Since entering Congress in 2007, Rep. Keith Ellison (D-Minn.) has made the Middle East a priority, traveling to the region on a number of occasions and meeting with parties to the primary conflicts. And in case you failed to notice, Ellison was the guy President Obama was referring to in his Cairo speech when he spoke of the nation’s first Muslim representative swearing the oath of office on Thomas Jefferson’s Quran. This interview of June 7, 2009, was conducted by The Media Line and provided to The Jewish Journal.
The Media Line: I don’t think I’ve heard an Episcopalian congressman introduced as “the Episcopalian congressman” or a Jewish congressman introduced as “the Jewish Congressman.” Do you tire of being introduced as “the Muslim congressman?”
Keith Ellison: I just take it in stride. I think the first Jewish member of Congress probably got referred to as the “first Jewish member of Congress.”
TML: When you’re in the Middle East, you spend a lot of time with Israelis, you spend a lot of time with Palestinians; you go to Sderot, you go to Gaza. You speak to both sides, occasionally in terms they don’t want to hear. Yet, you go back to Washington to the land of “yea” and “nay” and it seems that as a representative, you’re required to be either pro-Israel or pro-Palestinian. Is there room to embrace both people back in Washington?
KE: I think the only sane solution is to embrace both people in Washington. Washington does have this very strong mannequin element to it; you’re either for or against: yes or no. That does not lend itself to American national security nor does it lend itself to the benefit of people who are in the Holy Land — whether they be Israeli or Palestinian. We’ve got to break this framing of “you’re either on this side or on that side”; we’ve got to be on both sides. We’ve got to say that we are for a two-state solution in which Israel can live in peace and security and Palestinians can have a state of their own where they can grow and prosper. And then over time, we can really drill-down over issues that everybody really needs to be focused on, like water, energy and how to really make some economic prosperity.
TML: Congressman, what should be the American position on Hamas? Is it sound policy to boycott a Palestinian government that includes Hamas if it refuses to recognize Israel and renounce violence?
KE: That’s a very interesting question that you ask, because no American politician, no member of Congress today can stand up and say “Let’s have unrestrained dialogue with Hamas” and not have to defend that position to the degree that that politician would scarcely be able to talk about anything else at all. So I’m not going to get up here and tell you yes, let’s have unrestricted dialogue with Hamas. But I will point out a few things. One is that it’s fairly well known that Israel talks with Hamas through Egypt and maybe directly. That’s suspected but it’s not known. But it’s known that they talk through Egypt as a conduit. We also know that Hamas is in Gaza and the West Bank, and to act like they’re not there might not help us get to the goal we all want, which is to have a fair, final resolution of the conflict. So, again, I’m not going to stand up and call for a direct dialogue with Hamas, but I do recognize that if you talk to all of the players in the game then it does make it easier to bring the game to a reasonable resolution. I will say, however, that terrorism is objectionable, immoral and un-Islamic, and I think that any group that partakes of it is in the wrong and needs to abandon that behavior.
TML: Gilad Shalit is still being held captive. As a congressman, what measures do you think could be taken by the American government?
KE: I think that all governments should work hard to get all people who are unjustly held in captivity, including Gilad Shalit. I’ve met with Gilad’s parents and I have a replica dog tag of his. I also met with the parents of Goldwasser and Regev who were captive in Lebanon; but the fact is that if you talk to people who are coming from a Palestinian standpoint, they will point out that there are a lot of people who are Palestinian being held in Israeli jails. I guess we should have some real dialogue on how to move forward on that.
TML: Congressman, the president articulated a vision for the region, but there are a lot of people in the region who are saying that we don’t know whether he’s just another guy with good rhetoric but couldn’t deliver. What must President Obama do regarding the Israeli-Palestinian conflict in order to succeed where others have failed?
KE: What I think he needs to do to settle the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is to demonstrate some persistence. Let’s bear in mind that the conflict in Northern Ireland seemed like it would never end. It also had religious dimensions to it. And yet, there is peace in Northern Ireland today. And so I think that we shouldn’t be cynical and believe that it can’t be solved; it can be. I think he’s making the right moves.