ATLANTA — One day before the Democratic Party chose its new leader, supporters of Minnesota Rep. Keith Ellison found themselves suddenly parrying an attack they thought they’d already defeated: that Ellison had a troubling record of opposing Israel and American Jews.
On Friday, a group called the American Jewish Congress told members of the Democratic National Committee that Ellison — the first Muslim member of Congress — would "threaten the relationship" between America and Israel. Harvard professor Alan Dershowitz published an op-ed saying an Ellison victory would force him out of the Democratic Party, citing Ellison’s allegedly “sordid association with anti-Semitism.” A letter sent to DNC members said Ellison had a history of “unfairly demonizing” Israel’s treatment of the Palestinians, according to emails shared with Vox and first reported by the Young Turks' Nomiki Konst.
Ellison’s team rushed to counter with email blasts from its most prominent Jewish supporters — one from American Federation of Teachers president Randi Weingarten, another that night from Minnesota Rep. Frank Hornstein, and then a third the next morning from Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer:
Chuck Schumer issues a statement in support of Ellison, including affirmation of Israel bona fides pic.twitter.com/mQt8RYUQ0m— Daniel Marans (@danielmarans) February 24, 2017
On Saturday, former Obama Labor Secretary Tom Perez won the DNC chair race by a narrow 235-200 margin. There’s zero evidence Perez did anything to encourage the last-minute attacks against Ellison’s record. But in about a dozen interviews, Ellison supporters both inside and outside the DNC said they believed the “anti-Israel” charge helped derail Ellison’s bid — either directly by scaring DNC voting members away from Ellison or by indirectly by knocking his team off their message and pitch.
“In the final 36 hours, the Ellison campaign spent significant resources combating an 11th-hour smear campaign that was sending targeted emails to Jewish DNC members,” texted an official on the Ellison campaign, speaking on the condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to discuss internal campaign matters.
Added Melahat Rafiei, a DNC voting member from California who supported Ellison: “Probably the most heartbreaking part of this process was seeing the fruition of Islamophobia in our own party. It was Islamophobia, to the fullest extent possible, and it was disappointing [that Democrats] were influenced by it.”
DNC members who voted for Perez — as well as some who backed Ellison — vehemently reject this characterization of their thinking. They say their candidate won fair and square — by being a better candidate who had more experience and offered a bolder vision for the party, and not because the DNC voting members were persuaded by a spurious attack.
Perez supporters: we didn’t win because of the Ellison smear campaign
Missouri Democrat Brian Wahby sounds taken aback by even the suggestion that DNC members went with Perez because they disapproved of Ellison’s record on either American Jews or Israel.
“That has nothing to do with it. Nobody said anything to me about that,” said Wahby, who voted for Perez, adding that he is himself Lebanese. “Honestly: Nobody said anything to me in any of the deliberations one way or another regarding Israel.”
The refrain was echoed by every DNC delegate who voted for Perez and spoke with Vox. Those delegates said that neither they nor anybody they knew let attacks on Ellison’s record on Israel sway their vote.
“That never entered into my thinking in any way, shape, or form,” said Nancy Monacelli, a Washington state DNC voting member. “I got emails from Jewish organizations that were concerned, but I thought Keith addressed it fine. Certainly no one I spoke to had any hangups about that.”
Added Iris Martinez, a DNC voter from Illinois who backed Perez: “No, no, no — there’s a lot of stuff people put out there [on the internet]. But I didn’t see it.”
A few Ellison supporters, including Rafiei, alleged that Perez did not do enough to publicly condemn the swirling charge of anti-Semitism — an accusation that drew fierce denunciations from Perez supporters. Some argued that even the suggestion represented a divisive line that amounted to little more than sour grapes about losing.
“That’s bullshit. And you can quote me on that,” said Wahby. “Emotions run high, and they’re running very high now — not just in the DNC but in the country. We say a lot of things we don’t really mean in an election.”
Even the pro-Perez candidates who admitted that the controversy over Ellison’s positions on Israel and past ties to the Nation of Islam gave them some pause initially said it was a non-factor. “I do not think that was an issue after Keith responded. Earlier on, before he responded, it was,” said Jim Roosevelt, a DNC voting member from Massachusetts. “I did not hear it on people’s minds today.”
“People were voting for a person who is going to go back and rebuild the party and do grassroots organizing and take on Donald Trump,” said Rick Wade, a DNC member from South Carolina who supported Perez. Wade added he hadn’t received any emails about Ellison and Israel: “I haven’t heard of that.”
And it’s worth noting that even some pro-Ellison DNC members were also dismissive of the idea that the accusations of anti-Semitism flung at Ellison actually led anyone to vote for Perez instead. “Obviously, the vote was very close ... but whether it affected any Jewish members of the DNC? To me, I don’t think it did,” said Cliff Mooney, a North Carolina Democrat and voting member who supported Ellison. “The only things I heard today had nothing to do with that.”
The Keith Ellison “anti-Israel” charge, explained
On their way out of the Atlanta hotel, after more than five hours of debates and votes and arguing, two nurses wearing bright red scrubs and Ellison pins stopped in front of a reporter and lamented that a “smear” campaign helped hand Perez the victory.
“Oh, absolutely it hurt him — it’s what they used against him,” said Jean Ross, of National Nurses United, when asked about the accusations that Ellison was anti-Israel or anti-Semitic. “Certainly, many states’ [DNC] voters heard rumors about him being anti-Semitic, even though he was solidly endorsed by the Jewish community.”
Standing to her right was Martese Chism, a nurse from Chicago who was in Atlanta to back Ellison. She added of the Democrats: “They claim they're an inclusive party, but then they drop a Muslim and everyone backs off.”
Ross and Chism singled out CNN’s coverage for blame. In early December 2016, CNN’s Andrew Kaczynski published a story examining Ellison’s youthful support for black radical leaders like Kwame Ture and Louis Farrakhan. Members of the Nation of Islam, Ture and Farrakhan have expressed anti-Semitic views. But in 2006, Ellison apologized for not doing more to directly call out their anti-Semitic views — and there’s no evidence he ever praised any anti-Semitic comments.
During the campaign, another complaint emerged against Ellison stemming from comments he made at a private meeting about American foreign policy toward Israel. J.J. Goldberg, of the Jewish newspaper the Forward, argued that they had been ripped out of context. It’d be hard to call Ellison “anti-Israel” without also branding the left flank of the Democratic Party, several Jewish advocacy groups, and a faction of Israel’s domestic politicians with the same label. (Here’s a more detailed look at the charges from December 2016.)
Nonetheless, both stories got wide traction in the mainstream and right-wing media — and among some in the Democratic Party. Haim Saban, who donated $8 million to Hillary Clinton’s Super PAC and is one of the party’s largest donors, ripped Ellison as both “anti-Israel” and anti-Semitic, according to the Intercept. And the story became a major plot in the race for the DNC, brought up at primetime debates as vulnerabilities for Ellison.
Why Ellison supporters feel burned by accusations of anti-Israel sentiment
This criticism of Ellison’s record on Israel and with the Nation of Islam culminated in concern beyond the media and donor circles, extending to Jewish Democratic voters — who in turn lobbied their representatives in the party.
Eric Bauman is the vice chair of the California Democratic Party, and was a pro-Ellison advocate. A self-described “observant, pro-Israel Jew,” Bauman said he spent much of his time over the past six weeks responding to questions from constituents worried about Ellison’s history on Israel.
“I've received emails ranging from people simply asking me, 'How can you support Ellison when he's anti-Israel?' to people sending me hateful emails like, 'How could you support an anti-Semite who believes in the destruction of Israel?” Bauman says, adding that the charges are preposterous.
"I can tell you for sure there were people in the party who oppose him because they believe Jewish supporters or Jewish donors would be so repelled that they'd walk away from the party. But it's a small number — it's not a large number."
Several DNC members backing Ellison said they had conversations with undecided voting members who were tied up over his history on Israel. (No DNC member interviewed for this story would confirm the charge.) “I know people who were on the fence only because of this specific reason,” said Mike Kapp, a voting member of the DNC from California.
It’s possible, Kapp said, that all the people wavering because of this issue supported Ellison anyway. (We don’t know which DNC members supported which chair candidate, since the ballots from the race haven’t been released.) But even if that were the case, Kapp said that having to rebut the charges zapped Ellison’s team of time and resources for other vital campaigning.
“If it wasn’t for that, we would’ve had at least a couple more votes on our side that we wouldn’t have had to spend time and resources trying to convince,” Kapp says.
Andrew Lachman, a DNC member from California, also conceded that the pro-Perez faction may not have consciously voted a certain way because of the Ellison/Israel controversy. But he noted that the attacks may have still hurt Ellison by fueling the perception that he was a risky, far-left choice.
“Some people expressed a concern that Ellison was coming from the more progressive wing of the party and would make it difficult to expand the tent — those statements [on Israel and Jews] were brought up as examples,” Lachman said. “If any politician has made statements that have raised controversy in the past, there’s always a concern they can be brought up again as a distraction.”
Sandra Lowe, a DNC member from California who supported Ellison, emphasized that the “smears” forced the Ellison campaign to address “someone else’s talking point” — rather than talking up his campaign plans.
“When you lose a race, it’s usually because there’s something out there. And anything that holds people back slightly is something you have to consider,” Lowe said. “When you’re getting emails from constituents saying, ‘I’m never going to vote for you again,’ it’s real. It was a factor in the race.”