Journalists Are Enabling A Smear Campaign Against Keith Ellison

No, the Minnesota congressman’s candidacy to head the Democratic National Committee is not “toast.”
Rep. Keith Ellison (D-Minn.) at left, alongside then-House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) and then-Israeli President Shimon Peres at a dinner in Tel Aviv in March 2007.
Rep. Keith Ellison (D-Minn.) at left, alongside then-House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) and then-Israeli President Shimon Peres at a dinner in Tel Aviv in March 2007.

Rep. Keith Ellison (D-Minn.) enjoys the support of over 100 Democratic lawmakers in his quest to chair the Democratic National Committee ― more than any other candidate.

But virtually from the moment Ellison announced his bid, there has been a steady campaign to undermine his candidacy to head the Democratic Party leadership body, mainly focused on his past ties to the Nation of Islam.

Ellison helped organize a Minneapolis delegation to the Million Man March, a rally for black men organized by Nation of Islam leader Louis Farrakhan. Years earlier, while Ellison was in law school, he defended Farrakhan and the Nation of Islam in a few newspaper columns. The congressman has expressed regret for not speaking out more forcefully at the time against Farrakhan’s anti-Semitism and bigotry. And his law school columns reveal an idealist committed to redressing the wrongs of slavery and institutional racism, not a radical.

On Thursday, however, newly unearthed comments Ellison made in 2010, where he questioned the outsize influence of concern for Israel on U.S. Middle East policy, drew the condemnation of the Anti-Defamation League, an influential Jewish anti-racism organization with hawkish Middle East views.

The ADL’s criticism deserves to be assessed on its merits. But some members of the media have gotten a little premature in their pronouncements that it doomed Ellison’s candidacy.

Consider a conversation on NBC’s “Meet the Press Daily” on Friday evening:

CHUCK TODD, host: Keith Ellison ― is his candidacy toast? The ADL came out noting some remarks he made about Israel six years ago. He struggled to explain them. There has been some other folks and they are very upset at Schumer for supporting him. Is pressure building to suddenly stop ― a stop Ellison movement?

RUTH MARCUS, Washington Post columnist: It sure feels that way. You know, the last thing that the party needs is to have a chairman at the time when you need to rebuild the party that is going to be helping tear apart, you know, a big constituency of it.

Ellison enjoys the endorsement of Sen. Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.), the incoming Senate minority leader, outgoing leader Sen. Harry Reid (D-Nev.) and the two most important progressive senators in the Democratic caucus ― Massachusetts’ Elizabeth Warren and Vermont’s Bernie Sanders. But according to Todd and Marcus, a press release from the Anti-Defamation League means that Ellison is just about finished.

Rather than provide measured, reporting-based commentary, Todd and Marcus exemplify how journalists are capable of doing politicians’ bidding. Intentionally or not, they are boosting the conservative forces in the Democratic Party who want to block Ellison because of his strong stance against the Israeli occupation, for the Iran nuclear deal and other progressive Middle East policies.

This is how pessimistic analysis becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. A handful of reporters warn that a lawmaker’s chances are in danger for a reason they consider important, other commentators repeat it and it becomes conventional wisdom. Then people who still like the lawmaker start to think he’ll lose, and since no one wants to back a loser, they too withdraw their backing.

Keith Ellison speaks during the Democratic National Convention in July.
Keith Ellison speaks during the Democratic National Convention in July.
Andrew Harrer/Bloomberg via Getty Images

Of course, it’s fine if people object to Ellison’s heading the DNC because of comments he made about Israel. But it’s important to read the actual comments and decide for yourself, rather than relying on journalists who muse about whether he is already “toast.”

The particular comment that made waves was excerpted from remarks at a 2010 fundraiser dug up by the right-wing organization, the Investigative Project on Terrorism. The group is headed by ex-journalist Steven Emerson, who the Southern Poverty Law Center includes on its list of “anti-Muslim extremists.”

“The United States foreign policy in the Middle East is governed by what is good or bad through a country of 7 million people,” Ellison said at the event, which was held by Essam Omeish, a Muslim supporter of his. “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.”

Ellison is alluding to the influence of Israel, whose population is now over 8 million, on U.S. policy in the Middle East.

Here’s how the ADL responded:

Rep. Ellison’s remarks are both deeply disturbing and disqualifying. 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. These comments sharply contrast with the Democratic National Committee platform position, which states: “A strong and secure Israel is vital to the United States because we share overarching strategic interests and the common values of democracy, equality, tolerance, and pluralism.”

The group’s condemnation has emboldened people and groups wary of Ellison for entirely different reasons, like the International Association of Fire Fighters, a labor union whose membership is so conservative, it declined to endorse a candidate in the presidential election. (The union historically endorses the Democratic nominee, but this year it said its membership was too conflicted.) The IAFF, and some other unions skeptical of Ellison’s candidacy, are concerned that the congressman, who endorsed Bernie Sanders in the Democratic primary, is too liberal to lead the party.

After the clip of his 2010 remarks was released, Ellison clarified his comments in an open letter to ADL CEO Jonathan Greenblatt. “My advice was simply to get involved. 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 wrote.

Josh Marshall, editor of the progressive news site Talking Points Memo, wrote in a column that Ellison’s quote made him “wince a bit.”

“But the quote is also true to a significant degree,” he went on. “Do we really think US policy on Israel isn’t significantly impacted by the activism of American Jews and even more in recent years by that of Christian evangelicals? Do we also think the Cuban embargo has nothing to do with the power of the Cuban emigre community?”

“I think the ADL is wrong to call the comments ‘disqualifying’ and wrong about how it’s treating this entire issue,” Marshall added.

A number of prominent, liberal Jewish community figures have also come forward in support of Ellison, or to say that his comments were not anti-Israel.

J Street, a progressive pro-Israel group that has positions much closer to those of most Democrats on Israel and the Middle East, offered a glowing defense of Ellison on Friday. (The group enthusiastically backed the Obama administration deal to stop Iran’s nuclear program, unlike the ADL, which opposed it.)

“Attempts to paint Rep. Ellison as anti-Israel or anti-Semitic aid a concerted and transparent smear campaign driven by those whose true objections may be to the Congressman’s religion, strong support for the two-state solution and/or concern for Palestinian rights,” J Street said in a press release. The communiqué featured a photo of Ellison placing a wreath of flowers at the Holocaust museum in Jerusalem while on a J Street-sponsored visit to Israel. “These opponents seek to unearth the slightest inartful statements from decades in public life, take them out of context and use them as a weapon to silence responsible and important voices like Rep. Ellison’s.”

And J Street’s statement came before the Investigative Project on Terrorism, the right-wing group that first exceprted Ellison’s comments, posted the full 22-minute audio and transcript of his remarks.

At the event, Ellison spoke fondly of Israel as a friend of the United States, even as he was firm in his insistence that the U.S. should use its influence with the country to pressure it not to build settlements, including in East Jerusalem. The United States government and much of the international community does not recognize Israel’s annexation of areas of the city it captured in 1967 and has encouraged peace agreements that would allow for the creation of a Palestinian capital there alongside the Israeli one.

“This effort to stop settlements throughout East Jerusalem and throughout the rest of Palestine cannot be something that only the President carries on his shoulders,” he said, referring to a 2009 temporary freeze on building in Israeli settlements in the occupied West Bank that the Obama administration had sought to apply to East Jerusalem as well. “The American people have got to stand up and say something. And who’s going to say something if you don’t say something?”

The full context of Ellison’s comments ― as well as his statements afterward ― confirm that he does, indeed, just want the Muslim Americans he is addressing to become as active in support of Palestinian rights as American Jews are of Israel. At the 2010 fundraiser, he acknowledged the high level of organization shown by the American-Israel Public Affairs Committee, whose dinner he attends, implying that Muslim Americans would do well to follow their Jewish counterparts’ example of well-coordinated activism.

Israel, Ellison argued, “has mobilized its Diaspora in America to do its bidding in America. The question is, with all of us here, we ought to be able to do at least as much.”

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