Which is the more bitter irony: That the Anti-Defamation League’s specialty should have become defamation, or that its latest target, Rep. Keith Ellison (D-Minn.), should be among the country’s most important opponents of political anti-Semitism?
Ellison, the first Muslim member of Congress and a prominent Bernie Sanders supporter, is now a leading candidate for chairman of the Democratic National Committee. However, since he is also a measured critic of U.S. support for Israel’s occupation of Palestine, he has fallen victim to the same accusations of anti-Semitism that the ADL has promiscuously dispensed in recent years.
It all happened so suddenly. Two weeks ago, the ADL’s national director Jonathan Greenblatt regarded Ellison as “a man of good character” in emailed remarks to the Jewish Telegraphic Agency. Now, per an official ADL release, Ellison’s views on the Israel-Palestine conflict are “both deeply disturbing and disqualifying.” What changed? Greenblatt claims the U-turn happened when he became aware of a 36-second clip of taped remarks Ellison made to supporters in 2010. “The United States foreign policy in the Middle East is governed by what is good or bad through a country of 7 million people,” said Ellison on that occasion. “A region of 350 million all turns on a country of 7 million. Does that make sense?”
Jews cannot abide positions like Ellison’s, according to Greenblatt’s statement: “His words raise the specter of age-old stereotypes about Jewish control of our government, a poisonous myth that may persist in parts of the world where intolerance thrives, but that has no place in open societies like the U.S.” Per Greenblatt, Ellison’s remarks raise concerns over whether he could “represent the Democratic Party’s traditional support for a strong and secure Israel.”
But Ellison’s statement was a small clip intentionally taken out of context by Steven Emerson of The Investigative Project on Terrorism, a self-proclaimed expert who claims, among other odious lies, that the Obama administration is in cahoots with the Muslim Brotherhood. For his efforts, Emerson has earned a spot on the Southern Poverty Law Center’s list of anti-Muslim extremists, an indicator that one shouldn’t trust his video editing choices. Indeed, when listened to in full, the tape the ADL so strenuously objected to reveals Ellison to have been advising a group of Muslim Americans on how to organize better for political change, despite being a relatively small population, much like American Jews.
What about Ellison’s ability to represent a traditional Democratic position on Israel? In reality, Ellison’s political attitudes toward Israel are no different than that of his party. That some 60 percent of Democrats favor imposing sanctions or other penalties on Israel due to the nation’s occupation of Palestine and 51 percent favor the establishment of a Palestinian state would mean, by Greenblatt’s calculus, that the majority of Democrats hate Jews. But other Jews don’t read Ellison’s comments the way the ADL chose to, and, though his record bespeaks it perfectly well, Ellison has since emphasized that his politics are about “respecting differences, rejecting all forms of racism and anti-Semitism” and “organizing together for economic justice for everyone.”
The mode of condemning legitimate political opinions as affronts to Judaism, which had grown familiar to the point of dreariness before the election, is freshly outrageous in the age of Trump. Even the penchant the president-elect himself has for flagrant anti-Semitism is somehow eclipsed by the record of his chief strategist, Steve Bannon. Under Bannon’s management, Breitbart News became the primary propaganda outlet for ultra-right xenophobic populism, a political niche whose discourse is riddled with anti-Semitic conspiracy theories, and so his elevation was met with glee from the KKK, American Nazi Party, and other white supremacist groups. Though the ADL rightly condemned Bannon for featuring racist and sexist material at Breitbart, it was careful explicitly to acquit him personally of the offense that makes Ellison a “deeply disturbing” candidate: anti-Semitism.
Which is unfortunate, given our national circumstances. In times like these, opponents of anti-Semitism (including myself) might thank our lucky stars for talented leaders like Ellison, who is capable of and committed to forging the kind of working-class coalition that could seriously challenge Trumpism. Yet Greenblatt has decreed that Ellison is “disqualified” from Jewish support, as though U.S. Jewry had delegated him our spokesman. We have not, excepting a small group of wealthy donors to the ADL, who care foremost about Jewish ethno-supremacy in the Holy Land, not the rise of an anti-Semitic regime in the US. (One suspects displeased correspondence from such donors had more to do with Greenblatt’s about-face on Ellison than the 2010 remarks.)
Count me as one Jew for whom Greenblatt does not speak, and place me in good company. Groups like IfNotNow, Jews for Racial and Economic Justice, and Jewish Voice for Peace have been waging an inspiring Jewish effort to resist anti-Semitism by bringing people together. Their notion is that for Jews to be safe, we will need to build a resistance in partnership with other communities under threat, not prop up an apartheid state in the Middle East. It is no coincidence that these coalition-building efforts are being spearheaded by young Jews running organizations with strong youth presences. But because young Jews do not make up a wealthy donor base, mainstream media outlets don’t tend to treat our organizations as spokespersons for Jews writ large, nor our policy positions as indicative of Jewish views in general. Nonetheless, the ideological tide is turning in our community, and the ADL would do well to read the writing on the wall and get behind Ellison. Greenblatt has already shamelessly reversed his position once; it can’t debase him further to do it again.
It should be clear to all Jews of good conscience that elevating Ellison, whom Minneapolis Rabbi Michael Latz calls “an exquisite mensch, brilliant, a terrific community organizer who represents his constituency with great integrity,” would constitute an affront to the Trump regime, and would position him well to start mobilizing efforts to unify the many Americans under threat from Trump’s regime. The ADL’s approach of opposing a black Muslim leader on specious charges of anti-Semitism, on the other hand, is tantamount to collaboration.