It’s not often that a Jewish organization revises its position on a public matter. Most groups are beholden to an ideological slice of donors and members and are frozen on a single track. Yet, the groups that take nuanced and thoughtful positions are the ones that generally win the respect of the wider community.
So it was refreshing to see the ADL shift its position on Rep. Keith Ellison (D-Minn.), a leading contender for chairman of the Democratic National Committee. Ellison, an African-American and the only Muslim in Congress, was immediately rejected by rightwing groups. The Zionist Organization of America was unrelenting: “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,” it said.
Left-leaning groups vigorously supported Ellison, who once defended and later rejected the anti-Semitism of Nation of Islam leader Louis Farrakhan and has built a mixed pro-Israel record in Congress, but won support from the pro-Israel Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.). The ADL didn’t take a position on Ellison, saving its fire for President-elect Donald Trump’s adviser Stephen Bannon, whom the ADL regards as beholden to an alt-right movement characterized by anti-Semitism. ADL leader Jonathan Greenblatt, however, in a statement called Ellison “a man of good character” and “an important ally in the fight against anti-Semitism.”
Then a short audio clip, recorded at a 2010 Ellison fundraiser, was released by the Investigative Project on Terrorism. In the clip, Ellison says that American foreign policy in the Middle East “is governed by what is good or bad through a country of seven million people,” a reference to Israel. “Does that make sense? Is that logic?”
In response, Greenblatt called the clip “deeply disturbing and disqualifying,” and joined those who believe Ellison will be a divisive DNC head and sour Jews on the party. Ellison responded, saying the tape was doctored. The Investigative Project on Terrorism released a full transcript of the video which they claim proves that the clip was not doctored.
While the job of the DNC chair has nothing to do with foreign policy, the debate over who will be responsible for leading the fractured party further into the 21st century is a legitimate one. That said, we note that similar charges of anti-Semitism and anti-Israel beliefs were cast at Chuck Hagel, when he was under consideration as secretary of defense. To the extent that anything stands out from Hagel’s two-year tenure, it is not anti-Semitism or animus toward Israel.
We are concerned about a disturbing pattern of public debate, with groups on the right wielding the charge of anti-Semitism against the left and groups on the left wielding the charge of anti-Semitism against the right. In such an atmosphere, neither side gains credibility; the accusation itself is even cheapened. Anti-Semitism is serious stuff and cannot be tolerated. That the ADL has demonstrated an air of evenhandedness in its ultimate response to the Ellison tape teaches all of us — left, right and center — that we must be vigilant against anti-Semitism, wherever it comes from.