By Benjamin Kweskin
Native Atlantan Ceasar Mitchell was one of four leaders nationwide who were selected to participate in the “Winning the Future” panel at the AIPAC Policy Conference in Washington in March.
Mitchell serves as the president of the Atlanta City Council and is strongly considering a run for mayor in 2017, when Mayor Kasim Reed won’t be able to run for a third term. Mitchell also served several years as a citywide council member.
He is committed to education, most noticeably in his college admissions exam preparation program. He is an honor graduate of Morehouse College and earned his law degree from the University of Georgia.
He has been featured in Georgia Trend as one of Georgia’s 40 Under 40 and in Atlanta Magazine’s Super Lawyers Edition as a rising star. Recently he was named one of Atlanta’s 100 most influential people.
In a press release after the AIPAC conference, Mitchell said: “This is perhaps one of the most influential events of the year for the pro-Israel community, many of whom live and work in the city of Atlanta. At a time of unprecedented challenge and opportunity in the Middle East, I am proud to join this distinguished group of young, elected officials and represent African-American leaders who are becoming voices on this important issue.”
Mitchell talked to the AJT about AIPAC, Israel, American Jewish Committee’s Project Understanding and more.
AJT: You have been involved with the Jewish community for several years. Why is this something important for you?
Mitchell: As a young lawyer before being elected to public office, I was involved with AJC’s Project Understanding, which helps bridge gaps and misunderstandings between Atlanta’s Jewish and black communities. It opened me up and contextualized the world to conversations and issues relevant to the black experiences and beyond. When I was attending Morehouse College, of course I was exposed to black history and the civil rights movement, but this education also included a lot of white faces that didn’t have typical last names. Later on, I learned many of these people were Jewish. Project Understanding also made me realize that there is a real power in genuine relationships that are essential in overcoming barriers.
AJT: AIPAC’s “Winning the Future” panel this year explored why and how the next generation of African-American officials can support Israel. What were some of the key takeaways from this discussion? How was this year’s conference different from the one you attended in 2013? What were some of the challenges highlighted?
Mitchell: It is important to note that there are some risks as an African-American leader taking such a bold stance in support of Israel. Some may claim we are neglecting our own neighborhoods. Ours is a community at a crossroads with some political issues and policies. In other words, we need to decide who is our enemy and who is not. Is the Middle East conflict our fight too? We also recognize there can be some tension with Christians, Muslims and Jews. Yes, there is sometimes tension in the black-Jewish communities. Some may question whether Jews truly care about our needs and struggles. For example — and I’m not necessarily for or against #BlackLivesMatter — but a Jewish person who supports that struggle may not always feel welcome if black issues in the U.S. are conflated with those in Israel.
On the actual panel, Amanda Edwards, a city councilwoman from Houston, Texas, encouraged debate and conversations on these difficult issues because sometimes we need them. This is what was also great about Project Understanding, by the way, which I am a strong supporter of, and this is partially why I think Atlanta is special. Here, we have strong black and Jewish leaders, and we come from a history of inclusiveness. We also have the (Martin Luther King Jr.) Center and the National Center for Civil and Human Rights. To this end, education is key, and we all need mutual partnerships to continue to foster genuine relations. In some cases we are literally fighting for the souls of our kids, so let’s put our tools and resources together.
AJT: In 2009 you were instrumental in the Atlanta City Council passing an Iranian divestment resolution. Can you articulate a bit about this: How does it affect Atlanta, and why it was important to pass such legislation? Was it merely symbolic legislation?
Mitchell: This legislation expresses the belief of the city’s population. We wanted to take a stand, and we wanted to support federal policy as well. We also included Sudan in this legislation because there was terrorism emanating from that country — even years before Darfur became an issue. Atlanta decided it would not do business with companies that invest in Iran and Sudan, and it does have an impact.
AJT: Several years ago, you and other African-American political leaders and activists visited Israel to participate in an American Israel Education Foundation seminar. How important was this trip, and what did you learn? Did you meet with diverse groups of Israelis and/or Palestinians? What was most surprising for you?
Mitchell: The leadership wanted to build on its outreach program of African-American political leadership, and we developed a relationship. AIEF and AIPAC both sought to have firsthand experiences in Israel, and it was an important trip for me and all of us. It was very educational: There is a powerful significance to the fact you have the three monotheistic religions originating from this specific area. But it is also bad and sad: With all the beauty we saw comes such horror.
We went to Sderot and saw how kids are forced to play inside, and we saw that one neighborhood to another in Jerusalem can be so different and the people there can hold such different worldviews. We know that there are many people on both sides wanting peace but simply cannot grasp it. We can see from all this that history is living.
AJT: What is your position on a Palestinian state, and what should it look like?
Mitchell: Whatever lasting peace is, it must begin in Israel; whatever solutions are made will become seeds for peace. I fundamentally believe that. To this extent, the United States has a role to play because we are the world’s greatest democracy, and Israel is one of the only democracies in the region. The path taken should be one toward peace vs. personal views. I’m engaged because I believe in peace.
AJT: Recently, many Jews have become disillusioned with President Barack Obama’s policies vis-a-vis Israel. Can you speak to this? Is President Obama anti-Israel?
Mitchell: Such criticism of President Obama is both unfortunate and unfair. There have not been any changes in actual policy, nor in financial assistance to Israel. The president is looking at balance and equality. As president, I expect candidates to look at this issue [Middle East conflict] through their professional lens, and Obama has done just that.
AJT: This year is a contentious one, as our country will soon choose a president. As it relates to Israel, how do you find the presidential candidates? Are Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump and Ted Cruz sufficiently pro-Israel, and is Bernie Sanders truly anti-Israel?
Mitchell: Are there candidates that are pro-peace? That’s the question to ask. And I would feel silly to say that Bernie Sanders is anti-Israel.
AJT: Israel is home to roughly 140,000 Ethiopian Jews. What are some of the similarities and differences with their socio-political and economic challenges there and the African-American experience in the U.S. today?
Mitchell: We once visited an Ethiopian and Russian orphanage, and some of us were crying because we saw how even after many of the kids grew up, they came back and maintained their friendships, and some even got married there. Israel is a young country — as is the U.S. — and if you want to be the best version of yourself, you have to work on your worst parts. To be an example of freedom and justice, this is what has to happen.
AJT: Some state officials, particularly in the South, have been very opposed to welcoming refugees from the Middle East. What do you make of all the surrounding issues, and where do you stand?
Mitchell: I support embracing refugees, and we should do so responsibly and ensure the safety for our communities. These refugees should be treated equally and with respect. There is a lot of misinformation and large gaps between myths and facts. We must also recognize that we are in a war with terrorism, so the American public and political leadership are conflicted on this issue.