(JTA) – Jewish allies of Keith Ellison defended him against mounting attacks from the pro-Israel right wing as the first Muslim congressman is positioned to lead the Democratic Party. “For anyone to attack or vilify him as anti-Israel or antisemitic is outrageous,” said Rabbi Marc Schneier, a co-founder of the Foundation for Ethnic Understanding, a group that promotes joint activities among ethnic groups. Schneier called JTA on Friday, Nov. 18, unsolicited, as attacks on Ellison, D-Minn., mounted. Among Jewish groups, also defending Ellison have been J Street, the liberal Middle East policy group, Americans for Peace Now, a dovish pro-Israel group, and Bend the Arc, a social action group.
The Zionist Organization of America, in a release this week, noted Ellison’s role in drafting a congressional letter following the 2009 Gaza War urging the Obama administration to press Israel to loosen its blockade on Gaza. The ZOA also noted that Ellison was among a handful of congressmen who voted against additional funding for Israel’s Iron Dome anti-missile system during the 2014 Gaza War. “If he becomes DNC leader, Ellison will likely be empowered to persuade even more Democratic Congresspersons to join him in actions hostile to Israel’s security and Israeli civilians’ lives – wreaking enormous damage to the prospects for future bipartisan support for America’s closest ally in the Middle East,” the ZOA said.
Ellison seems likely to be the next Democratic National Committee chairman, having garnered the backing of figures from the party’s establishment as well as the insurgent left that backed Sen. Bernie Sanders, in his unsuccessful bid this year for the party’s presidential nomination. Among Ellison’s endorsers are Sanders and Sen. Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., the incoming party chief in the next Senate, who is very much of the party establishment.
Some conservative outlets, as well as the ZOA, noted Ellison’s previous involvement in the antisemitic Nation of Islam movement, which he renounced in a 2006 letter to the Jewish Community Relations Council in Minnesota, a group that he has become friendly with. That year he was elected a freshman to Congress, and became the first Muslim elected to the body. Seth Mandel, the New York Post op-ed editor, said in a column that “Ellison has left [Nation of Islam leader Louis] Farrakhan far behind, but his Israel criticism remains scathing,” and suggested his front-runner status signaled a drifting away of Democrats from Israel.
Ellison was also one of three Sanders appointees to the DNC Platform Drafting Committee this summer who tried to get language critical of Israel’s occupation into the platform. They did not succeed.
Schneier remembered that his first meeting with Ellison was in 2007 at a Foundation event welcoming congressional freshmen, where Ellison in a speech – unprompted – lambasted the Iranian regime for its Holocaust denial.
A group called “Jews for Keith” on Nov. 17 launched a petition to the DNC defending Ellison. J Street in its Nov. 16 statement called the attacks on Ellison, who was backed by J Street’s affiliated political action committee in the last election “hateful.”