Orthodox rabbis condemn Warnock’s past Israel comments

Ossoff, other rabbis, stand by the Ebenezer pastor

Two prominent Orthodox rabbis from Georgia are speaking out about their concerns over Rev. Raphael Warnock and past statements he has made about Israelis and Palestinians.

“We are concerned and hurt by the manner in which the Reverend brushed aside his past rhetoric against Israel and the Jewish community, and even blamed his opponents for ‘trying to use Israel as yet another wedge issue,’” Rabbi Ilan Feldman from Atlanta’s Congregation Beth Jacob and Rabbi Avigdor Slatus from Congregation Bnai Brith Jacob in Savannah wrote in a letter to the Warnock campaign this week.

Republicans in the state have also seized on Warnock’s comments to undercut the Democrats’ support with Jewish Georgia voters, while Democrats, including Warnock, have said his remarks have been taken out of context and that he is a strong supporter of Israel.

With the margins so close in November, both campaigns are fighting for every vote they can get ahead of the Jan. 5th Senate runoffs.

Feldman and Slatus were joined by two rabbis from outside of Georgia on the letter from the Coalition for Jewish Values. The coalition was founded in 2017 by a group of conservative Jewish leaders and has spoken out in strong support of President Donald Trump’s policies toward Israel.

Rabbi Feldman is not a member of the coalition, but he said in an interview that he reached out to the group when he learned of their concern over Warnock’s past statements, which have been the subject of extensive media coverage. He added that he has never spoken with Warnock, Loeffler, nor either of the two Senate campaigns.

“This is not about politics,” he said. “This is about a danger sign.”

Specifically, Feldman said he is worried about a letter that Warnock signed in 2018 after a trip of international clergy to the Middle East. In the letter, the clergy compared the military presence of the West Bank to “military occupation of Namibia by apartheid South Africa.”

Feldman also pointed to Warnock’s 2018 sermon in which the pastor said the Israeli military shot down “unarmed Palestinian sisters and brothers like birds of prey.”

“I can’t characterize what’s in a man’s heart,” Feldman said of Warnock. “I can only say that certain comments provide a safe haven for those that do have anti-semitic views.”

Since becoming a candidate, Warnock has repeatedly stated his support for Israel, as well as his preference for a two-state solution for Middle East peace. He has also rejected accusations that he has called Israel “an Apartheid state” as false.

But he and other Democrats have had to play defense on the issue. This week, the the Jewish Democratic Council of America released an ad called “Shared Values” to reiterate their support for both candidates.

And other Jewish leaders have spoken out about their longtime friendships and interfaith work with Warnock.

“I would be transparent with my folks if I thought that Rev. Warnock was either anti-semitic, which he’s the furthest thing from, or if I thought he was anti-Israel, which I don’t believe he is,” said Rabbi Josh Lesser, of Atlanta’s Congregation Bet Haverim, who has known Warnock for more than 15 years.

Lesser said that he appreciates Feldman’s role at his own congregation, but, “I think the difference is I actually have a relationship with Rev. Warnock, while he is judging from a few clips.”

Along with Lesser, a group of nearly 200 rabbis, including more than a dozen from Georgia, have signed a letter in support of Warnock. And Jon Ossoff, who is Jewish, has stood by Warnock without qualification.

Emotions over the issue have only intensified as the runoffs have approached, with both campaigns firing off blistering statements against each other.

Stephen Lawson, Loeffler’s spokesman, called Warnock’s record on Israel “appalling,” which he added, “is why the Jewish community and leaders of faith are united in standing up and speaking out against his attacks on our nation’s strongest ally.”

But Michael Brewer, Warnock’s spokesman, defended the pastor as having been “clear that he supports Israel and will continue to support Israel in the U.S. Senate.”

Brewer also charged that Loeffler is “trying to misrepresent Reverend Warnock’s views and his interfaith work in an effort to distract from her own negative, divisive campaign, which has now twice had to try and distance itself from a known white supremacist and KKK leader.”

At a recent campaign event, Loeffler posed for a photo with Chester Doles, a longtime white supremacist who spent decades in the Ku Klux Klan and the neo-Nazi National Alliance.

Lawson said that the senator “had no idea who that was” and would have kicked Doles out of the event had she recognized him as a known white supremacist.

The issue of Israel and the middle future of the Middle East is important not just to Jewish voters, but also to evangelical Christians who form a large part of the GOP base.

As such, Warnock’s comments about Israel have been part of a multi-million ad campaign from Loeffler, which calls Warnock “dangerous for America.”

Even Vice President Mike Pence raised the issue at his rally in Columbus Thursday.

But Rabbi Feldman maintained the statements Warnock made before the 2020 Senate campaign ever began are what he is focused on.

“That, to me, means more than what somebody says when they’re trying to get my vote.”