Opinion: ‘A Black man and a Jewish man walked into a bar’

Democratic candidates for U.S. Senate Jon Ossoff and Raphael Warnock, left, elbow bump after a meet and greet with supporters at the Cobb Civic Center on Sunday, Nov.15, 2020, in Marietta, Ga. (JOHN AMIS FOR THE ATLANTA JOURNAL-CONSTITUTION)

Credit: John Amis

Credit: John Amis

Democratic candidates for U.S. Senate Jon Ossoff and Raphael Warnock, left, elbow bump after a meet and greet with supporters at the Cobb Civic Center on Sunday, Nov.15, 2020, in Marietta, Ga. (JOHN AMIS FOR THE ATLANTA JOURNAL-CONSTITUTION)

The joke working its way through Georgia political circles early Wednesday afternoon began like this: “A Black man and a Jewish man walked into a bar.”

Then the punchline: “The bartender said, ‘Hey, senators.’”

The jest came to me via a Jon Ossoff staffer. Only a few hours earlier, her candidate had declared victory over U.S. Sen. David Perdue, giving Democrats control of the Senate for the first time in six years.

I immediately announced my intention to steal this 22-syllable work of art, because that’s what writers do. Then the mob inspired by President Donald Trump forced its way into the U.S. Capitol — and I thought it might be too flippant.

I’ve since reconsidered my reconsideration.

In all their brevity, these lines were an advance antidote to the poisonous Trump rally outside the White House later that afternoon. Which was followed by the surprisingly easy ransacking of a U.S. Capitol filled with lawmakers about to formally name Joe Biden the next president.

The Rev. Raphael Warnock, pastor of Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta, had claimed his Senate win over Republican incumbent Kelly Loeffler a few hours before Ossoff.

Together, the two Democrats are the antithesis of Trump’s America First platform and its wink-wink relationship with white nationalism. Warnock will be Georgia’s first Black senator in Washington. Ossoff will be our first Jewish senator.

The political shift in Georgia can be measured in a number of ways. These are the first statewide races won by non-incumbent Democrats since the party’s collapse in 2002. For the first time since 1992 (Sam Nunn and Wyche Fowler), Democrats will hold both Senate seats.

And the victories further emphasize the declining political influence of rural Georgia. Since World War II, only once before — and then only for a brief period in the late 1990s — have both U.S. senators had metro Atlanta roots. Max Cleland, a Democrat, hailed from Lithonia. Republican Paul Coverdell lived in north Fulton County.

The overtime contests were also a philosophical test fueled by well over half a billion dollars in the nine-week runoff alone. Perdue and Loeffler, following President Trump’s lead, emphasized a fear-based message, denouncing both Democrats as radical socialists.

Ossoff and Warnock threw their own hard punches, but overall — in TV spots that never ended and direct mail that never stopped — their messages were significantly more optimistic. Warnock’s portrayal of himself as a dog lover, a strategic means of overcoming white suspicions of Black men, smacked of pure genius.

But the most important aspect of Warnock and Ossoff’s tandem victories is the resurgence of a Black-Jewish political alliance that has never disappeared — but has kept a low profile in recent years.

If you don’t believe me, simply wait 10 days. The renewed coalition will be on full display on Martin Luther King Day on Jan. 18, in the sanctuary of Ebenezer Baptist Church. Warnock will still be the senior pastor. Ossoff is certain to be invited.

“I think about it with glee. I think it would be like a jubilee, a great celebration of two men from different walks of life,” said Leo Smith, referring to Ossoff’s private-school upbringing and Warnock’s beginnings in a Savannah public housing complex.

Smith is a somewhat neutral observer. He has a specific job he does each year for the King Center, which oversees the MLK Day ceremonies at Ebenezer. Smith, a Republican himself, coordinates the invitations sent out to GOP officials in Georgia.

“One of the things that attracted me in the last days of the campaign was how Jon Ossoff used his privilege of skin color to be able to carry a message that motivated a Black constituency,” said Smith, who is African American.

Much needed to be said to motivate Black voters in a runoff. “But Warnock, being afraid of looking like an unrespectable, scary Black candidate — he couldn’t do it. And Ossoff picked it up,” Smith said. The Jewish documentarian said what the Black pastor couldn’t.

“That is the ultimate in ally-ship,” Smith said.

Most Atlantans know of the crucible that formed the alliance between two of the more vulnerable groups in a segregated South. On Oct. 12, 1958, white supremacists bombed The Temple, home to the oldest Jewish congregation in Atlanta, in response to Rabbi Jacob Rothschild’s support of the civil rights movement — and Martin Luther King Jr.

In the weeks just past, The Temple’s current leader, Rabbi Peter Berg, defended Warnock from charges that he was anti-Israel.

“What did not prevail was the Republican attempt to divide that coalition that has been for many years a driving force in Democratic politics,” said Tharon Johnson, a party strategist.

Johnson noted that the late U.S. Rep. John Lewis often cited Jewish support as an important factor in his first race for the Atlanta City Council, then in his congressional race against fellow civil rights activist Julian Bond in 1986.

Ossoff was a college intern in Lewis’ congressional office (and was later a staffer for U.S. Rep. Hank Johnson, D-Lithonia.) Needless to say, Lewis became a featured part of Ossoff’s stump speech during his campaign.

Ossoff is not the first Jew to win a statewide, partisan election in modern Georgia. That honor goes to Sam Olens, a Republican elected state attorney general in 2010.

Olens has spoken, though infrequently, about the anti-Semitism that he encountered while running for office. He hasn’t chatted with Ossoff about his experience.

“If he would have asked me, I would have been happy to talk to him. I’ve had more familiarity with the Reverend Warnock,” Olens said. “I’ve been following and supporting the reverend’s positions on criminal justice reform. He’s also been active in the sex-trafficking reform effort.”

In the years after The Temple bombing, numerous Jews joined the civil rights movement — not just from the South, but from the Northeast as well. And they “can take much pride in the sweat, tears, and loss of life” that they endured, Olens said.

But such ties need to be renewed. Institutions such as the Anti-Defamation League and American Jewish Committee, Olens notes, have kept up formal ties with parallel organizations in the Black community. But the original participants from the 1950s and ’60s are fading away.

And U.S. policy toward Israel, and Israeli treatment of Palestinians, has also complicated the alliance.

That’s one reason that celebrations of Tuesday’s wins are likely to be more overt in Black households than Jewish ones, said Rabbi Josh Lesser of Bet Haverim in Atlanta, an LGBT-founded congregation. Lesser is a longtime ally of Warnock, particularly on death penalty issues. He presided over the bat mitzvah of Dr. Alisha Kramer, an obstetrician who is married to Jon Ossoff.

“I think when we’re looking at them, we are seeing something new,” Lesser said.

The current Black-Jewish alliance remains a work in progress, the rabbi said. Race is one issue. “On the Jewish side, when Rabbi Rothchild was leading The Temple, there were congregants who didn’t want Rothschild to do that work,” Lesser said.

Tests of allegiance to Israel can have a secondary motive. “Sometimes it can be a façade, so that our community doesn’t have to do the work of examining the racism that exists behind it,” the rabbi said. “As uncomfortable as that is to say out loud, for it to be healed, it must be said.

“There’s also anti-Semitism, or even Christian hegemony, that needs to be healed within the Black Christian community. So it’s not like we don’t all have our work to do,” Lesser said.

But in a South that is increasingly polarized politically, working those differences out is essential.

“If we don’t understand that our survival and thriving depend on nurturing this kind of affiliation and coalition, then we will find ourselves in trouble,” the rabbi said. “When Jon and Raphael call each other brother, we need to figure out what that kinship can really look like.”

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