Amid revelations that Rep. Keith Ellison (D-Minn.), the vice chair of the Democratic National Committee, attended a dinner in 2013 with Nation of Islam leader Louis Farrakhan, a call for his resignation from the DNC is coming from an unlikely source: the Jewish Community Relations Council of Greater Washington.
The JCRC’s criticism of Ellison’s meetings with Farrakhan, who has described Judaism as a “gutter religion,” falls in line with other Jewish organizations, including the Anti-Defamation League, which called the news “extremely disturbing.”
But the JCRC appears to be the only nonpartisan group to go as far as demanding Ellison’s resignation.
“We just don’t want [Ellison] hanging out with an anti-Semite,” JCRC Executive Director Ron Halber said.
Ellison supported Farrakhan throughout the 1990s, but the Minnesota politician severed his ties with the Nation of Islam during his first congressional campaign in 2006.
A year and a half ago, while Ellison was in the running for the DNC chair position, Halber had told Haaretz he had concerns about Ellison’s “mixed voting record on Israel,” but still wished him the best. But the latest revelations, he said, “passed a line” because the 2013 meeting, combined with Ellison’s previous ties to Farrakhan, constitutes a relationship the two have.
“There was a lot of concern that Rep. Ellison was in a room with Louis Farrakhan after he several years ago denounced him, and that this meeting was of greater importance because of the position that he now holds,” Halber said. “The bottom line is that Louis Farrakhan is part of his history. At the very minimum, he should stand up and denounce [Farrakhan]. When you’re in politics, you put yourself in the spotlight.”
Halber said the Ellison controversy differs from another revelation that recently surfaced about former President Barack Obama, who was photographed with Farrakhan while a freshman senator in 2005.
“One picture is not evidence of a relationship, and Keith Ellison had a relationship with Farrakhan,” Halber said.
But Ellison did not speak with Farrakhan at the 2013 dinner, according to Jewish Democratic Council of America President Ron Klein, who spoke to the DNC deputy chair last week.
“I was told directly by Keith Ellison that he did not talk to Louis Farrakhan,” Klein said. “Several members of Congress were considering dealing with an Iranian resolution. He went there as a member of Congress to hear it out.”
Klein said Ellison assured him during the conversation last week that he had stayed away from Farrakhan for years. He said he contacted Ellison to get the full story about the dinner so that he could speak about the issue on behalf of the JDCA.
Klein disagreed with Halber’s call for Ellison to resign.
“I don’t know what information and research [Halber] did to make that comment,” Klein said. “Based on what I know, I don’t think it’s necessary for [Ellison] to withdraw.”
J Street released a statement of support for Ellison.
“We condemn Louis Farrakhan’s statements and record of anti-Semitism unequivocally,” the statement read. “We expect and accept clear statements from Rep. Ellison and others we endorse similarly condemning Farrakhan’s record and views.”
The JCRC’s statement came days after it called on the Israeli government to suspend its plan to deport tens of thousands of Eritrean and Sudanese asylum seekers. The statement sparked some denunciations in the pro-Israel community.
The JCRC called on Israel to “develop a comprehensive asylum determination process that complies with Israel’s obligations under the 1951 Refugee Convention. This process should be in line with the current asylum-seeker policies of other Western democracies, and should do its best to safeguard these asylum seekers’ human dignity and rights.”
The two statements were not linked, Halber said. He said his organization is willing to go farther than what some people might consider sufficiently diplomatic.
“People who are purely ideological are not going to be happy with the JCRC,” he said. “And frankly, those are not the voices we listen to. We listen to the 80 percent of the Jewish community from the moderate right and the moderate left.”
Halber said the JCRC has a special responsibility to speak up by virtue of being located in the nation’s capital, and because the area’s Jewish community was recently determined to be the third-largest in the United States.
“If we are afraid to take positions on issues of the day, why would you want to be part of the JCRC?” he said. “Why would anyone want to be part of an organization that issues statements that are basically meaningless?”
Dan Schere is a political reporter with Washington Jewish Week, an affiliated publication of the Jewish Exponent.