Keith Ellison, Gaza and what it means to be "anti-Israel"
02/11/2010 - 15:29
James Besser

I keep getting emails and reading blogs about the infamous “Ellison letter” - the congressional letter to President Obama urging him to press Israel to lift the Gaza blockade (many of the writers put the word “blockade” in quotation marks, as if it bears no connection to reality).

The problem is, it's not exactly accurate to attribute the letter to  Rep. Keith Ellison (D-Minn.), although he was a prominent signer and helped circulate it.  Ellison, by virtue of being a Muslim, is always an easy target; the people emailing me seem to be saying, “see, he's a Muslim, so he's obviously anti-Israel.”   In fact, the letter was authored by Rep. Jim McDermott  and signed by 53 colleagues.

It says, in part: "We recognize that the Israeli government has imposed restrictions on Gaza out of a legitimate and keenly felt fear of continued terrorist action by Hamas and other militant groups. This concern must be addressed without resulting in the de facto collective punishment of the Palestinian residents of the Gaza Strip.”

Not supportive of Israeli policy, to be sure. But is it anti-Israel? Not on its face.

And everybody wants to blame Ellison, which raises some interesting questions, starting with this one: does being pro-Palestinian automatically mean a politician is anti-Israel? Can someone be friendly and sympathetic to both sides?

I've listened to Ellison speak about the Middle East and read many of his comments; there's little question his primary focus in the region is the plight of the Palestinians.  Nor is there much doubt he doesn't much like Israel's Gaza policies, which he things cause needless civilian suffering. He shares that view with many Israelis and American Jews.

Does that make him anti-Israel? Some say yes, but I'm not convinced.

Every time I've heard him speak, including on a recent panel that was clearly skewed to the anti-Israel point of view, he's stressed his belief that both sides in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict need to do more to live up to past commitments and take greater chances for peace. He's spoken clearly about Israel's need for security as part of any ultimate settlement.  He speaks the language of compromise – for both sides.

In short, he sounds pro-Palestinian without sounding anti-Israel.

Still, many castigate him  as just another Israel hater, which they seem to find even easier because of his religion.

So I wonder: are pro-Israel forces only interested in working with those who are 100 percent on their side, and defining everybody else as beyond the pale?

Isn't practical politics the art of finding common ground with those who are  not with you down the line, but who are open to discussion and debate?

It seems to me there's something counterproductive about this “you're either 100 percent with us or you're an Israel hater”  mode of activism and about the increasingly rigid and stringent litmus tests we apply to politicians when it comes to Israel. 

Maybe that feels good to the people promoting it, but it harms Israel, which depends on American support – not just from a narrow group of activists who support one particular political position in Israel, but from the broadest possible coalition that may disagree on a lot of details but comes together around the fundamental belief that Israel has a right to exist, that it has a right to security and that the only route to those goals involves the give and take of serious negotiations.

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