How Israel and Antisemitism Helped Shape Georgia's High-stake Senate Race

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Democratic Senate candidate Jon Ossoff speaks at a campaign event ahead of Georgia's runoff election, Savannah, Georgia, January 3, 2021.
Democratic Senate candidate Jon Ossoff speaks at a campaign event ahead of Georgia's runoff election, Savannah, Georgia, January 3, 2021.Credit: MIKE SEGAR/ REUTERS

WASHINGTON – Tuesday’s runoff election for Georgia’s two Senate seats marks the culmination of an unprecedented year of campaigning, fundraising and voter turnout. With control of the U.S. Senate at stake, both Democrats and Republicans have used allegations of antisemitism and “anti-Israel” scandals as talking points for why their opponents are not fit for office.

Jon Ossoff, 33, one of the two Democrats running in the Senate double-header, has become one of the most high-profile Jewish Democratic politicians in America in recent months. He has long embraced his heritage, highlighting how growing up Jewish taught him to fight for social justice.

“I’m descended from Ashkenazi immigrants who fled pogroms in the early 20th century, and I grew up among relatives who were Holocaust survivors,” he told Haaretz in December. “So my Jewish upbringing instilled in me a conviction to fight for the marginalized and oppressed, and also to be vigilant where there’s the risk that authoritarianism may emerge.”

Ossoff is running against incumbent Republican Sen. David Perdue, who earned more votes than Ossoff in November’s election but failed to earn the requisite total to make him the election’s outright winner. Over the summer, Perdue ran an attack ad appearing to digitally enhance the size of Ossoff’s nose, which his campaign termed an “unintentional error.”

“First, you were lengthening my nose in attack ads to remind everybody that I’m Jewish,” Ossoff told Perdue at a debate. “Then, when that didn’t work, you started calling me some kind of an Islamic terrorist. And then, when that didn’t work, you started calling me a Chinese communist.”

Ossoff later called Perdue a “virulent and unrepentant anti-Semite” after Perdue declined to issue a public apology. “A U.S. senator who uses ancient anti-Semitic imagery to inflame hatred against his Jewish opponent must be crushed by Jewish voters on Election Day,” Ossoff wrote about the incident last month.

In conversations Haaretz, Ossoff, who recently set the record for most funds raised in a quarter in U.S. history, highlighted the dangerous rise in right-wing extremism over the past several years and noting that the “renaissance of civic engagement rejects right-wing extremism and now has served to defeat [U.S. President] Donald Trump. The task at hand is to ensure that this movement blossoms and continues as more than mere opposition.”

Meanwhile, Perdue has highlighted his support for Trump’s Israel policies over the past four years – including U.S. recognition of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital, moving the embassy there, withdrawing from the Iran nuclear deal, and the Abraham Accords peace deals with several Arab countries. Perdue also called fighting antisemitism “in all forms and at all levels” a top priority, arguing that the boycott, divestment and sanctions movement “has served as a catalyst to the rising frequency of attacks against Jews.”

Perdue has also used Ossoff’s alliance with fellow Democratic candidate Rev. Raphael Warnock to urge Jewish voters to vote for Republicans. Perdue and his fellow Republican incumbent, Sen. Kelly Loeffler, have made Warnock’s views on Israel as central tenants of their campaign.

“Jon Ossoff has chosen to stand side-by-side with and defend his running mate Raphael Warnock, whose unacceptable positions include comparing Israel to apartheid South Africa, celebrating renowned anti-Semite Jeremiah Wright, and likening Israel’s sitting prime minister to segregationists,” Perdue wrote.

Warnock said in a 2016 sermon that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s policies were “tantamount to saying occupation today, occupation tomorrow, occupation forever,” echoing segregationist George Wallace’s comment of “segregation now, segregation tomorrow and segregation forever.” In past sermons, he has criticized the way the Israeli military handled Palestinian demonstrators during protests at the Gaza border.

“Rev. Warnock has a long history of anti-Israel extremism. He defended Jeremiah Wright’s antisemitic comments. He embraced the anti-Zionist Black Lives Matter organization. And he thinks Israel is an ‘oppressive regime’ for fighting back against terrorism,” Loeffler tweeted in November.

Like Perdue, Loeffler has similarly praised Trump’s Israel and Middle East policies and highlighted the BDS movement as a reason for the “exponential rise in antisemitic attacks across the nation over the last few years.”

In response, Warnock said that “My opponents are trying to use Israel as a wedge issue. I wish I were surprised. I do not believe Israel is an apartheid state, as some have suggested.” He has since been endorsed by the Democratic Majority for Israel, a centrist pro-Israel political action committee, thanks to his support of U.S. military aid to Israel and his strong condemnation of the BDS movement. He has also said he has developed a greater understanding of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, criticizing Hamas and rejecting any equivalency between Israel and apartheid.

Warnock has also discussed his own ties to Atlanta’s Jewish community. He connected the 1958 bombing of The Temple, a reform synagogue in Atlanta, over the congregation’s support of the civil rights movement to how the Black and Jewish communities came together after the Tree of Life massacre in Pittsburgh two years ago, where 11 Jewish worshippers were murdered by a white nationalist, and the protests that swept America following George Floyd’s death at the hands of a police officer last May.

Ossoff has echoed the importance of this Black-Jewish alliance, telling Haaretz that “In the last decade, we’ve been building a multiracial, multigenerational coalition across race and faith lines committed to lifting working people of all backgrounds.”

Loeffler, for her part, has been attacked for her alleged ties to antisemitic and far-right movements. Warnock has frequently criticized her for campaigning alongside Marjorie Taylor Greene, a newly elected House member who supports the QAnon conspiracy theory, which is riddled with antisemitic ideas. Despite the antisemitic nature of this conspiracy theory, Leoffler celebrated Greene’s endorsement. She was also criticized for being photographed with a convicted felon who for decades has associated with white supremacist groups, including the Ku Klux Klan and the neo-Nazi National Alliance. Loeffler said she had “no idea who that was.”

There are about 100,000 registered Jewish voters in the state, with some 36,000 identifying as Democrats and a further 50,000 as independents. These Jewish voters could very well determine who wins the razor-thin majority which would decide if U.S. President-elect Joe Biden will have both houses of Congress by his side.

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