Leading DNC chair candidate Keith Ellison blasted for "disqualifying" remarks about Israel

Comments from 2010, dredged up by fringe anti-Muslim activist, lead Jewish group to turn on progressive congressman

Published December 2, 2016 9:57AM (EST)

 (AP/J. Scott Applewhite)
(AP/J. Scott Applewhite)

The Anti-Defamation League shook up the race for the Democratic National Committee chairmanship on Thursday evening as it blasted Rep. Keith Ellison of Minnesota, the leading candidate, for a 2010 speech in which he allegedly said that Israel manipulates American foreign policy.

In a public statement, ADL chief Jonathan A. Greenblatt called Ellison's comments "deeply disturbing and disqualifying." He also accused Ellison of promoting anti-Semitic stereotypes:

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. Additionally, whether intentional or not, 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.

The controversial speech was delivered in 2010 at a private campaign fundraiser, a recording of which was obtained by anti-Islamic activist Steven Emerson, who is best known for his false claim that several major European cities have "no-go zones" that law enforcement officials refuse to police for fear of offending Muslims.

In an excerpt from the address released by Emerson's Investigative Project on Terrorism, Ellison can be heard saying the following:

The United States foreign policy in the Middle East is governed by what is good or bad through a country of 7 million people. A region of 350 million all turns on a country of 7 million. Does that make sense? Is that logic? Right? When the Americans who trace their roots back to those 350 million get involved, everything changes. Can I say that again?

Emerson reprinted several other statements indicative of what he described as Ellison's belief that Jewish people have undue influence over American foreign policy.

The ADL's scathing criticism of Ellison is a reversal for the civil rights group. Mere hours before, it had defended the Minnesota congressman after CNN published a report quoting  past statements from Ellison denying that Nation of Islam leader Louis Farrakhan was racist and anti-Semitic.

Ellison, who is Muslim, has repeatedly retracted his past defenses of Farrakhan and has said that he believes that both the minister and his organization promote anti-white and anti-Jewish thinking. Responding to the assertion that he was promoting anti-Semitic conspiracy thinking in his 2010 speech, Ellison posted an open letter to the ADL on Thursday night, saying that he had been misquoted:

The audio released was selectively edited and taken out of context by an individual the Southern Poverty Law Center has called an “anti-Muslim extremist.” My memory is that I was responding to a question about how Americans with roots in the Middle East could engage in the political process in a more effective way. My advice was simply to get involved. I believe that Israel and the U.S.-Israel relationship are, and should be, key considerations in shaping U.S. policy in the Middle East. Americans with roots or interests in the region, should be involved in advocacy and discussions of public policy concerning the region. My response was meant to encourage those in attendance to increase their level of involvement and effectiveness.

My record proves my deep and long-lasting support for Israel, and I have always fought anti-Semitism, racism, sexism and homophobia — the same values embodied by the Anti-Defamation League. I believe that this is an attempt by right-wing interests to drive a wedge between long-standing allies in the fight for equal rights. We cannot allow that to happen.

It's unclear what effect this latest allegation against Ellison will have on his bid to head up the Democratic National Committee. His candidacy had been endorsed by several party heavy hitters, including outgoing Senate minority leader Harry Reid and his successor, Sen. Charles Schumer of New York, along with leading Senate progressives Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren.

Ellison is one of four Democratic officials who have declared interest in the DNC chairman race. Also in the running is current South Carolina Democratic Party chair Jaime Harrison and former Vermont governor Howard Dean. They were joined on Tuesday by current New Hampshire Democratic Party head Ray Buckley.

The presence of both Dean and Buckley in the contest is notable. Dean served an earlier term as DNC chair and during his tenure Buckley worked for him overseeing the "50-state strategy" that many party stalwarts believe contributed to the significant wins scored by Democrats in 2008.

Democrats have not held a competitive election for their top position since 2005, after party nominee John Kerry failed in his bid to capture the White House. It wasn't much of a contest, however. Initially, many party insiders wanted to allow then-chairman Terry McAuliffe to retain his post, but he was opposed by netroots activists, with many backing Dean or another party outsider. Dean initially faced several opponents, but none could gain traction and all eventually dropped out before the actual election. Dean ended up winning the office by voice vote.

Unlike his competitors, Buckley has said that he wants to return to the former party practice of splitting the chair's responsibilities between two individuals, one tasked with representing Democrats publicly and the other person focused on behind-the-scenes operations.

The party's past chairwoman, Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz of Florida, was criticized for devoting insufficient time to party work and also for improperly aiding Hillary Clinton's campaign for the Democratic presidential nomination.

Next year's vote (which must be held before March 31 but otherwise has no fixed date) seems to be the first time in recent memory that Bill and Hillary Clinton are not openly supporting a candidate for the DNC chairmanship, further adding to the uncertainty surrounding the race.

By Matthew Sheffield

Matthew Sheffield is a national correspondent for The Young Turks. He is also the host of the podcast "Theory of Change." You can follow him on Twitter.

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