This past weekend Jews from all over the country came to Washington D.C. for AIPAC’s annual policy conference. On Tuesday, everyone went to Capitol Hill to lobby their senators and representatives. A few hours after the Minnesota delegation visited U.S. Representative Keith Ellison (D-MN 5th District), TC Jewfolk sat down with the congressman for an exclusive interview.
Rep. Ellison was not afraid to speak his mind, sharing his hopes for a nuclear-free Middle East, how Israel and Palestine can learn from Ireland and Somalia, and why a Swedish-looking Palestinian will help bring peace to the Middle East.
The conversation started by addressing the theme of this year’s AIPAC conference, “Shaping Tomorrow Together.” Ellison said he couldn’t predict the future for Israel, or any country, but he praised Israel for having “solid fundamentals” like its innovative economy and democratic tradition. But he stressed that it’s important for Israel and the region to work on peace, and to “resolve the issues with the Palestinians.”
He then criticized those that act and speak as if the conflict will never end. “South Africa ended,” he said. “Northern Ireland ended. There are other conflicts in the world; this could end too.”
The Palestinians were scarcely mentioned at the AIPAC conference, with the focus instead on Iran and Syria. Not bound by the convention agenda, Ellison spent most of the interview talking about ways to resolve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. He stressed the need for both governments to unify; Netanyahu’s Israeli government must form a coalition, and the Palestinian people and leadership must come together on one vision. “I don’t know where we are in terms of trying to get things resolved…but it’s not an encouraging moment,” he said.
He then talked about Other Voice, a group in Sderot on the border with Gaza, trying to build “human solidarity” with the people in Gaza. He stressed that the key to peace in the region will be from grassroots organizations, and other NGOs, bridging the gap on an individual level “until governments align to the point where maybe we can move forward.”
We then shifted gears to the past. Rep. Ellison said that he believes this conflict has been going for about six decades. When asked to clarify he reiterated, “The conflict actually has a start date within the last hundred years.”
He seemed to be saying that the tension existing now between Israelis and Palestinians goes back as far as 1948, when the state of Israel was founded, or just a few years before. Yet he then went on to say that Jews have always lived in the Middle East, since the days of Muhammad. He was not asked about, nor did he address any specifics in the long, and often contentious history between the two cultures. [See the video below for the full clip.]
We asked Ellison about the recent story that Hamas has started teaching Hebrew at high schools in Gaza. He believes that out of necessity or other reasons, the two sides are trying to learn more about each other, and they’re learning that they’re more alike than not. “Anybody that’s ever been to Israel and to Palestine knows that you can’t look at a person and tell if they’re Israeli or Palestinian. You can assume. But I’ve seen Palestinians who look Swedish, and I’ve seen Israelis who are black.”
He also said that teaching Hebrew is “a recognition that Hebrew speaking Israelis are there, they ain’t going nowhere.”
On Iran he said the United States should focus much more on human rights in the country, since most Iranians hate their government. He insisted that the Iranian government is not crazy. “They’re not messianic crazy people running Iran… They gained support whipping up hate and hostility against the United States, Israel, and the West in general.” But, Ellison said, “That’s just typical pandering; we might see that anywhere.”
He called for a nuclear free Middle East, as well as a nuclear disarmament from the United States and Russia. Of nuclear weapons he said the world “doesn’t really need any.”
Rep. Ellison pushed for further negotiations with Iran, and while he supported America’s right to defend itself, he was vague on whether he’d support military action in Iran. Unlike the speakers at the AIPAC conference, he did not seem very supportive of military action against Iran should they reach a certain level of uranium enrichment. He approved of the sanctions overall, but warned that he’s “not a guaranteed vote.”
“I study these bills,” he said. “I read them carefully. If it makes sense I’ll sign on them. If not, I don’t.”
Finally, he addressed the United Nations vote declaring Palestine a non-voting member state. “How does the world lose on that?” he said. “I mean we all say we’re Two-Staters, so now we got two.”
He refuted the claim that this was a unilateral action, saying 138 countries voted in favor of the resolution. He acknowledged that it doesn’t change anything practically, but the people in Palestine can say they’re no longer a territory, “They’re a country. And I think that’s a positive thing.”