Opinion: Behind the revival of a civil rights partnership in Georgia

12/15/2020 —  Atlanta, Georgia — President-Elect Joseph Biden (center) greets the crowd with Georgia U.S. Democrat Senate candidates Rev. Raphael Warnock (left) and Jon Ossoff (right) following a “Get Ready to Vote” rally at Pratt-Pullman Yard in Atlanta’s Kirkwood neighborhood, Tuesday, December 15, 2020.  (Alyssa Pointer / Alyssa.Pointer@ajc.com)
12/15/2020 — Atlanta, Georgia — President-Elect Joseph Biden (center) greets the crowd with Georgia U.S. Democrat Senate candidates Rev. Raphael Warnock (left) and Jon Ossoff (right) following a “Get Ready to Vote” rally at Pratt-Pullman Yard in Atlanta’s Kirkwood neighborhood, Tuesday, December 15, 2020. (Alyssa Pointer / Alyssa.Pointer@ajc.com)

Credit: Alyssa Pointer / Alyssa.Pointer@ajc.com

Credit: Alyssa Pointer / Alyssa.Pointer@ajc.com

History never repeats itself. But Jon Ossoff and Raphael Warnock are trying to summon a rhyme from its dusty recesses. Their efforts to oust two GOP senators on Jan. 5 could depend upon it.

Last week, a new TV spot touting both candidates joined the countless others already filling up your living room. This one was different. It attacked no one, but focused on the symbiotic relationship between the two Democrats.

“You’ve got a young Jewish man and an African American pastor running together with shared values, shared commitment,” Warnock says in the 30-second video, the work of the Jewish Democratic Council of America.

In the ad, the pastor of Ebenezer Baptist Church points to the heady days of the civil rights movement, and the support that his church’s favorite son, Martin Luther King Jr., received from Atlanta’s Jewish community.

Warnock also invokes the names of James Chaney, Andrew Goodman, and Michael Schwerner — “two Jews and an African American who died fighting for voting rights” in 1964 Mississippi.

Just like Republican incumbents David Perdue and Kelly Loeffler, Ossoff and Warnock are running as a ticket. Unlike the GOP candidates, the Democrats are placing a multi-million dollar bet on the revival of a historic partnership.

Sequels have worked before. Whether this one can survive a no-holds-barred campaign in which control of a good portion of Washington is stake — well, that’s another matter.

Republican incumbent Loeffler and her allies, after combing through 15 years and more of Warnock’s sermons, have hurled charges of antisemitism and anti-Israel inferences at the Ebenezer pastor.

In 2019, Warnock was a member of a delegation of African American and South African church leaders who visited Israel. The Loeffler campaign points to a 2019 statement signed by Warnock and others afterwards, which said the “militarization of the West Bank, [was] reminiscent of the military occupation of Namibia by apartheid South Africa.”

A Loeffler TV ad points to a 2018 sermon in which Warnock insisted that “Palestinian lives matter.”

The barbs have had some effect. Earlier this month, in a call organized by the JDCA, Warnock made reference to that 2018 sermon — and slightly shifted his position.

“I was speaking to the issue of activists and human rights, and the ability of people to be heard. At the same time, I have an increasing recognition of Hamas and the danger that they pose to the Israeli people,” Warnock said.

Some Jewish leaders remain unmoved. Two leaders of Orthodox synagogues in Georgia — Rabbi Ilan Feldman of Congregation Beth Jacob in Atlanta, and Rabbi Avigdor Slatus of Congregation Bnai Brith Jacob in Savannah — this week signed onto a letter that included this harsh assessment:

“Only a fool, or someone callously unconcerned for the safety of Israel and the Jewish community, would grant credence to what he says on the campaign trail today to Jewish audiences, over what he said just a year ago in front of his own, supportive congregation.”

Attacks like these were anticipated by the Warnock campaign, which has long emphasized his Jewish support — including a long relationship with Rabbi Peter Berg, leader of Atlanta’s oldest Jewish congregation.

The Temple, too, is a touchstone of the civil rights era. White supremacists bombed the synagogue in 1958, a violent reaction to then-Rabbi Jacob Rothschild’s alliance with King.

But it is Warnock’s tandem appearances with Ossoff that may matter most now. The benefits are mutual.

Victory for Ossoff could hinge on enthusiastic turnout by the same Black voters who would like to see the first African American sent to the U.S. Senate from Georgia. (Ossoff would be the second Jewish candidate to win a statewide contest in modern Georgia history. The first was Attorney General Sam Olens.)

From Ossoff, Warnock receives daily inoculations against charges flung by Loeffler and others. The younger candidate has described Warnock as “a beloved friend and ally of Georgia’s Jewish community.”

As proof that GOP motives aren’t entirely virtuous, Ossoff sometimes gives mention to a widely criticized ad produced by the Perdue camp, in which Ossoff’s nose was lengthened.

GOP allegations that Warnock is “anti-Israel” have dual campaign purposes. A significant number of Jewish voters live in north metro Atlanta — an area slipping away from Republicans. Moreover, support for Israel is strongest among white evangelical Christians, an important base of support.

Ossoff and Warnock aren’t wholly disadvantaged. Many Jewish voters prioritize Israel as an issue. Others are worried about the rise of violence from homegrown, right-wing extremist groups. They’re made nervous by Loeffler’s alliance with congresswoman-elect Marjorie Taylor Greene, a Republican conspiracy theorist whose rallies are peppered with militia members. Last weekend, the Loeffler campaign quickly disavowed a photo of the candidate posing with a longtime white supremacist -- saying Loeffler had no idea who he was.

It’s also important to realize that debates over Israel have long been a part of the political dialogue in Georgia.

In 1979, Andrew Young, then the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, resigned in the aftermath of an unauthorized meeting with a Palestinian Liberation Organization official.

In the late 1980s and early ’90s, Atlanta was a hub of international opposition to apartheid in a white-ruled South Africa. The fact that Israel was a chief supplier of military hardware to the white supremacist regime resonated here.

Then there was Jimmy Carter. In November 2006, the former president published his 21st book, “Palestine Peace Not Apartheid.” (The former president insisted there was no punctuation in the title.)

Many Jews — along with others — viewed the book as one-sided and thinly researched, but were bothered most by Carter’s use of the loaded word “apartheid.” Fourteen members of a 200-member Carter Center advisory board, most of them Jewish, resigned in protest.

Four years later, Carter offered an Al Het — a prayer typically recited during Yom Kippur by a supplicant who begs God to forgive a sin.

So the accusations against Warnock are far from novel. There is a blueprint for dealing with them. But they also might be somewhat passé.

For decades, Arab nations insisted that the Israeli-Palestinian issue needed to be addressed before any larger peace negotiations could begin. That dynamic has changed — Arab worries over the rise of Iran have been given a higher priority.

In fact, one of the more important foreign policy accomplishments of the Trump administration has been bringing into public view the many secretive diplomatic ties that have existed between Israel and some of her Arab neighbors.

That has shifted the spotlight, for better or worse, away from the Palestinians and their place in Israel’s orbit. And that could make the accusations that Loeffler is hurling at Warnock slightly less volatile here in Georgia.

In Other News