Tuesday’s two runoff elections in Georgia won’t just decide control of the U.S. Senate. They’ll also be significant symbolic wins for one or both sides of the polarized American Jewish community.
Thanks to several dramatic developments, including an infamous campaign ad, a year-old letter about a trip to Israel and a controversial photo taken with a white supremacist, the races have become a microcosm of big national Jewish political narratives. The Republicans in the races have cast the Democrats as part of the anti-Israel and socialist left. The Democrats have cast the Republicans as part of the white supremacist and antisemitic far right.
Here’s a recap of the Jewish drama in both races, which are going down to the wire.
The nose ad
In July, the campaign of the Republican incumbent, Sen. David Perdue, ran a Facebook ad for five days before observers noticed that it featured an image of Jon Ossoff, his Jewish opponent, with his nose digitally enhanced to appear longer than it is. The ad also featured Jewish Sen. Chuck Schumer and the phrase “Democrats are trying to buy Georgia!” (Jewish political donors such as George Soros and Michael Bloomberg have figured prominently in Republican attack ads that critics argue echo antisemitic tropes about Jews and money.)
Ossoff quickly pounced on the opportunity to call his opponent antisemitic. He has made the ad a centerpiece of his campaign’s attack against Perdue. In October, Ossoff brought the incident up at a debate with Perdue, accusing him of “lengthening my nose in attack ads to remind everybody that I’m Jewish.”
“Instead of leading and inspiring, he stoops to mocking the heritage of his political opponents,” Ossoff added. A clip of his impassioned jab went viral, and Perdue dropped out of their final debate.
Perdue has since appeared in multiple online meetings with the Republican Jewish Coalition but has not mentioned the ad.
Warnock’s Israel stance
The Rev. Raphael Warnock’s record on Israel came under scrutiny after Jewish Insider published an article about a visit the Democratic candidate made to the country with other Black clergy members In 2019. A pastor who helms the same Atlanta church that Martin Luther King, Jr. led for years, Warnock signed a letter that included — among several conclusions, including a renewed commitment to a two-state solution — a description of “the heavy militarization of the West Bank,” saying it was “reminiscent” of the way apartheid South Africa governed Namibia, its colony.
Jewish Insider also reported on a sermon Warnock gave in 2018, in which he criticized Israel: “We saw the government of Israel shoot down unarmed Palestinian sisters and brothers like birds of prey,” he said, in reference to Israel’s clashes with Hamas-led protesters at the Gaza border. “It is wrong to shoot down God’s children like they don’t matter at all. And it’s no more anti-Semitic for me to say that than it is anti-white for me to say that Black lives matter. Palestinian lives matter.”
The Republican incumbent, Sen. Kelly Loeffler, amplified the narrative, tweeting that Warnock has “a long history of anti-Israel extremism.”
.@ReverendWarnock has a long history of anti-Israel extremism. He defended Jeremiah Wright’s anti-Semitic comments. He embraced the anti-Zionist BLM organization. And he thinks Israel is an “oppressive regime” for fighting back against terrorism. https://t.co/QuuoqU9tIT #gapol
— Kelly Loeffler (@KLoeffler) November 10, 2020
She also claimed that Warnock “defended Jeremiah Wright’s anti-Semitic comments,” referring to the controversial Chicago pastor who counted Barack Obama as a congregant. But Warnock has only cited Wright’s call for greater racial justice, not the pastor’s slight against “them Jews” who he claimed in 2009 were responsible for keeping him away from Obama.
Warnock has since publicly clarified his stances on Israel-related issues. He has come out against the boycott Israel, or BDS, movement, and stated his support for defense aid to Israel and a two-state solution.
Warnock, who is Black, also lauded the historical Black-Jewish alliance in a campaign ad with Ossoff. Ossoff has called him a “beloved” ally of the state’s Jewish community. The Democratic Majority for Israel’s political action committee, which reflects centrist pro-Israel views, gave him a noteworthy endorsement. And multiple local Jewish organizers came to Warnock’s defense.
“He has been a friend to Atlanta’s Jewish community throughout his tenure at the Ebenezer Baptist Church and a regular speaker and visitor to Atlanta’s synagogues,” Valerie Habif and Joanie Shubin, who founded Jewish Democratic Women’s Salon, Atlanta, an activist group that helps elect Democrats in Georgia, said in a statement. “His support for Israel is unequivocal.”
Warnock hasn’t convinced everyone of his Israel support, including two prominent Orthodox rabbis in Georgia and Rabbi Avi Weiss, an Orthodox rabbi in New York who has been an outspoken pro-Israel activist for decades. But a group of over 200 rabbis and other faith leaders signed a statement in late November defending Warnock’s Israel comments.
Loeffler, a former business executive, raised eyebrows on the campaign trail by supporting Marjorie Taylor Greene, a Republican candidate for the House who boosted the QAnon conspiracy theory and signed a post that accuses Jews such as George Soros of being involved in it. Greene is now a member of Congress.
Loeffler courted more controversy when she appeared smiling in a photo with Chester Doles, a white supremacist convicted of beating a Black man whom he saw accompanying a white woman. Bend the Arc, a liberal Jewish activist group, helped the image go viral on Twitter.
Loeffler’s campaign quickly disavowed the photo and condemned Doles, saying “she had no idea who that was.”
Soon after, Bend the Arc surfaced another photo of Loeffler, this time posing with another member of Doles’ Georgia-based group, American Patriots USA (APUSA). The Southern Poverty Law Center calls APUSA a “white nationalist” group.
And Huff Post reported last month that Loeffler has also posed with members of the anti-government militia group Georgia III% Martyrs and gave an interview to Jack Posobiec, an OANN host who has past ties to white supremacist and neo-Nazi groups.
In a December debate, Loeffler brought up her criticisms of Warnock’s Israel comments and Warnock hit back on her photo ops.
“She says she is against racism and that racism has no place, but she welcomed the support of a QAnon conspiracy theorist and she sat down with a white supremacist for an interview,” Warnock said. “I don’t think she can explain that.”
Three Jewish letters — and one independent statement
Last month, the Atlanta Jewish Times asked all four candidates to submit statements making their cases to the state’s Jewish community. Ossoff, Perdue and Warnock published theirs in the Jewish newspaper — but Loeffler decided to publish her essay on her campaign website instead.
Ossoff mentioned his family’s Holocaust history. Purdue praised President Trump’s Israel policy. Warnock mentioned the historic ties between his church and the Atlanta Jewish community. Loeffler said Warnock would “add yet another voice to the anti-Israel cadre in Congress,” mentioning Reps. Ilhan Omar and Rashida Tlaib, who unlike Warnock support the BDS movement.