Representative Keith Ellison’s bid to head the Democratic Party’s top governing body created a surge of excitement among Palestine solidarity activists when first announced earlier this month.
The congressman has long been known as a critic of Israel’s human rights abuses, so his chairing the Democratic National Committee (DNC) would be big news.
The enthusiasm waned a bit last week, however, when Ellison sent out a statement highlighting his opposition to the boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS) movement.
Ellison failed to make an explicit statement of support for Palestinian rights and freedom, while reaffirming his support for a two-state solution. That two-state approach appears increasingly to be a fantasy in light of Israel’s nearly 50 years of unrelenting land theft and settlement in the occupied West Bank.
Activists, who largely did not want to go on the record, believe Ellison, who represents Minnesota’s fifth congressional district and was the first Muslim elected to Congress, is still likely to be the best candidate for the job.
They are in a difficult position. Ellison has for many years been one of the most aware congressional leaders regarding the realities Palestinians confront.
In 2014 he penned an op-ed for The Washington Post calling for an end to the Israeli and Egyptian blockade on Gaza.
Noting that he has visited Gaza three times, he stated, “Gazans want and deserve the dignity of economic opportunity and freedom to move. This can be accomplished only with an end to the blockade of the Gaza Strip, which must be considered within the framework of a ceasefire.”
Five years earlier on the House floor he declared that the “inhabitants of the Gaza Strip existed in a state of dreadful isolation, cut off from the world, often including the world’s media.” Where others were silent or embraced Israel’s war crimes, he raised concerns that ran contrary to the prevailing wisdom in Washington.
Leading up to his statement on BDS, Ellison was the target of unrelenting attacks by Alan Dershowitz.
The Harvard academic and prominent pro-Israel activist misleadingly criticized Ellison, both on MSNBC and CNN. Dershowitz claimed Ellison has supporters who are anti-Semitic and that Hamas would cheer if he were to head the DNC.
He also attacked Ellison for his pre-Congress connection to Louis Farrakhan – a relationship with the Nation of Islam that Ellison has distanced himself from for many years.
But in the MSNBC interview, Dershowitz dramatically undercut his professed concern about bigotry by making light of the outrage over Stephen Bannon, the former Breitbart News executive closely associated with the white supremacist alt-right movement, who President-elect Donald Trump has appointed to a senior White House role.
Civil rights tactics
Boycott, divestment and sanctions tactics have a long history as nonviolent tools applied by social justice movements, including the struggle against apartheid in South Africa. And in a landmark ruling related to the civil rights struggle against racial segregation in the southern United States, the Supreme Court found that boycotts are constitutionally protected free speech.
It therefore came as a surprise when Ellison, as part of his campaign to head the DNC, denounced the tactic when used by Palestinians.
Jacob Pace, communications director for Interfaith Peace-Builders, a group that organizes delegations to Palestine, told The Electronic Intifada: “BDS is a nonviolent strategy initiated by Palestinians in response to Israel’s ongoing occupation and colonization of Arab lands.”
Noting the role of similar tactics in the US civil rights struggle and in South Africa, Pace added, “As people of conscience, we should support Palestinians in their efforts and we should demand that our political representatives do the same.”
Israel lobby pressure
The decision regarding the DNC leadership will not be made until early 2017. In the meantime, other groups and individuals will be considering whether to support Ellison, keep quiet or to publicly criticize his rejection of BDS.
Some point to the experience of Dwight Bullard, who recently lost his seat in the Florida state senate after initially opposing anti-BDS legislation in the state on constitutional grounds.
Bullard had faced fierce pushback and smears from Israel lobby groups for visiting Palestine.
Despite his early opposition, Bullard eventually voted for the Florida anti-BDS measure, telling The Electronic Intifada in August that he had felt “bullied” into doing so.
Another case activists might recall is that of Barack Obama, who went largely unchallenged from the left as he adopted ever more stridently pro-Israel positions throughout his career. Barring a last-minute intervention, the crowning Palestine-related legacy of a president once seen as a great hope for Palestinians will be his handing Israel the biggest military aid package in history.
Opponents of Palestinian rights and freedom are not standing by idly when it comes to Ellison either.
Jonathan Greenblatt, CEO of the Anti-Defamation League (ADL), initially came to Ellison’s defense as “an important ally in the fight against anti-Semitism and for civil rights.”
Yet days later – as right-wing criticism appeared to gain traction – Greenblatt backed away from his apparent initial support.
“In particular, it is very disturbing that someone who has been excessively critical of the State of Israel at key junctures in recent history might become the titular head of the Democratic Party,” Greenblatt wrote.
Greenblatt then proffered neutrality, saying that as a nonprofit charitable organization, the ADL “will not endorse or reject individuals for such a position.”
But in the very same paragraph, Greenblatt appears to give a non-endorsement anyway: “Without a clear understanding of his positions [on Israel], it seems impossible to imagine [Ellison] could build the trust needed to lead a major political party at such a delicate time.”
Following the stunning defeat of Hillary Clinton, the fight for the direction of the Democratic Party is underway. Progressive activists have never been closer to having as head of the DNC a person who has gone further than most in supporting Palestinian rights.
Yet on the threshold of the powerful DNC position, Ellison has backed away from holding Palestinians as equally human to other groups that have turned to BDS-like methods to secure their rights and freedom.
In his desire to attain the position, it is clear that Ellison is willing to cast aside fundamental principles to curry favor with potential allies who are already making clear that he will have to leap one hurdle after another to meet their pro-Israel demands.
How far is Ellison willing to go to establish pro-Israel bona fides and renounce his recognition of the rights of the Palestinian people? Activists will have to think seriously how they intend to convince Ellison that he cannot simply discard their most serious current means – BDS – for achieving Palestinian freedom.
And they should challenge the other DNC candidates – Secretary of Labor Thomas Perez among them – to demand that the right of Palestinians to pursue freedom through BDS be recognized. Why line up behind Ellison before Perez is even queried on the subject? Groups working in solidarity with one another will also need to give careful thought to which candidate will best advance broader intersectional concerns.
There may be an unprecedented opportunity to continue pushing for changes in the party’s traditional anti-Palestinian stances.
But it is difficult to see how Democratic leaders will move in the right direction if progressive and pro-Palestine activists remain quiet and demand little, while Israel lobby groups make all the noise.