February 22, 2020

Rep. Keith Ellison: A humanitarian leader

President-elect Donald Trump’s decision to appoint an apostle of the “alt-right” white supremacy movement as his chief strategist in the White House is frightening.

Steve Bannon’s rise has alarmed many in the Jewish community. As executive chairman of Breitbart News, the mouthpiece and propaganda sheet of the “alt-right” movement, he has advanced the hateful ideology of white supremacy. The crude images and headlines Breitbart traffics in are all too familiar to anyone who knows anything about the most tragic chapters of Jewish history.

[Opposing view: Ellison's history of anti-Israel actions]

Breitbart News once described conservative commentator Bill Kristol as a “Republican spoiler, renegade Jew” and former Arizona Congresswoman Gabby Giffords, who was shot in the head at close range while campaigning, as “the gun control movement’s human shield.”

Bannon’s conspiracy-laced worldview was reflected in Trump’s closing campaign ad, which featured prominent Jews, including financier George Soros, Federal Reserve chief Janet Yellen and Goldman Sachs CEO Lloyd Blankfein, as the dark, sinister forces who control the levers of power in Washington and scheme against the well-being of the American people.

 “It’s a global power structure that is responsible for the economic decisions that have robbed our working class, stripped our country of its wealth and put that money into the pockets of a handful of large corporations and political entities,” the ad said.

The ad’s rhetoric was chillingly reminiscent of some of the most virulent, historically anti-Semitic tropes, and more consistent with the thesis of “The Protocols of the Elders of Zion” than with a final argument in a modern American presidential campaign. 

In recent days, some Jewish Trump supporters, Republicans and others have attempted to deflect justifiable Jewish concerns regarding the direction of the Trump transition with absurd claims that Minnesota Congressman Keith Ellison is an anti-Semite. 

Keith Ellison is the first Muslim American elected to Congress and a candidate for chair of the Democratic National Committee. He is a friend of our local Twin Cities Jewish community, and his compassion and moral voice are a stark contrast to Bannon and others who spew white supremacy.

I have known Keith Ellison for 14 years. First, as my seatmate in the Minnesota House of Representatives, and over the last decade, as one of his Minneapolis congressional constituents.

I first recognized Keith’s empathy and support for the Jewish community a few weeks after we both took office in 2003. He joined me and several of my Jewish colleagues in bringing an ethics complaint against a legislator who misrepresented Holocaust history. As a child of Holocaust survivors, I appreciated Keith’s leadership in prosecuting that complaint. I was moved by his organization of a program at a local synagogue, which featured an influential American-Muslim leader who discussed his visit to Auschwitz. 

Keith also has visited Israel seven times during his congressional tenure. In 2007, my daughter (who was studying in Jerusalem at the time) and I accompanied Congressman Ellison and then-Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi to a state dinner at the Knesset. Keith has voted for more than $27 billion in bilateral aid and assistance to Israel, and he opposes efforts to boycott, divest from and sanction Israel, stating that, “I don’t believe BDS helps us reach the goal [of a two-state solution].”

His critics fail to recognize the significance of a very credible Muslim voice supporting Israel and opposing BDS. Those positions should not be demeaned or minimized. 

And on occasions when Keith differed with some in Minnesota’s Jewish community, he always has engaged with our local leaders and rabbis in an open and honest dialogue. 

That is why equating Steve Bannon and Keith Ellison, as some have attempted to do, is contemptible. While critics are entitled to their disagreements with Keith, he is in no way comparable to a hateful ideologue like Steve Bannon. It is a sad and twisted state of affairs when a strong advocate of interfaith cooperation and a staunch opponent of bigotry is labeled an anti-Semite, while someone who rose to prominence by peddling in anti-Semitism is given a free pass. 

To confront the threats we face today and are likely to confront tomorrow, we need true friends and humanitarians like Keith Ellison. We should embrace him, while fiercely rejecting the hateful ideology personified by Steve Bannon and his ilk. 

FRANK HORNSTEIN is a member of the Minnesota House of Representatives from the Minnesota Democratic–Farmer–Labor Party.