful opposition to the construction of a mosque in lower Manhattan.
If you’re a Democrat, it’s easy to embrace the language of anti-Islamophobia when it comes to condemning Donald Trump and other Republicans. It’s more difficult, but more important, to do so when that poison is coming from within the Democratic Party itself.
One of the few silver linings of the ugly Trump rhetoric on Muslims can and should be (and has been) a unified rejection of this sort of toxicity, regardless of where it comes from. Democrats who are sincere about wanting to oppose anti-Muslim bigotry can do so by defending Keith Ellison from these incredibly ugly, baseless, and defamatory attacks.