Will Democratic Party elect a black, Muslim, pro-Palestine leader?

Will Democratic Party elect a black, Muslim, pro-Palestine leader?
Comment: Could Keith Ellison, the first Muslim elected to Congress, and an outspoken supporter of Palestinian rights shape the Democratic Party's future as leader? asks Tamara Kharroub.
5 min read
11 Jan, 2017
Rep. Keith Ellison speaks at the headquarters of American Federation of Teachers [Getty]

During the weekend of February 24-26 2017, the Democratic National Committee (DNC) will convene to elect the DNC chairperson.

The Democratic Party faces an uphill battle after the paramount failures it saw in 2016 and the scandals that rocked the party.

The race for the head of the DNC has turned into a contest between the progressive wing of the party and the centrist establishment democrats, for defining the future ideology of the party.

Among the top candidates is Representative Keith Ellison of Minnesota's 5th congressional district and the co-chair of the Congressional Progressive Caucus. Ellison is the most divisive in the race because of his views on Palestine/Israel and more implicitly due to his Muslim faith.

Ellison is the first Muslim to be elected to the US Congress, and the first African American elected to the House from Minnesota. He is considered part of the progressive wing of the party and was first and among the few House democrats to endorse Bernie Sanders for the Democratic Party's presidential nomination. 

Ellison announced his candidacy for DNC chair on 14 November, and emerged early on as the top contender with endorsements from Senators Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren. Nonetheless, his candidacy was also met with vicious opposition, primarily for his record on Palestine/Israel.

For years, Ellison has been an outspoken supporter of Palestinian rights. He is known for his effort to insert language on Palestinian rights in the Democratic Party platform (which was blocked by the Clinton camp) after being selected by Bernie Sanders to sit on the drafting committee along with Cornel West and James Zogby.

Since 2002 he has been working to combat anti-Semitism, confront Holocaust denial and promote interfaith dialogue

On a J Street-organized trip to Israel and the Occupied Palestinian Territories in June 2016, Rep Ellison shared a post on Twitter from Hebron with an image calling out Israeli apartheid.

He voted against the recent resolution condemning the UNSC Resolution 2334 opposing Israeli settlements. To explain his opposition, Ellison said he believes the two-state solution "is the only way to truly achieve peace" and that the resolution in congress "makes that goal less achievable".

His earlier voting record shows opposition to giving Israel $225 million to replace military equipment during Israel's war on Gaza in 2014, stating that the priority should be placed on ceasefire. He also advocated ending the Israeli blockade on Gaza to achieve peace.

Ellison's record on Palestinian rights has received ample criticism from pro-Israel organisations and democrats, who started a smear campaign against him.

  Read More: Something colonial: Can Zionism be fixed?

The right-wing pro-Israel organisation Anti-Defamation League (ADL) released a statement in December 2016 calling Ellison's remarks on Israel "deeply disturbing and disqualifying" for his DNC leadership candidacy.

The statement refers to comments made by Ellison in a 2010 speech he gave at a fundraiser, in which he suggested that Israeli interests govern US Middle East policy and encouraged Muslims to organise a similar fashion.

Based on that speech, American-Israeli businessman and Democratic Party mega-donor Haim Saban called Ellison "clearly an anti-Semite and anti-Israel individual" who "would be a disaster for the relationship between the Jewish community and the Democratic Party".

Other attacks have come masked in his earlier association with Nation of Islam (NOI) and its leaders, especially claims that he defended comments made by individuals associated with the organisation that are considered anti-Semitic.

In response to accusations of anti-Semitism, Ellison sent a letter in 2006 to Minnesota's Jewish community renouncing his association with Nation of Islam, and spoke at a synagogue saying he wasn't proud of his work with NOI.

The pro-Israel Jewish community is not only a solid voting bloc for the Democratic Party, but also includes the party's largest donors

More recently, Ellison wrote an op-ed in December 2016 explaining that since 2002 he has been working to combat anti-Semitism, confront Holocaust denial and promote interfaith dialogue.

Attacks against Ellison continue even as reports and documents show that he did not defend anti-Semitic remarks but supported the freedom of speech of those who question Zionism. A CNN KFile review of him found no evidence of him making anti-Semitic comments himself. 

However, as some report, the pro-Israel Jewish community is not only a solid voting bloc for the Democratic Party, but also includes the party's largest donors. Keith Ellison knows that too well.

He recently responded with an open letter to ADL, confirming his support for Israel and his belief that "Israel and the US-Israel relationship are, and should be, key considerations in shaping US policy in the Middle East."

Ellison also recently made public his opposition to the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions (BDS) movement.

While Jewish Democrats and Democratic Party leaders continue their "witch hunt" against Ellison, the party's base evolves and is increasingly more supportive of Palestinian rights. A recent poll shows that 65 percent of Democrats either strongly or somewhat support Obama's backing a resolution against settlements and more than half of Democrats (55 percent) see Israel as a burden to the US.

Despite the campaigns against Ellison, he persists in the race for the DNC leadership. Will a black, Muslim and supporter of Palestinian rights be allowed to lead the Democratic Party? Probably unlikely at this time.

However, the DNC leadership race will not only decide the DNC chair and the future ideology of the party, but also how much influence the pro-Israel lobby still exerts over the Democratic Party.  

Dr. Tamara Kharroub is a Senior Analyst and Assistant Executive Director at Arab Center Washington DC.

Opinions expressed in this article remain those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of The New Arab, its editorial board or staff.