When I say Keith Ellison is no anti-Semite, I’m not just speaking as someone who leans left in my politics and likes a lot of his policy positions. I actually know the guy. I’m DFL chair of a state senate district within his congressional district and I’ve been working with him since he first ran for congress in 2006. He’s not an anti-Semite, nor is he anti-Israel. I’m not going to rehash his whole record and the debunking of the allegations being made. Vox has done that admirably. I’m looking to add the voice of someone who knows him.
American politicians are expected to show their pro-Israel bonafides by being one-sided. They’re not allowed to admit that both sides have legitimate points and painfully real security concerns. Keith has visited both Israel and Palestine, and I’ve heard him speak sympathetically of the plight of both sides. I distinctly recall, during one of the spasms of violence in the occupied territories, he explained how awful the Hamas rocket attacks were for Israeli civilians under constant threat of attacks, frequently forcing them to take shelter in case the rockets landed on them. This was in private, not just an attempt to say the right thing to a certain audience. No doubt the wingnuts trying now to swiftboat him would have jumped all over the sympathy he expressed for Palestinian civilians having their lives controlled in destructive, and sometimes even in petty ways, by the Israeli occupation, like restrictions on consumer goods intended merely to make life uncomfortable, not to improve security — because in America we can’t acknowledge there are two sides with valid points and their own suffering.
Even if Keith does think, as detractors claim, that US Middle East policy is driven just by Israel, he would be right. It’s a big region with many countries and many people, and we do act like everything is about Israel. Even combined with Palestine, this is a small part of the Middle East. Nice as it would be to at last settle the Israeli-Palestinian conflict in a way both sides can live with, that wouldn’t stop the civil war in Syria. That’s the biggest war now raging. Literally most people being killed in war in recent years were killed in Syria. Think Syria might be a bit more important than Israel right now? Afghanistan is the conflict where Americans still occasionally get killed. Saudi Arabia and Iran have a cold war. Iraq is still unstable and trying to retake the last ISIS territory. I could keep going but I hope the point is clear — Israel just isn’t the most important place in the Middle East right now, and letting it drive US policy is nonsensical.
Of course, now that the loser of the 2016 election gets to be president and put real anti-Semites in charge, supporters of Israel have a real problem they need to think about, certainly more real than something Keith Ellison said a quarter century ago.
Though I’ll admit being torn about Keith’s DNC candidacy, because if he wins, I lose my congressman. Keith has worked hard to build the Democratic ground game in this district, and he gets a lot of the credit for voter turnout in this district increasing from worst in the state to near the top, which with Minnesota’s turnout is a high standard. The increase in turnout in MN-05 gets the lion’s share of credit for Minnesota’s Democrats winning every statewide race starting in 2006 with the exception of the MNGOP incumbent governor hanging on in 2006 — barely; winning by 1% when a liberal third party candidate took 5%. I just made the case for him becoming DNC chair of course. If he moves on to the DNC, I can hope his successor will continue to focus on driving up turnout despite being completely safe in general elections, but I can also fear the next congressman won’t. I fear for what happens to the DFL grip on statewide races without keeping turnout in this district high.
Then again, looking at the states Hillary lost in 2016, for all that we worry about the reddening of rural America, maybe we could have been saved by higher turnout in some big cities. We can’t in Congress and state legislatures with more voters in deep blue areas, but we might be forgoing statewide wins — including president — by failing to maximize turnout in safe districts. Given how Keith has emphasized turnout in his district despite getting no personal benefit, I would like for him to take the message to other safe Democrats. He’s been trying to do that as a colleague of blue district congressmen, but it would help to have a national chair pushing that too.
So as a friend, a constituent, and a local DFL chair within his district, I endorse his candidacy for DNC chair and denounce the efforts to portray him as anti-Semitic.