Rabbi Lerner Dialogues with Keith Ellison, candidate for chair of the Democratic National Committee

Editor’s note: Tikkun magazine, as a non-profit, does not endorse candidates for public office nor do we affiliate with any particular political party. We are the voice of Jewish, interfaith, and secular humanist spiritual progressives who seek a world of love and justice. To fully understand what we have in mind, please read www.tikkun.org/covenant and join our interfaith and secular-humanist-and-atheist welcoming NSP–Network of Spiritual Progressives. We do, however, take an interest in the discourse that exists in the liberal and progressive world, and so wanted to interview one of the candidates for the position of chair of the Democratic National Committee, Congressman Keith Ellison, who shares some of the concerns that have been raised by Tikkun and the NSP over the course of the past thirty years. So this is one of many dialogues that Rabbi Lerner has had with Congressman Ellison over the course of the past twelve years.


Keith Ellison and Rabbi Michael Lerner in Dialogue,  January 29,  2017



Tikkun: Thank you for doing this interview for Tikkun, Keith. I’m calling you at a time when many of our readers are out at airports demonstrating against the attempt by President Trump to prevent people from coming into our country who are coming from a series of Islamic countries mostly in the Middle East. What a mess our country is in!


U.S. Congressman Keith Ellison: Yes, it really is. So it’s incumbent on all those who recognize this situation to get involved in some activity to reclaim our country.


Tikkun: Yes, that’s what we are doing right now by creating a series of trainings for people who would like to be involved in effective activism. And you are running for chair of the Democratic National Committee. I think you know, however, that there has been a campaign among right-wingers, both among Christian Zionists and among some of the more conservative people in the Jewish community to  portray you as anti-Israel in the hopes of undermining your chances to win that election.

What do you say to them?


Ellison: I believe that those who are pushing this are trying to distract from a real and sustained conversation about how we grow our party and connect with working Americans.

If you look at a ten year record in Congress and many more years prior as a State Representative and organizer, I have always been supportive of the State of Israel. I have repeatedly supported bilateral military aid for Israel—close to $28 billion in aid. I’ve also gotten to know the people and issues that Israelis face everyday on eight visits to the country. I didn’t just stay in the big cities—I’ve spent time with Israelis in many parts of that country. And, as a Muslim, I have prayed at a Mosque for Friday prayers in Israel, and I very much admire Israel’s policy of freedom of religion and free speech.


It might be something about my upbringing as an American, but I believe that questioning of policies is patriotic. It demonstrates a love for country.


It is because of my support of Israel and belief of its strength that I believe it can endure questioning of some of its policies where I and my elected constituents may disagree or want more information. I have done this while always consulting with the constituents I represent and I am proud to have a vibrant Jewish community in my district.

I reject any suggestion which equates questioning or disagreeing with some specific policies as equivalent with rejecting the existence of the state itself. I believe Israel is one of the great nations of this world and I hope to see a peace agreement between Israel and Palestine that will provide for the well being of both people.


Tikkun: What do you think of those groups who call for Boycotts, Divestment and Sanctions against Israel.


Ellison: Boycotts, Divestment and Sanctions most frequently end up hurting the working people the most in a country and I do not agree with groups calling for this strategy in Israel. I don’t think that is the right way to get to peace. I think we should be supporting the voices of Jews, Muslims and Christians in Israel who do want to reach a peaceful solution, and we should be amplifying their voices so that they get heard. I think that the BDS will make it harder for those voices to be heard.



Tikkun: Do you have any ideas on what that peace would look like?


Ellison:  Most of the people who seek such a solution say that it is pretty well known what that would look like. You start with the pre-June 67 borders and then make land swaps on both sides, you have agreements on the sharing of water resources, in certain areas you have some international peace keeping to ensure the safety of people on all sides of this agreement, and there needs to be a viable Palestinian state and if some day the people of Gaza are free of Hamas then at that point I hope that their needs can be taken into account as well, though at this point I don’t see Hamas participating in a peace accord. And it is critical to take care of the economic needs of people in that region, because poverty breeds despair and despair is an impediment to ever achieving peace.


The problem is not the solution but how to get there. Finding leaders on both sides who are willing to make sacrifices and take political risks to achieve that is hard—and this comes from both sides. I’ve been criticized by many from both sides—Palestinian human rights advocates for example who don’t think I’m caring enough for their needs. The safe position is to stay away from this question, or avoid the issue altogether. If you want to imagine a time where Israel and Palestine are living in peace and security and consider ideas on how to get there, people on both sides are going to find fault with some part of what you say, and then accuse you of all kinds of things. And that is why many people just try to duck the issue altogether.


Tikkun: We at Tikkun have called for a plan that would allow West Bank settlers to stay in their settlements, but only as citizens of the new Palestinian state and no longer citizens of Israel, living within the State of Palestine and subject to its laws, while Israel provides assistance to those West Bank settlers who are not ready to be citizens of Palestine and need financial support to move back to the State of Israel.


Ellison: The strength of any country should be in the celebration of a rich tradition of diversity and inclusion. We are seeing something terrifying right now with Donald Trump and his ban of Muslims, with his failure to mention Jewish people in his Holocaust Remembrance Day.

There’s a lot of wisdom in that plan for peace. I don’t think that there should be any country in which Jews are not free to live, and that should include Palestine, just as Israel has accommodated Christians and Muslims in Israel, so Palestine should be able to accommodate Jews and Christians. Countries today are increasingly multi-ethnic and multi-religious-this is one of the things that I love the most about the United States and I believe that it should be celebrated. So nobody should be forced to move as long as they are willing to live in accord with the laws of the country in which they are choosing to live.


Tikkun: If you become chair of the DNC, do you have any strategic thinking about what to do to stop Trumpism and keeping his folk from shaping the policies of this country?


Ellison: Yes. The strategic thing to do is to get Democrats elected who hold up a program of economic and social inclusion. The method of getting people elected is that everyone has to be included and we do that by organizing in 3,143 counties across the country. No part the country – blue counties or red counties should be ignored. Democrats win when we reach out door-to-door, neighbor-to-neighbor and talk about what we will do to create better opportunity for them and their families.

A lot of people are taking to the streets in protest, and I think that is absolute critical. But we have to recognize that the way that Trump got into the position to make executive orders that hurt people and appoint people to run agencies of the government that will also hurt people is that he won an election. And that is what we need to do—we need to win more elections, and that is the task of the DNC. We are going to do that by engagement, by inclusion, and we are going to have a massive change in the Congress in 2018.


Tikkun: In our strategy statement in the Winter 2017 issue of Tikkun we agree that a strategy can’t just be resisting bad policies. We have to find a way to split from the Trump constituency those people who are attracted to Trump who are NOT racist, sexist, homophobic, xenophobic, Islamophobic, anti-Semitic, but who feel that the Democrats and the Left (both liberals and progressives) have not come through for them, and in many ways seem to disrespect them.  Many of them felt deep disappointment at the policies of the Clinton Administration and then the Obama Administration, not only by negotiating trade deals that led to jobs being shipped abroad to places where the corporations could pay less money to workers and not be constrained by environmental requirements, but also by not taking care of people being losing their homes (e.g. Obama couod have insisted that for every dollar given to the banks, investment companies and corporations to bail them out of the “Great Recession” they helped create that the government must also give a dollar to those middle income working people who could no longer afford to pay off home mortgages), and by Obama not fighting for universal Medicare for All rather than the Affordable Care Act that actually turned out to be not affordable for many people because of insufficient restraints on what health insurance companies could charge, and instead making a deal with pharmaceuticals to not seek lower cost of pharmaceuticals from Canada or other countries in which these same drugs were being produced at much lower cost to consumers. And then there was the huge disrespect that people on the liberal and progressive world showed toward those who were not on our side, acting as though everyone of them was necessarily a racist, sexist, xenophobe, etc. and talking about all whites as needing to reject their “white privilege” and all men as needing to reject their “male privilege” when many American whites and many American men felt that those who were saying this had no idea about how much pain and hurt existed in their lives, how little these liberal and progressive critics understood of them,  how much these liberals and progressives seemed to be reinforcing the disrespect that they’ve faced all their lives. And this came to a crescendo in Hillary Clinton’s dismissing 50% of Trump supporters as “a basket of deplorables.” We have to acknowledge the mistakes we’ve made, and change the discourse and prejudices in our own community.


Ellison: What you say and what I say are just two different ways of saying the same thing. Howard Dean in 2006 went to every part of the country and spoke to people everywhere. And people felt listened to and cared for.  We have to go to those people.  The Democratic Party has become increasingly dependent on television advertising and targeting likely voters in swing states, while ignoring everyone else. Why didn’t we successfully organize parts of Wisconsin, Michigan and Pennsylvania? Failing to show up meant that people felt like we weren’t interested in listening to them. Showing up matters. So I think I’m saying the same thing you are saying, when I say “everyone counts strategy,” except that you expressed it in a slightly poignant way, you see that we’ve ignored some of  the people who were our base in 2006 or 2008 and we Democrats have not actually acted as though everyone counts and everyone matters.


Tikkun: But the problem is also that some of the policies being put forward by Hillary Clinton and by some of the Democrats in Congress often seem indistinguishable from those in the Republican Party who, like the power elites in the Democratic Party, want to serve the 1% and their interests, often more than serving the interests of the rest of the population. So when they had a majority, they served the special interests just as Republicans are doing now with even greater energy. Obama talked a different way when running for office, but then tilted back toward the special interests.


Ellison:  There are some kernels of truth in what that critique says, at least in regard to certain politicians, it is still the case that we now have the most progressive Democratic Party platform we’ve ever had, because we had an infusion of energy into the Democratic Party and into the shaping of the Platform, and that really made a difference.

But it’s not the task of the chair of the Democratic Party to be getting into disputes with the President or lawmakers about their policies. It is the responsibility of  the chair of the Democratic Party to recruit and train people at the grass roots who have every right to hold Democratic Party elected officials to serving the interests of most Americans. If we get people more involved, those people will be the ones to hold the politicians accountable to the Platform of the party.

As to ACA, I was one of those who felt we should have been advocating for Medicare for Everyone, and I think it was a mistake to go for the ACA as a compromise, since Republicans never accepted that either and are now seeking to overturn it. An awake, fully engaged Democratic base on the local level would have been able to impact on that decision and push their elected representatives for the better Medicare for Everyone plan that would have gotten more buy-in and would have been harder to overturn for that reason.


Tikkun: So what is the role of the chair of the DNC? Some people are saying to us when we talk about our deep respect for Keith Ellison that they don’t hear your campaign for chair presenting you as the continuation of and empowerment of the voices that energized the Bernie campaign (even though we know you are that, but that is not how your campaign is being framed), and in that case, they argue, it’s going to be hard to get the hard nosed supposedly pragmatic and certainly power-oriented members of the DNC to think that this is a good moment for the Democrats to put in the leadership of the party an African American Muslim. So presenting yourself in a more radical way might also be more effective just in mobilizing a base that would be calling on their elected representatives to support your candidacy!


Ellison: The job of the DNC Chair is to bring Democrats together, to organize the grassroots, to raise millions of dollars and get Democrats elected.


The head of the DNC does not vote on legislation and I feel like it is worth giving up my congressional seat, a job I love doing, because the only way to pass an agenda that creates opportunities for Americans is electing more Democrats. And I can be the person helping to organize the base that makes that happen. But if people can only support me if they think I’m going to make progressive policy, I can’t deliver that from the DNC because we don’t vote – we organize. We are only able to get progressive policies passed when we start turning the tide of losses from the city hall to the state house to the White House.


Tikkun: One thing that tends to undermine people’s enthusiasm about getting involved in electoral politics in presidential elections is that one can win the popular vote and yet, because of the electoral college, lose the presidency. If the Democrats after winning the popular vote in 2000 but losing in the Electoral College had sponsored an amendment to the Constitution to eliminate the Electoral College and elect the President by a democratic majority, Trump would not be President today.


Ellison:  I would absolutely support a Constitutional Amendment to create the direct election of the President by a majority of voters. That would be more just and more democratic.  The way we are doing now leads to perverse outcomes.


Tikkun: Why shouldn’t Hillary and Obama have proclaimed that with 2.5 million more votes than Trump that she was the real president of the U.S. representing the majority of Americans, and though she would not seek to take office, she would appoint a “shadow Cabinet” that would each week put forward the ideas that would have been implemented had the majority had our way. That would have created a context for the media to not only report on the reactionaries who are now being appointed to high office by Trump are doing and saying, but also to report on what the representatives of the majority would be saying and doing had we a truly democratic society. That would have provided a public forum for the majority.


Ellison: You’d have to ask Secretary Clinton or President Obama that question. But you are right that we need to claim the legitimacy that comes with winning the majority of votes. The people who won the majority should claim that position. Tikkun should be organizing around that message, because the media are saving their microphones for the people who have the power. We can challenge that in the court of public opinion. So I think it is an important idea.


Tikkun: You mentioned foreign policy. You and I have had many discussions over the years about the importance of shifting the discourse on how to achieve “homeland security.” We at Tikkun have argued that the path to that security is to switch from a “strategy of domination” of the world (power over others, whether in the form of military might, economic power, cultural penetration, or diplomatic power) to a “strategy of generosity” as manifested in part through a Global Marshall Plan. You even introduced in past sessions of Congress a resolution in support of the version of a Global and Domestic Marshall Plan as developed by our Network of Spiritual Progressives.




Ellison: I absolutely believe that the Global Marshall Plan is the right direction. The real problem we have in this world is rooted in the failure of the economically more successful countries of the world not sharing their resources to help in the development of countries that are poorer and less developed.


Tikkun:  As long as we are talking policy for a moment, I wonder if you would be willing to support our proposed ESRA Environmental and Social Responsibiity Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. Its major points are:

1. All state and national elections are to be publicly funded, and no other money source is allowed.  (Thus, unlike other ideas about “getting money out of politics” like that proposed by Move to Amend, this doesn’t leave it up to Congress to decide every two years how much money an individual can donate, but instead simply and clearly bans any money except that coming from public funding.]

2. Every corporation selling goods or services in the U.S. (whether located here or elsewhere) with incomes above $50 million/yr must get a new corporate charter once every five years. That charter will only be granted to those corporations which can prove a satisfactory history of environmental and social responsibility to a jury of ordinary citizens who would receive testimony from people all over the world who have been impacted by the operations, employment practices, environmental practices, products, and advertising of that corporation.

3. Any corporation seeking to move a significant parts of its operations or investments from one state to another or outside the US must help fund an environmental and social impact report on the costs of the community it is leaving and then pay reparations to that community to offset the losses in jobs, revenues, etc. that its move is costing that local community.

What do you think of that?


Ellison:  This is a wonderful idea and a great blueprint for getting social responsibility in our corporations.  I like it and I’ll work with you to draw something up.

But meanwhile, if people want to help my candidacy they are invited to go to https://keithfordnc.org/howyoucanhelp/


By the way,  I’ve had some supporters say that they would quit the Democratic Party if I am not elected. People shouldn’t say that. It is not an effective campaign strategy. More importantly, I am proud of our party and I will support any candidate who wins this DNC race.





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