Viewed from inside a Jewish bubble, the major issues in the Jan. 5 runoff elections for Georgia’s two U.S. Senate seats may appear to be Israel and anti-Semitism.
There are, of course, other important issues and other constituencies to be courted, but the appeals to Jewish voters reflect the potential importance of an otherwise tiny slice of the electorate. At stake is whether Republicans retain their Senate majority or whether Democrats take control. If Democrats win both Georgia seats, the Senate will be divided 50-50 and the vice president, projected to be Democrat Kamala Harris, would hold the deciding vote.
Jews make up an estimated 1.2 percent of Georgia residents. Analysis of population demographics, voter registration data, and estimates of the Jewish population suggest that there may be some 90,000 registered Jewish voters in the state. The greater propensity of Jews to vote than the population, in general, and a propensity by the population, in general, to turn out in lesser numbers for runoffs combine to make the Jewish vote more of a prize.
That is why Republicans are focusing on Democrat Raphael Warnock, the African American minister challenging interim Republican Sen. Kelly Loeffler, while not ignoring Democrat Jon Ossoff, the Jewish native of DeKalb County seeking to unseat incumbent Republican Sen. David Perdue.
For Jewish voters, the truth is in the eye of the beholder.
One side sees Warnock, the senior pastor of the historic Ebenezer Baptist Church, as the friend who spoke at an Israel 70th anniversary celebration hosted by the Israeli consulate; accompanied Rabbi Peter Berg of The Temple to the 2019 AIPAC (American Israel Public Affairs Committee) conference in Washington, D.C.; voices support for a two-state solution between Israel and the Palestinians; and opposes the BDS (boycott, divestment and sanctions) movement.
The other views Warnock as an enemy who accused Israeli troops of shooting “unarmed Palestinian sisters and brothers like birds of prey,” during a May 2018 sermon; signed a letter critical of Israeli policies after a 2019 National Council of Churches trip to Israel and the Palestinian territories; and defended controversial Chicago minister Rev. Jeremiah Wright.
Republicans hope that repetition of such statements will pry Jewish votes away from not only Warnock but also Ossoff. In response to calls that he repudiate his “running mate,” Ossoff told the Forward, “Reverend Warnock is a beloved friend and ally of Georgia’s Jewish community and a friend of Israel.”
“Are these tactics or informing the public?” asked Jon Barry, who is active in Atlanta with the Republican Jewish Coalition as well as with AIPAC and Israel Bonds. “The voters should be aware of the associations that Ossoff has with [Democratic congressman] Hank Johnson and Warnock has or had with Reverend Wright and what he said.”
Barry continued, “I would agree the Republicans are taking an offensive posture, because not only are the policies of the two Democratic candidates subject to scrutiny, in terms of whether they are truly good for Jews and Israel, we have seen a movement in general by Democrats away from support for Israel in recent years.”
Democrats have taken an offensive posture on other subjects, most notably alleging ethical impropriety in stock trades by Loeffler and Perdue, as well as criticizing the Republicans’ stance on responding to the COVID-19 pandemic.
Lindy Miller, who has remained active in progressive politics after her unsuccessful 2018 run for the state Public Service Commission, takes a different view of the Republican strategy. “When you’re playing defense then you know that the political world as you know it is shifting under your feet,” Miller said, citing as evidence Georgia recently backing the Democratic candidate for president for the first time since 1992.
Miller said Republicans are using Israel as a “red herring,” to distract from other issues. “They’re creating a wedge issue, trying to divide not only the Jewish community but also the Jewish and Black communities from each other,” she said. “Fear drives wedges into different identity groups and tries to create a world where it’s a zero-sum game and [an attitude of] ’we have to hold onto what we’ve got.’”
By making Israel a central issue, “You are assuming that Jews are different than everyone else. It’s a form of ‘othering,’” Miller said. “Jewish voters care deeply about the issues that all Americans care about.” She mentioned COVID-19, the economy, returning children to their classrooms, being able to pay their bills, as well as abortion rights and women’s health issues.
How the Jewish vote is sought concerns Allison Padilla-Goodman, vice president of the Southern Division of the Anti-Defamation League. “Jewish Georgians are like all Georgians, and all Americans for that matter, in wanting to see a free, fair and smooth election in the Senate runoffs this January. We are well aware of the major political ramifications these two races hold and understand that with such high stakes, the campaign has the potential to turn ugly if all parties are not careful. It is our hope that anti-semitism, racism, xenophobia, and all forms of bigotry stay out of our democratic process and that the candidates are judged based on the merits of their positions and character,” Padilla-Goodman told the AJT.
More than a dozen Atlanta rabbis and other Jewish clergy were among some 200 Jewish faith leaders nationally who signed a letter accusing Republicans of distorting Warnock’s statements. “As rabbis and religious leaders, we recognize and respect the devotion to his Christian faith that underlies Rev. Raphael Warnock’s strong support for Israel and his partnership with the Jewish people. Rev. Warnock recognizes that being a true friend also means being a truth-teller who does not shy away from hard conversations, and he has made no secret of his strong reservations and concerns over Israeli settlement expansion, which may impede prospects for a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict,” read the letter organized by the Jewish Democratic Council of America, reported first by the Jewish Insider.
“We sign this letter not as an endorsement of a particular candidate, but a rejection of false and divisive slander entering our community,” the letter said.
Matt Brooks, executive director of the Republican Jewish Coalition, told the Jewish Insider that the letter was a “sad attempt by members of the Jewish community to give a hechsher [rabbinical certification] to Rev. Warnock, who is far from kosher on the critical issues that the Jewish community cares about.”
The RJC took out a two-page ad inside the front cover of the Nov. 30 edition of the AJT. Atop the left side was an image of an angry-looking Ossoff, tying him to “the far-left pro-Palestinian group J Street,” and below that, a photo of Ossoff’s “mentor,” Democratic Rep. Hank Johnson, from Georgia’s 4th Congressional District.
“That’s right, the same Hank Johnson who called Jews living in Israeli settlements ‘termites.’ Hank Johnson is a vile anti-Semite. And Jon Ossoff worked for him,” the ad states.
Note: Ossoff left Johnson’s Capitol Hill staff in 2012. In 2016, Johnson compared West Bank housing construction to “a steady [stream], almost like termites can get into a residence and eat before you know that you’ve been eaten up and you fall in on yourself.” His office later said that Johnson “did not intend to insult or speak derogatorily of Israelis or the Jewish people.”
The headline on the opposite page of the RJC ad declared: “Raphael Warnock is no friend of the Jewish people.” The ad lifted the “birds of prey” from the 2018 sermon and cited Warnock’s efforts in 2008 and later to defend and explain the April 2003 Palm Sunday sermon at Trinity United Church of Christ in which Wright said, “God damn America.” The latter controversy prompted Barack and Michelle Obama to resign from the church during the 2008 presidential campaign.
Warnock’s 2018 sermon was delivered after the opening of the U.S. Embassy in Jerusalem. He told his congregation, “Standing there the president’s family and the few mealy mouth evangelical preachers, who are responsible for the mess that we found ourselves in both there and here. Misquoting and misinterpreting the scripture. Talking about peace. Meanwhile young Palestinian brothers and sisters who are struggling for their very lives, struggling for water, and struggling for their human dignity stood up in a nonviolent protest. Saying that if we are going to die, we are going to die struggling . . . We saw the government of Israel shoot down unarmed Palestinian sisters and brothers like birds of prey. And I don’t care who does it, it’s wrong, it’s wrong to shoot down God’s children like they don’t matter at all. And it’s not more anti-semitic for me to say that than it is anti-white for me for me to say that Black lives matter. Palestinian lives matter.”
- Dave Schechter
- Georgia election
- Raphael Warnock
- Rabbi Peter Berg
- Jeremiah Wright
- Jon Ossoff
- Republican Jewish Coalition
- Lindy Miller
- Hank Johnson
- Public Service Commission
- Kelly Loeffler
- David Perdue
- Ebenezer Baptist Church