Keith Ellison defends comments about Middle East in open letter to ADL

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  • The ADL said that past comments made by Ellison in 2010 imply that US interests in the Middle East are based on religiously or national origin-based special interests
  • Ellison denied that was his message he was trying to convey

Washington (CNN)Rep. Keith Ellison, a leading contender to be the next chairman of the Democratic National Committee, wrote an open letter to the Anti-Defamation League over past comments he made about American policy in the Middle East that the group says are "disqualifying."

The first Muslim elected to Congress responded to a statement issued by ADL's CEO Jonathan Greenblatt, who this week in a statement condemned a 2010 Ellison speech implying US policy in the region favored Israel at the expense of Muslim-majority countries -- "that U.S. foreign policy is based on religiously or national origin-based special interests rather than simply on America's best interests."
    "In a speech recorded in 2010 to a group of supporters, Rep. Ellison is heard suggesting that American foreign policy in the Middle East is driven by Israel, saying: 'The United States foreign policy in the Middle East is governed by what is good or bad through a country of 7 million people. A region of 350 million all turns on a country of 7 million. Does that make sense? Is that logic? Right? When the Americans who trace their roots back to those 350 million get involved, everything changes,'" the statement read.
    Greenblatt continued, "Rep. Ellison's remarks are both deeply disturbing and disqualifying."
    In Ellison's open letter to the ADL, he said his 2010 comments were "selectively edited and taken out of context by an individual the Southern Poverty Law Center has called an 'anti-Muslim extremist.'"
    "I wish we could have spoken once again before your most recent statement. If given the opportunity, I could have provided a full and proper explanation," Ellison wrote in the letter. "My memory is that I was responding to a question about how Americans with roots in the Middle East could engage in the political process in a more effective way. My advice was simply to get involved. I believe that Israel and the U.S.-Israel relationship are, and should be, key considerations in shaping U.S. policy in the Middle East."
    Ellison, who said he was "saddened" by the ADL statement, added that he wanted to meet soon with Greenblatt "to discuss our shared beliefs and commitment to fairness and justice," and said he was "committed to building a strong relationship with you."
    Ellison added that he thought the comments were being surfaced by unnamed "right-wing interests to drive a wedge between long-standing allies in the fight for equal rights."
    "My record proves my deep and long-lasting support for Israel, and I have always fought anti-Semitism, racism, sexism, and homophobia - the same values embodied by the Anti-Defamation League."
    Ellison is also facing criticism for past ties to the Nation of Islam and his defense of its anti-Semitic leader, Louis Farrakhan -- which are resurfacing as he campaigns to lead the DNC.
    CNN's KFile reviewed Ellison's past writings and public statements during the late 1980s through the 1990s, which revealed his decade-long involvement in the Nation of Islam. However, none of the records reviewed found examples of Ellison making any anti-Semitic comments himself, and Ellison disavowed his early comments in 2006 after it became an issue during his run for Congress.
    In his 2006 comments, Ellison wrote he had seen the Nation of Islam and the Million Man March as positive efforts to promote responsibility and economic development in the black community -- but added that he had failed to scrutinize the views of Farrakhan and Khalid Abdul Muhammad and wrongly dismissed concerns they were anti-Semitic.
    The American Jewish World endorsed Ellison in 2006, saying they were "convinced that Ellison has had a real change of heart and mind."
    And speaking to a synagogue in 2006, Ellison said he was confronting a past he wasn't proud of.
    "I wasn't proud of my work with the Nation of Islam," Ellison said at the time, "but I was hoping it wouldn't come up. I have come face to face with my past."