WASHINGTON -- Rep. Keith Ellison, who is running for Democratic National Committee chairman and under fire for previous comments he made about Israel by the Anti Defamation League, received praise Friday from the liberal Jewish group J Street which said the criticism amounted to a smear campaign and was threatening of free speech.

"It is time to retire the playook that aims to silence any American official seeking high office who has dared to criticize certain Israeli government policies," J Street president Jeremy Ben-Ami in a statement. "J Street believes that this recurrent process undermines our ability to have open, honest and productive conversations about Israel and the Middle East in our national politics and that it does deep and lasting damage to the American Jewish community."

Ellison has come under pressure for past comments he made as a college student and affiliations with the Million Man March and the Nation of Islam.

Ellison said he distanced himself with Nation of Islam founder Louis Farrakhan after the 1995 March when he felt Farrakhan was better at criticizing people than unifying people. The Nation of Islam has been labeled a hate group by the Southern Poverty Law Center.

Ellison told the Star Tribune: "Any jackass can kick down a barn but it takes a carpenter to build one. Anyone can give a fiery speech but who is going to get out there and get on the ground and build something meaningful in a way that unifies all people."

His staff notes he has garnered endorsements from Democratic party leaders including Sen. Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren. Also endorsing him is Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, who is Jewish and supportive of Israel.

Ellison is in Denver at the Association of State Democratic Chairs meeting, where a number of voting DNC members are gathered. He faces three other candidates --  Ray Buckley, chair of the New Hampshire Democratic Party, Howard Dean, former DNC Chair and former governor of Vermont and Jamie Harrison, chair of the South Carolina Democratic party.