WASHINGTON (JTA) – Aides to the country’s first Muslim congressman say they were blindsided by a stinging condemnation from the Anti-Defamation League because it came after the lawmaker had told the ADL that he planned to recant his comparison of Bush administration policies to Nazi tactics.
U.S. Rep. Keith Ellison (D-Minn.) in a July 8 speech to an atheists’ group in Minnesota compared Bush administration policies after the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks to Adolf Hitler’s use of the burning of the Reichstag to consolidate his rule.
After Ellison defended his remarks in a subsequent interview with the Minneapolis Star Tribune, the ADL reached out to him to discuss the issue and convinced him that it was inappropriate to use such an analogy.
Ellison aides and ADL staff in the ADL office here spent much of Tuesday negotiating the language of his recantation, both sides said. It was understood that Ellison would release a statement expressing regret over his earlier comparison and make his feelings known in an interview with The Associated Press.
So Ellison aides said they were shocked when, before the congressman released his statement and the AP article was distributed, journalists called asking about an ADL statement slamming his earlier remarks. The statement said Ellison demonstrated “a profound lack of understanding about the horrors that Hitler and his Nazi regime perpetrated.”
The flap follows several incidents during the past year that have left Democratic lawmakers and staff fuming over what they describe, often privately, as unfair treatment from Jewish organizations. In this case, Ellison aides said the ADL turned its back on good-faith negotiations.
“We went to great lengths, had ongoing conversations,” Rick Jauert, Ellison’s spokesman, told JTA. “No sooner had we gotten off the phone than I received the news – what did we just engage in? It’s not the way friends treat each other.”
The ADL statement, which quoted its national director, Abraham Foxman, landed in journalists’ e-mail inboxes at 5:30 p.m. with an urgent notification – just after Ellison thought he had wrapped up his negotiations with the organization and after he had spoken with the AP. The AP story was sent out a couple of hours after the ADL statement, at 7:30 p.m.
Foxman said he put out the statement although he was aware of the negotiations between Ellison’s staff and the ADL’s Washington office, because the congressman waited too long.
“That story was out there for days,” Foxman said. “He didn’t say anything.”
The ADL in recent years has criticized Democratic and Republican lawmakers for employing Nazi and Holocaust analogies to score political points.
In his July 8 speech, Ellison said Bush’s post-9/11 policies “kind of reminds me” of the Reichstag fire.
“After the Reichstag was burned,” he said, the Nazis “blamed the communists for it, and it put the leader of that country in a position where he could basically have authority to do whatever he wanted.”
A few days later, in comments to the Star Tribune defending the speech, Ellison cited the Iraq war and parts of the Patriot Act that granted the government greater arrest and surveillance powers after the 9/11 terrorist attacks.
Reaching out to Ellison, ADL staffers persuaded him that the Nazi analogy was misplaced, he said Tuesday in the AP interview.
“It was probably inappropriate to use that example because it’s a unique historical event without really any clear parallels,” Ellison was quoted as saying. He added that ADL staffers “thought any sort of comparison to the modern world we live in in some way diminishes the horror of the Nazi era…”
Ellison added, “I told them I feel they’re right.”
Foxman said Ellison’s remarks to the AP did not go far enough.
“The response is not an apology,” Foxman said, adding later, “I’m looking for a much clearer acknowledgment that he’s sorry.”
Jauert said no further statements were coming.
Ellison’s official statement was conciliatory but not as forthcoming as the AP interview. Instead of acknowledging the inappropriateness of his comments, he emphasized that they were “misconstrued” by the Daily Telegraph, a conservative British newspaper.
“I want to be clear that the murderous Nazi regime is historically distinct and the horror of the Holocaust must be acknowledged as a unique event in human history,” he said. “I did not intend any direct comparison between the totalitarian state of Nazi Germany and the current administration.”
Ellison noted his efforts as a Minnesota state legislator to reprimand a colleague who had questioned the Holocaust.
He earned the endorsement of top Jewish figures in Minnesota because of such actions, as well as his repudiation of his brief association in the mid-1990s with the Nation of Islam, a militant black organization frequently accused of anti-Semitism.
After his election in November, Ellison joined House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) on a visit to Israel earlier this year.