Claims that a “smear campaign” led in part by pro-Israel supporters derailed Rep. Keith Ellison’s bid to be the next chair of the Democratic National Committee are false, according to retired Harvard law Professor Alan Dershowitz.
Rather, it was the Minnesota congressman’s own “past associations with anti-Semitism and his current anti-Israel voting record” that cost him the election, Dershowitz insisted in an article published Tuesday by the Gatestone Institute, a New York-based think tank.
He was referring to Ellison’s work for Nation of Islam leader Louis Farrakhan and his 2014 vote against funding Israel’s Iron Dome anti-missile defense system. Ellison told The Jewish Week last year that he left Farrakhan after “it became apparent to me that he said things about Jews that I disagreed with,” and he called his vote a mistake after voting over the years “for several billions in bilateral aid to Israel.”
The decision of Democratic Party leaders and delegates last Saturday in Atlanta to narrowly elect as their chairman former Labor Secretary Tom Perez — a longtime supporter of Israel said to represent the mainstream of the DNC as opposed to Ellison’s embrace of a left-wing agenda — has left many Jewish Democrats breathing easier.
Sylvia Barack Fishman, a Judaic studies professor at Brandeis University, told The Jewish Week in an email that she is “delighted” with Perez’s election, calling him “an experienced, competent, energetic leader who has respect for the diverse citizens who look to the Democratic Party to help them reclaim a just, compassionate and successful America. He will concentrate on jobs for working Americans and help restore traditional Democratic Party values and goals, going back to the New Deal.”
Earlier this year, Fishman had written in The Jewish Week that “if the Democratic Party embraces a leftist, anti-Israel narrative, I, along with many American Jews, may find ourselves without a viable political home.”
She explained that for at least a century the majority of American Jews have “responded passionately to Democratic centrist liberalism. … For many Jews, active involvement in social justice political movements is a profound expression of Jewishness.”
The Jewish community’s bond with the Democratic Party was evidenced again last November when polls showed that 70 percent of Jewish voters cast their ballots for Democrat Hillary Clinton, the largest percentage of any religious group to support her.
Dershowitz, who had also threatened to bolt the Democratic Party if Ellison was elected its chairman, similarly welcomed Perez’s election and said he would remain loyal to the party. But he wrote that the Democrats could only begin winning again “by regaining their traditional base among working class rust belt voters they lost to Trump. These voters will never support the kind of radical left-wing candidates promoted by the Keith Ellison wing of the party.”
Ellison’s selection as vice-chairman “elevated unity over principle” and was an “unfortunate appointment,” Dershowitz insisted. But he said he would “work from within” to move the party “back to its vibrant liberal center and away from its radical fringe. … I will also work to maintain bipartisan support for Israel and against efforts by the hard left to abandon the only democracy in the Middle East.”
The election of Ellison as the party’s vice-chairman was designed to unify the party, according to Ron Klein, chairman of Jews for Progress and a board member of the National Jewish Democratic Council.
“Perez is reaching out to every end of the party,” he said, noting that Ellison had told delegates after Saturday’s vote. “We don’t have the luxury to walk out of this room divided.”
Klein said there is “no predetermined formula” Perez can use to unite Democrats and that he is “going to need a lot of organization to fight [Republican President Donald] Trump and the Republicans.”
He also rejected the allegation that Ellison was defeated by a “smear campaign.”
Just five days before the election, delegates received a flurry of emails signed by Jews urging them to vote against Ellison because of his alleged anti-Israel and anti-Semitic positions.
“It was an organized campaign,” said one Ellison supporter, “and the Ellison team answered with letters from Jewish members of Congress saying Ellison is not anti-Israel. A letter was also sent from 300 Jewish leaders — including more than 100 rabbis — that said he is not anti-Israel or an anti-Semite. In addition, [Senate Minority Leader Charles] Schumer sent out a statement refuting the charges. … We were taking the attacks seriously and answering them. But the idea that Tom was elected chairman because of these attacks is fiction.”
He noted that although it was a closed ballot, one of the 20 Jewish delegates did publicly say he was voting for Ellison, and that no delegates in any of their meetings before the vote ever raised the allegations.
“The question asked was whether an African-American Muslim can speak to American voters who don’t live in progressive blue states,” said the supporter, referring to Ellison. “That is the question people asked — not is he an anti-Semite and anti-Israel.”
Klein acknowledged that although those were “issues for some people, for most people there were a lot of issues like the economy and jobs and health care and foreign policy that they were focused on — as well as who could do a better job of organizing the Democrats and deliver in the election. … It was not so much policy but who could lead.”
Schumer later tweeted that although he disagreed with some of Ellison’s past positions, he supported him after seeing Ellison “orchestrate one of the most pro-Israel platforms in decades.”
Fishman, the Brandeis professor, said that although she believes Ellison’s “lukewarm attitude toward Israel and his past flirtation with radical anti-Semites affected the [Democrats’] decision, but mostly Ellison lost because he is a proxy for [Vermont Sen. Bernie] Sanders’ left-wing identity policies and disdain for traditional centrist Democrats.”
Stosh Cotler, CEO of Bend the Arc Jewish Action, one of the few Jewish groups to comment on the election, said in a statement that Ellison’s election as vice-chairman was an “important step toward unity and ensuring that the diversity of viewpoints within the party is reflected in its leadership.”
The American Jewish Committee also congratulated Perez, noting that he had a “distinguished legal and political career, having served on the staff of the late Senator Ted Kennedy and as Assistant Attorney General for Civil Rights” before becoming Secretary of Labor in the Obama administration.
“The son of immigrants from the Dominican Republic, he embodies the diversity of America and strongly supports government action against hate-crimes,” the statement said. “Mr. Perez is also a longtime friend of the State of Israel, has visited the country, and has spoken out forcefully against the BDS (boycott, divestment, and sanctions) movement that seeks to delegitimize the Jewish state.”