(February 16, 2018 / Washington, D.C. / JNS) Major Jewish groups, including the leading organization representing Jewish Democrats, are strongly criticizing Rep. Keith Ellison (D-Minn.) over his previously undisclosed contacts with Rev. Louis Farrakhan, head of the anti-Semitic political and religious movement Nation of Islam. Some Jewish leaders are urging Ellison to step down as deputy chairman of the Democratic Party.
When Ellison first ran for Congress in 2006, he insisted that he had severed all ties with Farrakhan’s Nation of Islam, which Ellison had belonged to in the 1990s. Similarly, when Ellison ran for chairman of the Democratic Party in 2016, he reiterated that he had long ago distanced himself from Farrakhan.
But a series of reports in The Wall Street Journal and The Daily Caller in recent days revealed that Ellison has participated in at least three meetings with Farrakhan since entering Congress.
The Journal reported Feb. 8 that Ellison and Farrakhan both took part in a private dinner meeting in September 2013 between Iranian President Hassan Rouhani and several dozen prominent American Muslims. Four days later, Ellison responded that he participated in the meeting to seek the release of a U.S. citizen being held in Iran. Ellison did not mention Farrakhan, but appeared to allude to him when he stated, “I didn’t know in advance who else would be there, and my decision to attend was not an endorsement of the political views of other attendees.”
The controversy took a new turn on Feb. 13, when The Daily Caller reported that Ellison has taken part in at least two other meetings with Farrakhan since becoming a member of Congress, one of which took place “in Farrakhan’s hotel room.” Ellison has not yet responded to the evidence, including a videotape, of the additional meetings.
Ron Halber, executive director of the Jewish Community Relations Council of Greater Washington, said Ellison “demonstrated exceedingly poor judgment by participating in a meeting with one of America’s most notorious anti-Semites and the leader of a regime that has called for Israel’s annihilation,” and therefore “should resign as deputy chairman of the Democratic Party.”
Speaking before The Daily Caller revealed Ellison’s two additional meetings with Farrakhan, Halber told JNS, “If evidence of more meetings with Farrakhan should surface, there will be a tremendous groundswell of people in the Jewish community and in the Democratic Party, telling Ellison to step down—and it would be irresponsible of the party’s leaders not to demand his resignation.”
Rabbi Abraham Cooper, associate dean of the Simon Wiesenthal Center, said Halber’s call for Ellison to resign is “commendable.” Cooper urged the Democratic Party leadership to “take a long, hard look at Ron Halber’s appeal, which comes from an important organization and reflects the anger of many American Jews.” According to Cooper, the episode suggests that “Ellison was not properly vetted before being appointed deputy chairman of the party.”
Ellison’s ouster is also being urged by the National Council of Young Israel, whose membership includes more than 100 Orthodox synagogues, and the Coalition for Jewish Values, which represents several hundred Orthodox rabbis.
“Congressman Ellison has a serious credibility problem,” said NCYI President Farley Weiss, pointing to the contradiction between Ellison’s previous denials and the new revelations about his meetings with Farrakhan.
CJV President Rabbi Pesach Lerner said “all those who condemned President Trump for not forcefully denouncing the neo-Nazis in Charlottesville must now demonstrate that this was not merely partisan politics—they must denounce Ellison’s dishonesty and continued contact with one of America’s leading anti-Semitic hatemongers, and call upon [Ellison] to resign both his seat in congress and as deputy chair of the Democratic National Committee.”
A number of other Jewish organizations, including one group representing Jewish Democrats have strongly criticized Ellison, although they stopped short of calling for his resignation.
Notably, the Jewish Democratic Council of America said that while it accepts Ellison’s statement that he did not know in advance Farrakhan would be attending the meeting with the Iranian president, “when he realized Farrakhan was there, Ellison should not have tolerated Farrakhan’s presence.”
JDCA’s chair, Ron Klein, formerly a Democratic member of Congress from Florida, told JNS “even though Ellison was there to discuss the release of a former U.S. Marine held captive in Iran, personally, if I were invited, I would not have attended . . . Louis Farrakhan has a long history of anti-Semitism, racism and anti-LGBT rhetoric and should not be at all welcome in mainstream political or policy conversations.”
In a tweet, Anti-Defamation League CEO Jonathan Greenblatt asserted that Ellison’s participation in the Rouhani meeting along with Farrakhan was “extremely disturbing” and that “the presence of Louis Farrakhan should have been a red flag” for Ellison. David Bernstein, president of the Jewish Council for Public Affairs, wrote on Twitter that Ellison’s actions were “very disturbing . . . Dining with hatemongers is not OK.”
The Ellison controversy comes on the heels of the release of a previously undisclosed photograph of then-Sen. Barack Obama with Farrakhan in 2009. The Daily Caller subsequently revealed that 21 members of the Congressional Black Caucus secretly met with Farrakhan in 2005.
Whether these episodes will affect Jewish support for the Democrats remains to be seen. NCYI’s Weiss predicted: “If the Democratic Party does not remove Ellison from his position, it will likely lead to less support within the Jewish community for the Democratic Party.”
But longtime Democratic Party consultant Dr. Hank Sheinkopf told JNS that “it would likely take the collision of Earth and Mars to stop the majority of American Jews from blindly voting Democrat. The Orthodox largely left the Democrats awhile back; the rest think there is an 11th commandment: ‘Thou shalt vote Democrat.’ ”