Right-wing critics take aim at Keith Ellison’s Israel record, Jewish left-wingers rally to his defense
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Right-wing critics take aim at Keith Ellison’s Israel record, Jewish left-wingers rally to his defense

Sen. Bernie Sanders is flanked by Rep. Keith Ellison, left, and Imam Talib Shareet at an event at Masjid Muhammad, The Nation's Mosque, in Washington, D.C., Dec. 16, 2015. (Alex Wong/Getty Images)

Sen. Bernie Sanders is flanked by Rep. Keith Ellison, left, and Imam Talib Shareet at an event at Masjid Muhammad, The Nation’s Mosque, in Washington, D.C., Dec. 16, 2015. (Alex Wong/Getty Images)

WASHINGTON (JTA) — Keith Ellison is facing mounting attacks from the pro-Israel right wing as the first Muslim congressman is positioned to lead the Democratic Party. And left-wing Jewish groups are rushing to his defense.

The Zionist Organization of America, in a release this week, noted Ellison’s role in drafting a congressional letter following the 2009 Gaza War urging the Obama administration to press Israel to loosen its blockade on Gaza. (The letter also noted that security needs led to the blockade). The ZOA also noted that Ellison was among a handful of congressmen who voted against additional funding for Israel’s Iron Dome anti-missile system during the 2014 Gaza War. (Ellison had previously backed Iron Dome, but said it made more sense during the 2014 war to press for a cease-fire.)

“If he becomes DNC leader, Ellison will likely be empowered to persuade even more Democratic Congresspersons to join him in actions hostile to Israel’s security and Israeli civilians’ lives – wreaking enormous damage to the prospects for future bipartisan support for America’s closest ally in the Middle East,” the ZOA said.

The ZOA release and a barrage of critical coverage in the conservative media led to the release of comments in Ellison’s defense.

“For anyone to attack or vilify him as anti-Israel or anti-Semitic is outrageous,” said Rabbi Marc Schneier, a co-founder of the Foundation for Ethnic Understanding, a group that promotes joint activities among ethnic groups.

Schneier called JTA Friday, unsolicited, as attacks on Ellison, D-Minn., have mounted. Among Jewish groups, also defending Ellison have been J Street, the liberal Middle East policy group, Americans for Peace Now, a dovish pro-Israel group, and Bend the Arc, a social action group.

Ellison seems likely to be the next Democratic National Committee chairman, having garnered the backing of figures from the party’s establishment as well as the insurgent left that backed Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., in his unsuccessful bid this year for the party’s presidential nomination. Among Ellison’s endorsers are Sanders and Sen. Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., the incoming party chief in the next Senate, who is very much of the party establishment.

Some conservative outlets, as well as the ZOA, noted Ellison’s youthful involvement in the anti-Semitic Nation of Islam movement, which he renounced in a 2006 letter to the Jewish Community Relations Council in Minnesota, a group that he has become friendly with. That year he was elected a freshman to Congress, and became the first Muslim elected to the body.

Seth Mandel, the New York Post Op-Ed editor, said in a column that “Ellison has left [Nation of Islam leader Louis] Farrakhan far behind, but his Israel criticism remains scathing,” and suggested his front-runner status signaled a drifting away of Democrats from Israel.

Ellison was also one of three Sanders appointees to the DNC Platform Drafting Committee this summer who tried to get language critical of Israel’s occupation into the platform. They did not succeed.

Ellison’s defenders say his vigorous defense of the two-state solution make him a valuable partner. Schneier remembered that his first meeting with Ellis was in 2007 at a Foundation event welcoming congressional freshmen, where Ellison in a speech – unprompted – lambasted the Iranian regime for its Holocaust denial.

A group called “Jews for Keith” on Thursday launched a petition to the DNC defending Ellison. J Street in its Nov. 16 statement called the attacks on Ellison, who was backed by J Street’s affiliated political action committee in the last election “hateful.”

“His support for a two-state solution, opposition to settlement construction and advocacy for U.S. leadership to help resolve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict are supported by the majority of American Jews,” it said.