It’s been a tough week for Keith Ellison. Segments of the party establishment are mounting a campaign against his bid to chair the Democratic National Committee. The charges are that Ellison — a black Muslim and close ally of Bernie Sanders — is too politically radical and too critical of Israel.
Ellison’s sins? He once organized a delegation to the Million Man March and, as a law student more than two decades ago, defended Nation of Islam leader Louis Farrakhan and criticized Israel for its mistreatment of Palestinians and alliance with apartheid South Africa. As a lawmaker, he has said that the viewpoints of Muslim and Arab-Americans, and not just those of Jewish-Americans, should shape US foreign policy in the Middle East. It was the latter comment that the Anti-Defamation League (ADL) suggested was anti-Semitic.
The charge is a flimsy one, to say the least. As the liberal Jewish group J Street wrote, the attacks amount to a “concerted and transparent smear campaign driven by those whose true objections may be to the Congressman’s religion.” Or as Glenn Greenwald put it, “a defamation campaign that is deceitful, repugnant, and yet quite predictable.”
The framing selected by some political journalists, as Daniel Marans writes, is that Ellison’s bid, despite having the support of more than a hundred Democratic lawmakers, is in trouble — repeating establishment conventional wisdom so as to “intentionally or not” make it a “self-fulfilling prophecy.”
At the Washington Post, Chris Cillizza refers to Ellison’s “controversial remarks” and “stumbles” but doesn’t mention that Saban, a billionaire Israeli-American, has called for “more scrutiny” and “profiling” of Muslims, humanely noting it should not include putting “Muslims through some kind of torture room to get them to admit they are or they’re not terrorists.” Saban is also a foe of the nuclear agreement with Iran, a country he has described as “sons of bitches” who he has mused that Israel might want to “bomb the living daylights out of.”
Saban is a representative of the super-rich class of donors, Jewish, Christian, or otherwise, that dictates Democratic Party policymaking and lined up behind Hillary Clinton during the primary. The ADL, in particular, represents a hawkish Jewish establishment that equates criticism of Israel with anti-Semitism to the chagrin of many progressive Jews — who, like Bernie Sanders’s supporters in the primaries, are disproportionately young. ADL, after all, is a group whose ugly track record includes joining the far right in opposition to the “Ground Zero Mosque” in Lower Manhattan.
In January, the actually anti-Semitic far right will gain a foothold in the White House. In this context, the cynical and inaccurate use of the label “anti-Semite” by hawkish pro-Israel groups has become dangerous, leading some of these groups to remain silent as a right-populist government at home takes power by explicitly espousing reactionary anti-Semitic rhetoric (substituting Muslims and Mexicans for Jews as its object of internal enmity) because that government will give carte blanche support to Israel.
ADL, to be fair, has parted with other groups and harshly criticized far-right Trump adviser Stephen Bannon. But their attack on Ellison, just like their opposition to the “Ground Zero Mosque,” is nothing more than mini-me Trumpism and the face of liberal Islamophobia. That brand of Islamophobia was exemplified by Clinton’s insistence during the general election that American Muslims shouldn’t be alienated because they are “on the front lines to identify and prevent attacks,” thus justifying the fair treatment of the Muslim community because they are instrumentally useful as a national security asset rather than any notion of basic human equality.
It’s also a reminder of the Democratic Party elite’s limited tolerance for black politics that does not come gift-wrapped in Cory Booker or Barack Obama’s post-racial packaging, an echo of Hillary Clinton’s 2008 attack on the Reverend Jeremiah Wright and her husband’s dog-whistling takedown of rapper Sister Souljah in 1992.
More basically, it evinces critics’ willful or sincere ignorance of black politics in the United States: to the extent that Ellison is now a leftist, he is by definition not aligned with the Nation of Islam. As Khalil Gibran Muhammad, a professor at Harvard University, noted to me, “You can’t be a left ideologue and a Farrakhan sycophant at the same time. Nation of Islam has always been capitalist and economically conservative with a small business, anti-government ideology.”
Ironically, this polite bigotry is purveyed by a liberal establishment who attacked the man who would have become America’s first Jewish president by charging that left-wing class politics were insensitive to the needs of minorities.
The Democratic primary evidenced an enormous gulf between Democratic Party officialdom and the voters they purportedly represent. While Sanders secured nearly half the primary vote, he was backed by just 7 percent of unelected superdelegates. Howard Dean — a centrist former DNC chairman pining for the time when he was lauded as a progressive merely for opposing the Iraq War — wisely dropped a new bid for the position but continues to argue that the contest shouldn’t be “a proxy fight” between Sanders and Clinton wings. He couldn’t be more wrong.
Clinton’s wing, thanks to decades of failed neoliberal policies, allowed a right-wing nativist reality-TV star to win the presidency. A big fight resulting in a clear defeat of an establishment that has been proven wrong on both policy and strategy is precisely what we need. After all, Democratic elites don’t offer the chance at a more gradual approach to the same progressive goals the Sanders coalition wants, they represent interests hostile to those goals.
And even while Clinton busies herself with long walks in the woods, some of her strongest backers are at work trying to maintain control of the party.
We can debate on what Ellison can accomplish as the chair of a party that has dedicated itself to selling out workers — but there is no doubt about who would cheer his defeat. It’s not “infighting” if the fight is between political enemies. To stop Trump we must destroy Clintonism and standing with Ellison is a good first step.