I caught up with Minnesota Congressman Keith Ellison Thursday for a video interview at his office in Minneapolis just three days after his return from his fifth trip to Israel and the Palestinian territories. While he was in that part of the world he spent some time in Egypt and Saudi Arabia as well; doing sort of, as he called it, “a Middle East tour.”
Unlike the usual politico trip to the Middle East, this one wasn’t focused on meeting with government officials. He met with “people in civil society” including a group of young Israeli political leaders under the age of 30, Palestinian university students, people working on civil and human rights issues, a group called “Peace and Security” that is a sort of “think tank” made up of former Israeli military and police officials, business people, and families with medical problems in Gaza.
The trip was split into two major chunks, with some time in Israel and some time in the West Bank and Gaza. Congressman Ellison almost didn’t make it to Gaza though. “There was actually, Israel was doing some military strikes in Gaza the day before I was going to go to Gaza so, you know, for my own safety, they said, we’re not going to let you through there.” Telling the story he paused and smiled. “But I did go around and got through the Rafa gates. It was safe.”
In Israel, he was given a tour of the plaza where former Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin was assassinated. In Gaza, he was shown the hundreds of tunnels used to bring livestock, electronics, people, and commercial goods in and out of Gaza. What about the tunnels to smuggle weapons? “They didn’t show me, this is a weapons tunnel, but I’m sure that weapons go through there.”
He told me about the young people he talked to in Gaza and their awareness and openness to the experiences of Israelis, especially those just a few miles away in the South of Israel.
“They didn’t seem to have any knowledge about the hell and damage the rocketing was causing on the other side of the border. They didn’t seem to – they were like, oh isn’t it like little pop rockets? I think they actually used the term bottle rockets. They didn’t seem to know. How much damage is being inflicted over there. And how much terror is being inflicted over there.
And when I asked them, do you know any Israelis? None of them did except for one and that one met one when she went to Texas on like a year abroad. The only one who got to know one was the one who went to Texas. It threw a chill through me. Because how do myths about people crop up? When you don’t know them.”
James Besser’s “Political Insider” article from January 2010 raised a great question that I knew I had to ask the Congressman. Besser is discussing why Congressman Ellison got so much criticism for signing onto a letter to President Obama about Gaza and writes, “Does being pro-Palestinian automatically mean a politician is anti-Israel? Can someone be friendly and sympathetic to both sides?”
I decided to see what Congressman Ellison thought about exactly that question. His answer was fascinating, and also touched on how America needs to be taking a more “hands on” position to move peace along. Watch the video yourself and let us know what you think in the comments.
(Photo: Wikimedia Commons)