Navigate to News section

ADL Reverses on Keith Ellison, Now Opposes His DNC Leadership Bid

The anti-bigotry watchdog drew the line when audio surfaced of Ellison claiming that U.S. foreign policy is ‘governed’ by Israeli interests. Its stance poses a test for the left and the organization itself.

Yair Rosenberg
December 01, 2016
Drew Angerer/Getty Images
Rep. Keith Ellison (D-MN) speaks during a rally calling for an end to corporate money in politics and to mark the fifth anniversary of the Supreme Court's Citizens United decision, in Washington, D.C., January 21, 2015. Drew Angerer/Getty Images
Drew Angerer/Getty Images
Rep. Keith Ellison (D-MN) speaks during a rally calling for an end to corporate money in politics and to mark the fifth anniversary of the Supreme Court's Citizens United decision, in Washington, D.C., January 21, 2015. Drew Angerer/Getty Images

Last month, when Minnesota Rep. Keith Ellison announced his bid to chair the Democratic National Committee, he quickly came under fire from critics for his early ties to the Nation of Islam and its anti-Semitic leader Louis Farrakhan. As documented today in careful detail by CNN’s Andrew Kaczynski, in his youth, Ellison organized events for Farrakhan and defended him from charges of anti-Semitism. He similarly vouched for Kwame Ture (a.k.a. Stokely Carmichael) after he delivered a speech claiming “the Zionists joined with the Nazis in murdering Jews, so they would flee to Palestine.”

But as Kaczynski notes, Ellison has since repudiated and apologized for these activities and distanced himself from the Nation of Islam. And the Congressman reiterated this stance in a statement last night. Given this contrition, Anti-Defamation League director Jonathan Greenblatt came out in defense of Ellison last week, deeming him “a man of good character” and “an important ally in the fight against anti-Semitism and for civil rights.” Ellison was also backed by New York Senator Chuck Schumer.

But earlier this week, new audio came to light that has altered the ADL’s stance. In a 2010 speech at a private fundraiser released by the Investigative Project on Terrorism, Ellison was recorded saying:

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?

This sort of conspiracy theorizing about the Jewish state’s immense power has been debunked at some length, and looks particularly foolish in light of the Iran deal that was passed over Israel’s very public objections. In response, the ADL reversed course on Ellison this afternoon, calling his remarks “deeply disturbing and disqualifying”:

When Rep. Ellison’s candidacy to be chair of the Democratic National Committee was first reported, ADL did not rush to judgment. Instead, we took a hard look at the totality of his record on key issues on our agenda. We spoke to numerous leaders in the community and to Mr. Ellison himself. ADL’s subsequent statement on his candidacy appreciated his contrition on some matters, acknowledged areas of commonality but clearly expressed real concern where Rep. Ellison held divergent policy views, particularly related to Israel’s security.

New information recently has come to light that raises serious concerns about whether Rep. Ellison faithfully could represent the Democratic Party’s traditional support for a strong and secure Israel. In a speech recorded in 2010 to a group of supporters, Rep. Ellison is heard suggesting that American foreign policy in the Middle East is driven by Israel…

Rep. Ellison’s remarks are both deeply disturbing and disqualifying. 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.

This criticism of a noted progressive presents a test for both the ADL and the left. In recent months, the ADL has become something of a hero among liberals as one the Trump Administration’s most high profile critics. The group has repeatedly condemned the president-elect’s rhetoric and policy proposals. Its director Greenblatt even used his keynote speech at the organization’s annual conference to pledge to register as a Muslim should Trump institute such a requirement. And the ADL emerged as one of the first and sharpest critics of the president-elect’s appointment of Stephen Bannon, the former editor of Breitbart News, as his senior strategist.

“It is a sad day when a man who presided over the premier website of the Alt Right, a loose-knit group of white nationalists and unabashed anti-Semites and racists, is slated to be a senior staff member in the ‘people’s house,’” declared Greenblatt. “We call on President-elect Trump to appoint and nominate Americans committed to the well-being of all our country’s people and who exemplify the values of pluralism and tolerance that makes our country great.”

Throughout this campaign, the right has slammed the ADL—with some even implying it violated its 501c3 status—while the left has cheered it on, including when the organization identified and criticized anti-Semitic tropes in Trump’s closing campaign ad.

But the ADL’s objection to Ellison poses the question: Are liberals willing to listen when the ADL raises concerns about perceived anti-Jewish stereotypes closer to home, or are they only interested in the watchdog’s pronouncements when it impugns their political opponents?

This is a test not only for the left, but for the ADL and its stated desire to combat bigotry across the political spectrum. Does the organization’s clout with a group disappear when it is no longer saying politically congenial things? Or can it productively foster a conversation and change even in today’s profoundly polarized world? The answers to these questions will likely go a long way towards determining the ADL’s relevance in the years ahead.

UPDATE: Ellison has responded in an open letter to the ADL.

Yair Rosenberg is a senior writer at Tablet. Subscribe to his newsletter, listen to his music, and follow him on Twitter and Facebook.