The Smearing of Keith Ellison Reveals the Warped Priorities of the Israel Lobby

The attacks on the would-be DNC chairman are undermining an ally of Jews in America.

Rep. Keith Ellison testifies before the Senate Judiciary Committee's Constitution, Civil Rights and Human Rights Subcommittee December 9, 2014 in Washington, DC.
Rep. Keith Ellison testifies before the Senate Judiciary Committee’s Constitution, Civil Rights, and Human Rights Subcommittee on Dec. 9, 2014, in Washington, D.C.

Win McNamee/Getty Images

The first time I visited Shuhada Street in Hebron, a city of 200,000 in Israel’s West Bank, I felt as if I’d stepped through a looking glass. For most of the past 12 years, the once-bustling market street has been under lockdown to protect 800 militant Jewish settlers who’ve seized part of the old city. Aside from soldiers and a few orthodox Jewish women pushing baby carriages, Shuhada Street is empty and silent; in the parlance of the Israel Defense Forces, it is “completely sterilized,” which means that Palestinians aren’t allowed to set foot on it. Most of the Arabs who once lived in the area have left, but the few who remain are virtual prisoners in their apartments, where cages protect windows and balconies from settlers’ stones. Palestinians who live on Shuhada Street aren’t allowed to walk out their front doors; if they must go out, they have to climb onto the roof and down a fire escape into a back alley. My tour guide, an orthodox Jewish IDF veteran who’d become a fierce critic of the occupation, described what happens if the Palestinians get sick. “The Jewish subset of the Red Cross doesn’t treat Palestinians here,” he told me. “What you see a lot of times is Palestinians carrying people by foot to an area with an ambulance.”

The disorientation of Shuhada Street comes not just from the moral horror, but from the near-impossibility of conveying that horror to most Americans without sounding like a crank. Before that first visit, I was someone who rolled my eyes when left-wingers described the occupation of Palestine as apartheid, a term that seemed shrill and reductive and heedless of a thousand complexities. Afterward, I realized how hard it is, within the cramped, taboo-ridden strictures that govern mainstream discussion of Israel, to talk about what’s happening in Hebron. If I’d never been there and someone had described it to me, I wouldn’t have fully believed her.

Keith Ellison, the Democratic congressman from Minnesota and candidate for Democratic National Committee chairman, was also stunned by what he saw in Hebron; I spoke to him about it after his first trip there. This summer, he tweeted a photo of one of the city’s caged apartment windows, where someone had put a sign saying, “Caution: This was taken by Israel. You are entering Apartheid.” Now that tweet is being used to smear Ellison as an anti-Semite and derail his candidacy for DNC chairman. The anti-Ellison campaign, coming at a time when Donald Trump’s election has emboldened genuine anti-Semites to a degree unprecedented in living memory, is evidence of warped priorities among a good part of the American Jewish community. The need to defend the indefensible in Israel is leading to the demonization of an ally of Jews in America.

Ellison is no anti-Zionist. He supports a two-state solution in Israel and Palestine, and opposes the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions movement, which is the cutting edge of pro-Palestinian advocacy. His position on Israel is the same as that of J Street, a center-left group that describes itself as the “Political Home for Pro-Israel, Pro-Peace Americans” and maintains close relationships with Israeli progressives. “Representative Ellison is a true friend to the Jewish people,” J Street said in a statement. “His support for a two-state solution, opposition to settlement construction and advocacy for US leadership to help resolve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict are supported by the majority of American Jews.”

As America’s first Muslim congressman, Ellison has consistently sought to foster greater Muslim-Jewish understanding. At a 2009 rally for Palestinians being bombed in Gaza, he was furiously shouted down for refusing to condemn Israel outright and for saying he hoped “to bring a greater level of understanding between people.” Ellison is known and trusted by members of the Israeli left; as Tamar Zandberg, a member of the Knesset, wrote on Facebook, “From personal experience I can say that Ellison’s position on Israel is the same as on every other issue: a progressive position, peaceful, promoting justice and equality, opposing racism, Anti-Semitism, chauvinism and homophobia of any kind and from every direction.”

It is true that as a young man, Ellison collaborated on anti-racist campaigns with the anti-Semitic Nation of Islam, an association he apologized for in a 2006 letter to Minnesota’s Jewish community. “I did not adequately scrutinize the positions and statements of the Nation of Islam, Louis Farrakhan, and Khalid Muhammad,” he wrote. “I wrongly dismissed concerns that there were anti-Semitic. They were and are anti-Semitic and I should have come to that conclusion earlier than I did.” Minnesota’s Jewish community largely accepted his apology; as Sami Rahamim wrote in the Forward, “For me, and the vast majority of Jewish Minnesotans, this full-throated apology for past mistakes is exactly the kind of t’shuvah (repentance), which our tradition honors.” Ellison’s disavowal of anti-Semitism was certainly more forthright than Trump’s grudging dismissals of the alt-right.

Ellison’s critics are also exercised by a speech he gave at a 2010 fundraiser hosted by a former president of the Muslim American Society. (It was unearthed by the Investigative Project on Terrorism, an anti-Muslim group.) In the speech, Ellison spoke of attending an American Israel Public Affairs Committee dinner the night before and urged American Muslims to get organized like American Jews are. “The United States foreign policy in the Middle East is governed by what is good or bad through a country of 7 million people,” he said. “A region of 350 million all turns on a country of 7 million. … When the people who, when the Americans who trace their roots back to those 350 million get involved, everything changes.”

The taboo Ellison broke here is acknowledging the obvious truth that American foreign policy disproportionately favors Israel and that the pro-Israel lobby is effective. “His words imply that U.S. foreign policy is based on religiously or national origin-based special interests rather than simply on America’s best interests,” says an unctuously pious Anti-Defamation League statement. Special interests interfering with American policymaking—who ever heard of such a thing! This is nothing less than Zionist political correctness, attempting to pre-emptively delegitimize an argument—that the Israel lobby is highly influential – rather than respond to it on the merits.

Meanwhile, even as some American Jews torture the definition of anti-Semitism to stigmatize criticism of Israel, real, unabashed Jew hatred has erupted from the sewers, born aloft in Trump’s fetid wake. Trump tweeted anti-Semitic imagery culled from a white supremacist website. His campaign’s closing ad juxtaposed photos of Jewish financiers with classic anti-Semitic vocabulary about a parasitic “global power structure.” Steve Bannon, his campaign CEO and soon-to-be senior White House counselor, is either an outright anti-Semite or just someone who ran a website, Breitbart, that glorified anti-Semites. (One Breitbart piece lauded the intellectual verve of the white nationalist Richard Spencer, best known these days for leading a crowd of white-collar fascists in a giddy Nazi salute to Trump.) Jewish journalists who criticize Trump have grown used to receiving photos of their faces photoshopped into gas chambers. Occasionally, Trump’s neo-Nazi groupies promise American Jews that they can avoid slaughter by emigrating to Israel, proving that Zionism and anti-Semitism can comfortably coexist.

Personally, I’ve never before felt so anxious about my place as a Jew in America. Recently a playground where I take my kids was defaced with swastikas and Trump graffiti. It’s a small thing, but the small things add up. I know that when many Trumpkins talk about taking America back, they mean taking it back from people like me.

And people like Ellison. The resurgence in American anti-Semitism pales beside the post-Trump explosion of Islamophobia. Jews have been threatened, but Muslims have been attacked. Trump has let anti-Semitic imagery and rhetoric slip into the mainstream, but it is Muslims he’s promised to register and track. The attacks on Ellison, which suggest that a secret religious radical lurks beneath his menschy progressive persona, should be seen in this context. Some Jews might think that participating in Islamophobia will keep them safe. I’m convinced that if we’re to survive Trump, it will only be through a united front of all the people his administration threatens.

I want to see Ellison become DNC chairman because I’m desperate for leaders who feel as existentially endangered by Trump and Trumpism as I do. So far, Democrats have been disappointingly tepid in their response to Trump. Harry Reid, the one senator who has fully articulated the terror that many people in America’s anti-Trump majority are experiencing, is retiring. No one else is rallying people to respond to Trump’s berserk authoritarianism. I want leaders who know that their children’s ability to thrive in this country depends on what they do every single day to resist the incoming regime. We are in a moment when political taboos are exploding. The unthinkable becomes ordinary so fast it causes moral whiplash. Of all the norms requiring defense right now, the one against speaking frankly about Israel should be pretty low on the list.