A Minnesota Democrat is taking a Jewish detour in his bid to become the first Muslim elected to the U.S. Congress. Keith Ellison, the party-backed candidate in a heavily Democratic Minneapolis district, seems to be in a strong position to win a seat in the U.S. House of Representatives in November. He would replace Martin Sabo, a retiring Democrat with a solid pro-Israel record who has held the seat since 1978.
Ellison’s major obstacle to making history could be his association a decade ago with the Nation of Islam, led by the Rev. Louis Farrakhan, notorious for his anti-Jewish statements.
Ellison, 42, is making a strong effort to put his past behind him.
“Young people get into things at certain times in their lives that they think will be helpful to their community,” Ellison told JTA in a telephone interview. “I should have examined the message of Mr. Farrakhan closer.”
In a May 28 letter to Stephen Silberfarb, director of the Jewish Community Relations Council of Minnesota and the Dakotas, Ellison expressed regret for his former participation in the Nation of Islam. Among other things, he helped raise funds for the 1995 Million Man March on Washington, and once reportedly appeared at a fund-raiser with Khalid Muhammad, a Farrakhan deputy known for some of the most virulent anti-Jewish rhetoric in the Nation of Islam.
“I did not adequately scrutinize the positions and statements of the Nation of Islam, Louis Farrakhan and Khalid Muhammad,” he wrote of his affiliation with the Nation of Islam, which he said lasted for about 18 months in the mid-1990s.
“I wrongly dismissed concerns that they were anti-Semitic. They were and are anti-Semitic and I should have come to that conclusion earlier than I did.”
Silberfarb said Ellison’s apologies might not be enough for some Jews, who revile Farrakhan for calling Judaism a “gutter religion” and describing Jews as the pre-eminent oppressors of people of color.
“It’s not going to be monolithic,” Silberfarb told JTA. “Some will give him another chance, and others will say, ‘Once a Nation of Islam, always a Nation of Islam.’ “
The Minnesota race is important for the Democrats because Sabo’s retirement announcement took many by surprise, and Democrats need to preserve every seat they can if they hope to win back the House in November.
Ellison maintains that he does not harbor any anti-Semitic or racist beliefs.
“I saw in the Nation of Islam, and specifically the Million Man March, an effort to promote African-American self-sufficiency, personal responsibility and community economic development,” he said in the letter.
Ellison’s letter attracted much local media scrutiny.
Ellison told JTA he wrote the letter “to reassure friends and allies that the person they have come to know is really who I am.”
Another major hurdle for Ellison is his writing when he attended the University of Minnesota Law School in the late 1980s.
Ellison confirmed to JTA that he was the author of two opinion articles, penned under the name Keith E. Hakim, in the university’s Minnesota Daily. The articles appear on an anti-Democratic Web log, www.minnesotademocratsexposed.com.
In one article, Hakim calls for “back payment of the ‘black tax,’ which is the price hike that ghetto merchants and pawnbrokers charge black consumers,” a reference some believe refer to Jews.
In another Minnesota Daily article discussing the legacy of Malcolm X, Hakim describes Arabs as “not devils” — meaning they were not oppressors of blacks — but says the same is not true of “the colonial masters and slavers of Western Europe, America, Australia, South Africa and Israel.”
Ellison said the articles were only one element in a larger picture.
“I’m not gonna back away from it,” he told JTA. “Hopefully people will look at the whole person, not just something they wrote 16 or 17 years ago.”
Dan Rosen, a Minneapolis lawyer and board member of the JCRC, told JTA that the writings are critical.
“I’m concerned that while he was in law school he was publicly advocating bringing the message of Stokely Carmichael,” a radical black separatist, “to the University of Minnesota,” he said. “I’m concerned that in his public writings he refers to ‘ghetto merchants and pawnbrokers,’ by which he apparently means the Jews.”
Rosen also dismissed Ellison’s explanation of his post-college association with Farrakhan as disingenuous.
“You cannot as an adult and as a lawyer have a lengthy association with an organization with the rhetoric of the Nation of Islam and deny that during that time you understood that the organization was anti-Semitic without either insulting the intelligence of the Jews or owning up to a distinct lack of intelligence on your own part,” he said.
Others said they accepted the sincerity of Ellison’s letter, and said it signified a more mature politician.
“I would tell the Jewish community not to worry,” said Jay Benanav, a St. Paul city council member and board member of the JCRC.
“I’m usually hypersensitive about anti-Semitism,” said Benanav, who was born in Israel to parents who were Holocaust survivors. “We all make decisions in our lives that we can’t run away from. I’m sure he will show that he regrets it when he gets elected to office.”
State Rep. Frank Hornstein is urging his fellow Jews to judge Ellison based on his record and statements while serving in the state legislature.
“People certainly do grow and evolve, and I think that’s certainly the case with Keith,” said Hornstein, who has sat next to Ellison since the two were elected in 2002. “I’ve watched him in action and he’s been nothing but a friend to the Jewish community.”
Hornstein lauded Ellison for his work with Jews on housing and civil and human rights issues. He also noted Ellison’s attendance at a lecture on anti-Semitism at a synagogue in Hornstein’s hometown of Cincinnati last year. The lecture was part of an annual series dedicated to Hornstein’s mother, a Holocaust survivor.
Such sentiments were echoed by national Jewish Democrats.
“From my perspective, if this letter represents his true feelings, then he’s met the hurdle on the Nation of Islam and Farrakhan,” said Ira Forman, the executive director of the National Jewish Democratic Council. “That’s good enough for me.”
Others counseled a closer look at Ellison. Mark Rotenberg, head of Minnesotans Against Terrorism, emphasized that Ellison’s background must not be whitewashed.
“People’s backgrounds are often the most telling part of their character,” said Rotenberg, who is backing one of Ellison’s primary opponents, Ember Reichgott Junge, in September’s Democratic primary. Reichgott Junge faces an uphill battle now that Ellison has the state party endorsement.
Ellison “certainly may have had a change of heart,” but that doesn’t give him “a right to be a congressman,” Rotenberg said.
“The stakes are fairly high here that we get it right,” he said. “What people will say during the heat of a campaign may or may not be an indicator of what they will do once they have a virtual lock on a seat in Congress.”
The Archive of the Jewish Telegraphic Agency includes articles published from 1923 to 2008. Archive stories reflect the journalistic standards and practices of the time they were published.