Major Democratic supporter calls Ellison a disaster

Haim Saban, an Israeli American movie mogul and a major contributor to the Democratic Party, has said Rep. Keith Ellison’s election as chairman of the Democratic National Committee would be a “disaster” for the relationship between Jews and the party.

Saban’s scathing broadside came Dec. 2 at the Brookings Institution’s annual Saban Forum in Washington, D.C., an event he funds bringing together U.S. and Israeli leaders and influencers. He said if the Minnesota congressman becomes the DNC chief, there would be a crisis between the party’s progressives and the centrist pro-Israel community.

Haim Saban photo/jta-saban forum

Even Ellison’s campaign for the position — which included a public forum in Denver last week and will continue until the Democrats select a new chair in February —  could erode relations between establishment Jewish groups and the party, Saban added.

Ellison, a supporter of Sen. Bernie Sanders in the primary, has the backing of much of the party’s liberal wing and that of incoming Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer. Ellison is one of two Muslim members of Congress. Critics have zeroed in on some of his past statements about Israel and questioned whether he could do the grueling DNC job while serving in the House. Ellison, who has said he may leave his Congressional seat to serve as the DNC chief, is the frontrunner for the position.

Saban’s comments came just hours after the release of the full transcript of remarks by Ellison delivered in 2010 at a fundraiser organized by Muslim backers, in which he derides Israel as seeing the United States as an ATM and said that American foreign policy is “governed” by Israeli interests.

“If you listen to Keith Ellison today, and you see his statements, he’s more of a Zionist than Herzl, and Ben-Gurion and Begin combined,” Saban said in his speech. “If you go back to his positions, his statements, his speeches, the ways he voted, he’s clearly an anti-Semite and anti-Israel individual.”

Known as a leading backer of Hillary Clinton in her bid for the presidency, Saban has also been a major donor to the party. In 2002, he paid $7 million toward the building of a new DNC headquarters.

Ellison has rallied progressive groups to his defense, including within the Jewish community.

“It is time to retire the playbook that aims to silence any American official seeking high office who has dared to criticize certain Israeli government policies,” J Street said last week, noting that it was not endorsing Ellison for the DNC spot. The liberal Jewish Middle East policy group’s statement came out before Saban’s outcry.

A day later, Randi Weingarten of the American Federation of Teachers praised Ellison as “an agent of change” and called claims that he held anti-Semitic views “maddening.”

“I can feel and smell anti-Semitism,” Weingarten wrote in a Facebook post in which she called herself “a proud American Jew and a progressive Zionist.” “Keith Ellison is no anti-Semite, and it is maddening when anyone who doesn’t know him or his record makes that ugly accusation.”

Ellison has come under fire from Jewish groups for his sharp criticism of Israel in his youth, which was spent as an activist with the Nation of Islam and defending some black nationalists who had hostile relationships with the Jewish community.

Keith Ellison photo/jta-getty images-chip somodevilla

He distanced himself from his earlier activism, but the release of the 2010 recording threatened to undo improved ties with the Jewish community.

Anti-Defamation League National Director Jonathan Greenblatt, who had previously praised Ellison, called the congressman’s remarks “deeply disturbing.” He said the remarks — contained in a short clip recorded at a 2010 fundraiser that was released last week by the Investigative Project on Terrorism — were “disqualifying” of Ellison’s candidacy and were reminiscent of classic anti-Semitic stereotypes that Jews control the government.

“The United States foreign policy in the Middle East is governed by what is good or bad through a country of 7 million people,” Ellison is heard saying. “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?”

He also said Israel treats the United States like a cash machine, demanding funding without being responsive to American needs. “We’re Americans, right? We can’t allow another country to treat us like we’re their ATM. Right? And so we ought to stand up as Americans,” he said.

He also depicted Jews as uncritical, saying that Israel “has mobilized its diaspora in America to do its bidding.”

For his part, Ellison said the recording was “taken out of context.”

“The audio released was selectively edited and taken out of context by an individual the Southern Poverty Law Center has called an ‘anti-Muslim extremist,’” Ellison said last week in an open letter to Greenblatt, in which he pointed out that his congressional record demonstrates his support for Israel and his opposition to anti-Semitism. “My memory is that I was responding to a question about how Americans with roots in the Middle East could engage in the political process in a more effective way. My advice was simply to get involved.”

He suggested in his letter to Greenblatt that the recording was a right-wing attempt to “drive a wedge” between him and the ADL, noting that the IPT’s founder is Steven Emerson, who was featured in the Southern Poverty Law Center’s recently released guide to anti-Muslim extremists.

When running for Congress in 2006, Ellison wrote a letter apologizing for hs past Nation of Islam associations to the Minneapolis Jewish community. He has since enjoyed friendly relations with his state’s Jews.

Since his election to Congress, however, he also has become a sharp critic of some Israeli actions that have earned him alliances among liberal Jewish groups such as J Street, but the wariness of mainstream pro-Israel groups.

Right-wing groups like the Zionist Organization of America and the Republican Jewish Coalition have said since Ellison announced his candidacy that he is unfit. The Republican Jewish Coalition has even fundraised off the matter: A Dec. 1 email pitched with the subject line “An anti-Semite running the Democrat Party?” listed Ellison’s youthful associations without noting his multiple disavowals of them.

The National Jewish Democratic Council said in a statement — before Saban’s comments — that “the accusations that [Ellison] is somehow anti-Semitic are false, reprehensible and shameful.” It also said his record on Israel was “mixed,” a notable stand for a group with a mission of lauding Democratic incumbents.


Ron Kampeas

Ron Kampeas is the D.C. bureau chief at the Jewish Telegraphic Agency.