In a closely contested race, on Saturday the Democratic National Committee selected labor activist and Obama administration cabinet member Tom Perez to be their chairman over progressive favorite Rep. Keith Ellison.
In a piece titled “Why did Keith Ellison lose the DNC race?,” David Weigel of The Washington Post explores the dynamics of the race and the efforts of hard-left activists (called “writers” in the article) as they push back against the old guard. It was all quite interesting, until I got to Weigel’s claim that a “persistent smear campaign cost Ellison votes.”
I’ve seen a number of progressives accuse Jewish critics of Ellison of waging a “smear campaign,” yet they offer nothing to back up this contention. They simply dismiss the accusations … well, because. To smear someone is to damage his reputation by false accusations. In public debate, at least, critics of Ellison are noting his words and deeds, all of them legitimate concerns.
The Washington Post informed its reader that Ellison had apologized for “his criticism of Israel’s policy toward Palestinians and his defense of Nation of Islam leader Louis Farrakhan.” But that, of course, is either purposely minimizing Ellison’s history or extraordinarily uninformed.
For one thing, Ellison didn’t merely defend Farrakhan, he was a follower. He didn’t only appear as a local spokesman for the Nation of Islam, he appeared to defend a Minneapolis anti-Semite who said “Jews are among the most racist white people I know.” Ellison didn’t just support Stokely Carmichael’s right to speak at the University of Minnesota on free speech grounds, he argued that a man who claimed Zionists had joined the Nazis in killing Jews was a useful ideological counterpoint at that school. Ellison wasn’t just critical of “Israel’s policy toward Palestinians,” he was critical of the idea of Israel altogether.
When Mother Jones interviewed a classmate of Ellison’s who claimed he had gone around saying “European white Jews are trying to oppress minorities all over the world” and talked about “Jewish slave traders” — typical rhetoric for Nation of Islam types — there was no denial from the congressman’s office. The congressman only distanced himself from anti-Semites during his 2006 run for Congress, and then only when right-wing bloggers started pointing out his past.
None of this takes into account Ellison’s defense of other racists and tyrants (like Castro). It doesn’t take into account his 2010 claim that Jews were running American foreign policy. It doesn’t take into consideration Ellison’s contention, on tape, that 9/11 was set up for George W. Bush to benefit from war — like the “Reichstag fire.” Then there are the objectionable, though less clear cut, meetings that he seems to take with supporters of terrorism.
“The attacks on Ellison,” writes Weigel, “ate up a surprising amount of the space that the DNC race earned in mainstream media. (Dershowitz’s media savvy didn’t hurt.)” What should be surprising is that someone with a history like Ellison’s would gain so much support. I’m certain that the media would be far less forgiving of a GOP congressman’s past had he been active with the Klan or another virulently anti-Semitic racist group aligned with the alt-right. With a rash of threats against Jewish community centers these days, it is particularly galling to see it.
Then again, with the anti-Israel — and often anti-Semitic — faction embedded within progressive politics these days (especially on college campuses) maybe this attitude is the new normal. Some of Ellison’s biggest defenders are some of the Left’s worst offenders on this issue. “Keith Ellison Loses DNC Race After Heated Campaign Targeting Him for His Views on Palestine,” [sic] says The Intercept.
Just to give you a sense of what goes on in sectors of the anti-Israel Left these days: the author of that piece, Zaid Jilani, was once let go by the Center for American Progress after The Simon Wiesenthal Center, the Anti-Defamation League, and the American Jewish Committee all argued that he (and other bloggers on that site) were “infected with Jew-hatred and discriminatory policy positions toward Israel.” The author found a perfect spot to do his work.
Now, I’m sure most of Ellison’s defenders are willing to overlook his past or rationalize only because they believe his leftist politics are the future of the party. Is there not one other progressive in America who can champion the cause of the DNC? Others, no doubt, feel compelled to defend him because he was America’s first Muslim congressman. The prevailing instinct of the media and many Democrats to treat every Muslim as a victim is as absurd as treating every Muslim as if he or she were a radical.
And others seem to intimate that calling out Ellison is a smear because the man has apologized. Even if he is a new man, it’s not a slur to put a politician’s career into context. Many of us have taken stupid positions in our lives. Not all of us want to be the chair of a major political party.