(JTA) — Rep. Keith Ellison, a leading contender to head the Democratic National Committee, has had a rocky relationship with the Jewish establishment. The Minnesota Democrat’s Jewish critics cite his involvement in law school with the Nation of Islam, an African-American group that has been described as anti-Semitic, and his criticism of Israel over the years.
A profile in Mother Jones published Tuesday cited sources claiming that Ellison was once a member of the group — the lawmaker has said he worked with them but was never a member — and clashed with Jewish students in law school at the University of Minnesota.
A spokesman for Ellison told JTA that he was not a Nation of Islam member and that other aspects of the Mother Jones article were false.
What’s the fuss about?
Before he became the first Muslim elected to Congress in 2006, Ellison apologized for his involvement in the Nation of Islam and denounced the group.
“I have long since distanced myself from and rejected the Nation of Islam due to its propagation of bigoted and anti-Semitic statements and actions of the Nation of Islam, [its leader] Louis Farrakhan, and [Farrakhan’s late assistant] Khalid Muhammed,” he wrote in a two-page letter to the Jewish Community Relations Council of Minnesota and the Dakotas in May 2006 after winning the Democratic primary.
He was warmly accepted by liberal Jewish groups and the Minneapolis Jewish community, with whom he has close ties.
Ellison’s actions in Congress, however, have troubled some in the pro-Israel community. Though Ellison has rejected the movement to boycott, sanction and divest from Israel and expressed support for the two-state-solution, he sought to accommodate a more sympathetic reading of the U.N.’s Goldstone report on the 2009 Gaza war that Israel, Jewish groups and most of the Congress rejected as a one-sided attack on Israel. The congressman also voted against funding for Israel’s Iron Dome missile defense system in 2014.
Then, in December, a short audio recording from a 2010 private fundraiser was released in which Ellison said that American foreign policy is “governed” by Israeli interests.
Shortly thereafter Israeli-American businessman Haim Saban, a major Democratic Party funder, slammed the lawmaker as “an anti-Semite and anti-Israel individual” whose election as chairman of the Democratic National Committee would be a “disaster” for the party’s relationship with Jews. In January, however, Ellison said he had talked to Saban and that they were “on the road” to mending ties.
While the Anti-Defamation League called the 2010 comments “deeply disturbing and disqualifying,” Ellison retained the support of the left-wing Middle East policy group J Street as well as some 300 Jewish leaders of liberal groups who signed a letter in support of him.
The signers of the letter said they were adding their names to “share our deep alarm at the unfounded and dishonest accusations of anti-Semitism directed at Congressman Keith Ellison. As Jewish professionals, lay leaders and activists, we know that Keith forcefully rejects anti-Semitism and other forms of hate or discrimination. His commitment to inclusion and fairness are values that define the foundation of his public service and his vision for America.”
Defenders have also noted Ellison’s record backing defense assistance to Israel, his multiple visits to the country and his support for Holocaust education in the Muslim community.
What are the new claims?
According to Mother Jones, tensions were high between black and Jewish students in the late 1980s when the University of Minnesota’s Africana Student Cultural Center sponsored speeches by Farrakhan and Kwame Ture, the black-power activist formerly known as Stokely Carmichael. The university organized events meant to improve relations between the groups. Ellison reportedly was respectful to Jewish students at those events, but he also made troubling statements, two Jewish attendees told Mother Jones:
Ellison could be deferential at these meetings. He thanked Jewish students for sticking up for black students’ rights to host controversial campus speakers — even if they had denounced those speakers — and suggested working together on common political causes. But he also insisted the charges that Ture was racist were unfounded. Michael Olenick, a Jewish student who clashed with Ellison and who was the opinions editor at the [Minnesota Daily, the student newspaper], recalled Ellison maintaining that an oppressed group could not be racist toward Jews because Jews were themselves oppressors. “European white Jews are trying to oppress minorities all over the world,” Olenick remembers Ellison arguing. “Keith would go on all the time about ‘Jewish slave traders.’” Another Jewish student active in progressive politics recalled Ellison’s incredulous response to the controversy over Zionism. “What are you afraid of?” Ellison asked. “Do you think black nationalists are gonna get power and hurt Jews?”
Ellison’s communication director, Brett Morrow, denied that the two alleged conversations took place.
“Keith has always rejected anti-Semitism and anyone saying otherwise is completely false,” Morrow wrote in an email to JTA. “The alleged conversations between the law school students nearly 30 years ago never happened.”
The Mother Jones article casts doubt on Ellison’s claims — reiterated Wednesday by Morrow — that he was never a member of the Nation of Islam. He has previously claimed that he became disillusioned with Farrahkan and his movement after attending the Million Man March in Washington, D.C., in October 1995. But according to Mother Jones, he defended the Nation of Islam against anti-Semitism charges in an op-ed in a black newspaper months after that event and endorsed a defense of Farrakhan in 1997. And sources told Mother Jones he may still have been involved with the group in 1998, when he ran for Minnesota state representative:
Two organizers who worked with him at the time told me they believed Ellison had been a member of the Nation. At community meetings, he was even known to show up in [the Nation’s signature] bow tie, accompanied by dark-suited members of the Fruit of Islam, the Nation’s security wing.
One former leader of the group’s Twin Cities chapter (referred to as a study group) told Mother Jones that Ellison had been a member of the Nation of Islam:
Minister James Muhammad, who in the 1990s led the Nation of Islam’s Twin Cities study group, confirms that Ellison served for several years as the local group’s chief of protocol, acting as a liaison between Muhammad and members of the community. He was a “trusted member of our inner circle,” says Muhammad, who is no longer active in the Nation of Islam. Ellison regularly attended meetings and sometimes spoke in Muhammad’s stead, when the leader was absent.
However, Makram El-Amin, the imam of Ellison’s Minneapolis mosque and a longtime friend of the lawmaker, told JTA that Ellison had never spoken of being a member of the Nation of Islam, including when he was involved with the Million Man March.
“[H]e was organizing and encouraging African-American men and others to support the Million Man March and the like, but all the time, I don’t ever recall a time where he stated that he was a member of the Nation of Islam,” said El-Amin, who has known Ellison for 25-30 years.
According to Morrow, “Keith was never a member of the Nation of Islam. He’s explained his limited involvement surrounding the Million Man March in print and interviews many times. He has also long ago disavowed the organization and condemned Minister Farrakhan’s views.”
So what does this all mean?
It’s unclear whether the claims will have an effect on Ellison’s chances to head the DNC. One day after the article’s publications, Jewish groups had yet to weigh in.
Well before the Mother Jones article, the right-wing Zionist Organization of America and the Republican Jewish Coalition said Ellison was unfit to lead the DNC. The Anti-Defamation League said his assertion that foreign policy is “governed” by Israeli interests disqualified him. And the National Jewish Democratic Council, while saying Ellison is no anti-Semite, also described his record on Israel as “mixed,” and said it “strongly disagreed” with his 2014 vote on Iron Dome.
The latest revelations place Jews, an influential voice among donors and activists, between a progressive wing of the party that sees Ellison as the best hope to attract new and younger Democratic voters, and a more traditional wing that rejects the diagnosis that, as Mother Jones puts it, “the party has not been liberal enough.”