Sunday, March 29, 2009


Every two years, 435 men and women are elected to the House of Representatives, otherwise known as the “People’s House,” in the world’s most celebrated democracy and melting pot. You’d hope that in a world of 1.3 billion Muslims, the People’s House might have welcomed more than a handful of Muslims to our latest Congress.

The fact, however, is that in the entire history of our nation, the number of Muslims who’ve been elected to the House – or for that matter, the entire Congress -- is a grand total of two. The first of the two – with a total of two years seniority -- is Keith Ellison, a 45 year-old black man from Minneapolis. Recently, I had a chance to meet Congressman Ellison, and I came away very, very impressed.

To win his historic election in 2006, Ellison, no less than Barack Obama, had to survive countless charges of guilt by association. In Ellison’s case, the Reverend Wright-analogue was none other than Louis Farrakhan – a fellow black Muslim who once referred to Judaism as a “dirty religion” and claimed that Hitler was “wickedly great.” Few Americans are more associated with anti-Semitism than Farrakhan, and so it is not surprising that when Ellison was said to have been an “associate” of Farrakhan, questions emerged about Ellison’s anti-Semitism.

The Weekly Standard, on October 9, 2006, offered this little bio of Ellison:
Ellison was born Catholic in Detroit. He states that he converted to Islam as an undergraduate at Wayne State University. As a third-year student at the University of Minnesota Law School in 1989-90, he wrote two columns for the Minnesota Daily under the name "Keith Hakim." In the first, Ellison refers to "Minister Louis Farrakhan," defends Nation of Islam spokesman Khalid Abdul Muhammad, and speaks in the voice of a Nation of Islam advocate. In the second, "Hakim" demands reparations for slavery and throws in a demand for an optional separate homeland for American blacks. In February 1990, Ellison participated in sponsoring Kwame Ture (Stokely Carmichael) to speak at the law school on the subject "Zionism: Imperialism, White Supremacy or Both?" Jewish law students met personally with Ellison and appealed to him not to sponsor the speech at the law school; he rejected their appeal, and, as anticipated, Ture gave a notoriously anti-Semitic speech. Ellison admits that he worked on behalf of the Nation of Islam in 1995. At a rally for the Million Man March held at the University of Minnesota, Ellison appeared onstage with Khalid Abdul Muhammad, who ran true to form: According to a contemporaneous Star Tribune article, "If words were swords, the chests of Jews, gays and whites would be pierced.
Sounds nefarious enough, wouldn’t you say? Obviously, Glenn Beck thought so. The overexposed pundit, a self-proclaimed Christian, interviewed Ellison shortly after his historic victory, and felt free to speak on behalf of a nation of concerned citizens. "I have been nervous about this interview with you,” Beck said. “because what I feel like saying is, 'Sir, prove to me that you are not working with our enemies.’ I'm not accusing you of being an enemy, but that's the way I feel, and I think a lot of Americans will feel that way."
Perhaps so. I suspect many of my fellow Jews felt that way, especially when Ellison decided to take his oath of office on the Qur’an. "Insofar as a member of Congress taking an oath to serve America and uphold its values is concerned, America is interested in only one book, the Bible," wrote Jewish author Dennis Prager. "If you are incapable of taking an oath on that book, don't serve in Congress."

This was the way Ellison was treated as a newly elected Congressman back at the end of 2006. He had to prove to the rest of us that he was loyal to the American way, and was neither an anti-Semite or a terrorist sympathizer. His flirtation with the Nation of Islam in his younger days had branded him to many as a threat. It’s not hard to imagine what Joseph McCarthy or a young Richard Nixon would have done to the guy back in the early 50s. In fact, you don’t even have to look that far back in time; just think about the way Clinton and Palin tried to portray Barack Obama as not really one of us. That charge never stuck to Barack, but then again, he was never associated with a group as universally reviled in America as the Nation of Islam. Sure enough, as progressive as I try to be, I share more than a few trepidations about Ellison’s former associates. Say what you want about what he’s done for the economic well-being of black Americans: as far as I’m concerned, Farrakhan’s rhetoric has gone way over the line. He’s given the Jewish people every reason to see him as an anti-Semite, and anything but a friend to peace.

But Keith Ellison is not Louis Farrakhan any more than Barack Obama is Reverend Wright That point was made very obvious to me when I saw him speak on March 17th on Capitol Hill at an event sponsored by the American Anti-Arab Discrimination Committee. That evening, Ellison and his fellow Congressman Brian Baird reported on their trip to Gaza and Israel following the end of the recent war. Those two men, together with Senator John Kerry, were the first U.S. Government representatives who officially toured the Gaza Strip in more than three years. In its own way, that three-year absence is nearly as offensive as anything ever said by Farrakhan.

When Ellison spoke, the facts I learned about the Gaza War weren’t exactly similar to what I had heard just a few weeks earlier when a delegate from the Israeli Government spoke about the war to members of my synagogue. Ellison began by talking about the fact that the majority of Gazan residents are under 18. He then went on to explain that the Israeli Government is essentially putting these children on a diet. Food as basic as lentils, tomato paste and macaroni are being excluded. If you want “luxury” foods, such as candy, you have to get them through the infamous smuggling tunnels. Visitors to the Strip see as many animal-pulled carts as cars, which reflects how limited fuel is (despite the proximity to so much oil). One official of the Israeli army referred to the Gaza Strip as “Hamas-stan” when he met with Ellison. Ellison left that meeting (understandably) discouraged.

Ellison also presented evidence of tremendous devastation from the recent war, including devastation to the American International school there, which he claimed was teaching a curriculum of tolerance for all peoples. When I attended the earlier briefing by the Israeli official, I learned that when schools and mosques were struck, it was only because the Arabs had located them nearby rocket launchers. Unfortunately, the Israeli Government, in its infinite wisdom, decided to exclude from Gaza all independent journalists who could possibly confirm the Israeli party line that every possible measure was being taken to avoid civilian casualties. I guess the Arab world will simply have to take that on faith. Who needs objective reporting anyway?

I appreciate learning from Ellison some facts about the conflict that aren’t likely to be disseminated here in the United States, Israel’s closest ally. But what I appreciated more from Ellison was the way he avoided the opportunity to pile on with the rhetoric, as some would have liked. To begin, Ellison strove to ensure that all who attended the Capitol Hill function appreciated the plight of the Israelis who live in a town less than one mile from Gaza and must endure the constant threat of shelling from Hamas rockets. This shelling cannot be excused, he said.

What impressed me more, though, was the way Ellison dealt with comments from audience members who aired their dislike for the Israeli Government. Ellison’s response was consistent: venting against Israel might be cathartic, but it’s hardly helpful. The goal here must be peace, and peace will not be achieved by advocating measures or using rhetoric that “drive people into their corners and get them to put up their dukes.” Ellison went on to say, “Stop the hate speech and stop terrorism. All Arab states must work for that, and stand for the existence of Israel.”

So there you have it. Those are the words of a supposedly scary black Muslim, speaking from a position of power to a largely Muslim audience. The words don’t exactly fit in with the stereotype in the American media of the way Muslims are supposed to view Israel and the peace process. After his talk, I invited Ellison to participate in our local Muslim-Jewish Dialogue Initiative, and he said that he would love to. I don’t doubt for a second that he is ecumenical in his approach and has a much warmer view of my religion than many of my co-religionists have about his.

Thinking about Ellison’s talk, I am reminded of how important it is for bodies like the United States Congress to reflect diversity – be it ethnic, religious, or otherwise. Ellison brings a perspective on these issues that is sorely lacking among his colleagues, many if not most of whom continue to believe that Islam’s very Scripture calls for the gratuitous killing of all who would deny that “there is only one God and Muhammad is His messenger.”

Of course, it is one thing to claim to be for peace and tolerance, and it is another to actively work to pursue peace. So here’s a concrete suggestion for all of my fellow Jews who wish to include themselves in the latter camp. The next time you go to your shul, approach a member of your Board and make the following request in the strongest possible terms. “Do you know that sign in front of the synagogue that says ‘We support Israel’? We see that sign in front of just about every synagogue in America, right? Well do me this favor, either take it down or, preferably, put up another one. It should say “We support Palestine.’” Displaying either sign, without the other, is a step in the wrong direction.


Brent Robison said...

Daniel, I just read The Creed Room and while I differ on points, I'm with you on the essence. I appreciate your wide-ranging thought and your plainspoken articulation of deep philosophy... but mostly I like your spirit. And I'm learning how to approach my Eastern-inspired beliefs from a Western point of view (backwards I suppose). Also, I think you'd enjoy my friend's blog, and he yours: .
Warm regards,
Brent Robison

Daniel Spiro said...


It does seem pretty arbitrary that some of us are "Eastern-inspired" and others "Western-inspired." I've enjoyed a bit of Eastern thought, but I fell in love with learning by studying Western philosophy ... so that's why my car's license plates say "Spinoza."

I'm glad you enjoyed The Creed Room. I hope that when you have time you pick up my second novel, Moses the Heretic. It was the spur of my current Muslim-Jewish interfaith activities.

I'll check out your friend's blog now.