WASHINGTON (JTA) – Haim Saban, a major Democratic Party funder, said Rep. Keith Ellison’s election as chairman of the Democratic National Committee would be a “disaster” for the relationship between Jews and the party, signaling a looming crisis between the party’s progressives and the centrist pro-Israel community.
The scathing broadside delivered Friday by the Israeli-American entertainment mogul from the floor of the annual Saban Forum, an event he funds bringing together U.S. and Israeli leaders and influencers, underscores the degree to which the Minnesota congressman’s campaign for DNC chief could erode relations between establishment Jewish groups and the party.
Additionally, the release Friday of the full transcript of remarks by Ellison delivered in 2010 at a fundraiser organized by Muslim backers, in which he derides Israel as seeing the United States as an ATM, was likely to exacerbate establishment Jewish concerns about Ellison, the first Muslim elected to Congress.
“If you listen to Keith Ellison today, and you see his statements, he’s more of a Zionist than Herzl, and Ben-Gurion and Begin combined,” Saban said during the gala dinner for the event, which is organized by the Brookings Institution. “It’s amazing, it’s a beautiful thing. If you go back to his positions, his statements, his speeches, the way’s he voted, he’s clearly an anti-Semite and anti-Israel individual.”
Saban seemed eager to get his thoughts on Ellison off his chest. He was given the courtesy of posing the first question to the evening’s speaker, Israeli Defense Minister Avigdor Liberman, but instead delivered his statement lambasting Ellison.
“Words matter, actions matter more,” Saban said, a baffled Liberman looking on. “Keith Ellison would be a disaster for the relationship between the Jewish community and the Democratic Party. Now I’ve said what I’ve had to say.”
Saban’s broadside – farther reaching, in calling him an “anti-Semite,” than even some of Ellison’s conservative critics – is significant because of the mogul’s relationship to the DNC.
Saban is better known as a leading backer of Hillary Clinton, the Democratic presidential nominee defeated last month by Donald Trump, but he has also been a major donor to the party. In 2002, he paid $7 million toward the building of the then-new DNC headquarters here.
Ellison has rallied progressive groups to his defense, including within the Jewish community.
“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,” said a statement Friday from J Street, which noted it was not endorsing Ellison for the DNC spot.
The liberal Jewish Middle East policy group’s statement came out before Saban’s outcry.
Even before the results are known, the DNC contest is fraying ties between the Jewish organizational establishment and the party that were thinned already by last year’s contentious battle between the Israeli and American governments over the Iran deal and years of tensions under President Barack Obama over Israel’s settlement policies. Ellison said this weekend that he may leave Congress if he wins, a key demand of some of the grassroots officials who vote for the chairman, and a sign of how serious his bid is.
Ellison has come under fire in part because of his youth, which was spent as an activist with the Nation of Islam and defending some black nationalists who had hostile relationships with the Jewish community.
Running for Congress in 2006, he wrote a letter apologizing for those associations to the Minneapolis Jewish community. He has since enjoyed friendly relations with his state’s Jews.
Ellison went further Friday in an op-ed for The Washington Post in berating his younger self for those ties.
“These men organize by sowing hatred and division, including anti-Semitism, homophobia and a chauvinistic model of manhood,” he said. “I should have listened more and talked less.’
Since his election to Congress, however, he also has become a sharp critic of some Israeli actions that have earned him alliances among liberal Jewish groups like J Street, but the wariness of mainstream pro-Israel groups. He spearheaded a letter in 2009 urging the Obama administration to press Israel to loosen restrictions on the Gaza Strip, where the Hamas terrorist group governs.
Ellison led an effort to have Congress consider parts of the U.N. Goldstone report, which said Israel may have committed war crimes in the 2009 Gaza War. Much of Congress, as well as the centrist and right-wing pro-Israel community, said the report was biased beyond redemption.
In 2014, he was one of just eight Congress members who refused to vote for additional funding for Israel’s Iron Dome anti-missile system during that summer’s Gaza War, saying he preferred to agitate for a cease-fire.
Ellison also has led efforts to promote recognition of Israel and rejection of Holocaust denial among Muslims, and is eager to take into account all points of view on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. He has reliably supported defense assistance for Israel.
In 2009, Ellison traveled with a colleague to review postwar destruction in Gaza. Unlike the colleague, Ellison made the complicated travel arrangements necessary to review the destruction on Israel’s side as well. Last month, in a statement to JTA, he explicitly rejected the boycott Israel movement.
Right-wing groups like the Zionist Organization of America and the Republican Jewish Coalition have said since Ellison announced his candidacy that he is unfit. The RJC has even fundraised off the matter: A Dec. 1 email pitched with the subject line “An anti-Semite running the Democrat Party?” listed Ellison’s youthful associations without noting his multiple disavowals of them.
But his complex record has also meant that centrist Jewish groups have agonized over just how to treat his candidacy. The Anti-Defamation League at first said his past raised questions that needed answering. Then, in the past week, a snippet from the 2010 fundraiser was released by the Investigative Project on Terrorism in which Ellison said, “United States foreign policy in the Middle East is governed by what is good or bad through a country of seven million people.” The ADL said that disqualified him.
The National Jewish Democratic Council said in a statement Friday — before Saban’s comments — that “the accusations that [Ellison] is somehow anti-Semitic are false, reprehensible and shameful.” It also said his record on Israel was “mixed,” notable for a group with a mission of lauding Democratic incumbents, and said it “strongly disagreed” with his 2014 vote on Iron Dome.
Ellison countered that his 2010 remark had been taken out of context and noted that the Investigative Project’s founder is Steven Emerson, who was featured in the Southern Poverty Law Center’s recently released guide to anti-Muslim extremists.
Ellison displayed in his talk to the fundraisers a degree of nuance in his views on Israel and the Jewish community. He held up Jewish lobbying for Israel as a model that Muslims should emulate and admonished his audience when it apparently recoiled after Ellison said he had met with activists at the annual American Israel Public Affairs Committee conference.
The lawmaker said he has a “moral and legal” obligation to meet with all his constituents.
“I want to hear what everybody has to say. Right?” he told the group. “And I want you to know that the level of organization that they display is considerable.” Ellison also said that “this is not to say that I don’t want the U.S. to be friends with Israel.”
But he also indulged tropes about Israel and Jews that would likely irk many in the pro-Israel community and has not raised in his meetings with Jews.
In the recorded remarks, he said Israel treats the United States as a cash machine, demanding funding without being responsive to American needs.
“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,” Ellison said.
He also depicted Jews as uncritical, saying that Israel “has mobilized its Diaspora in America to do its bidding.” Ellison depicted himself as putting Israel supporters who questioned Obama’s anti-settlement policies on the spot.
“That is the policy of my president,” he said, “and I want to know if you’re with the president.”