The world is learning a lot about Georgia and how it feels about Jews.
On the one hand, a Jewish Democrat named Jon Ossoff – along with a progressive Black minister – were elected as the state’s senators, tipping the national legislative balance to the Democrats.
One the other, newly-elected Congresswoman Marjorie Taylor Greene, a Republican representing a district in the state’s northwest, was stripped of her committee assignments for promoting kooky QAnon conspiracy theories, including a belief in Jewish-run space lasers.
Is Georgia a forward-thinking haven, or the deep racist and antisemitic south? The answer is both, and confronting that reality is a priority in these polarizing times.
Antisemitism has long been a fear for Georgia’s Jewish population, even as many of the state’s Jewish families live middle-class (and beyond) lives. Today, the Temple – the Atlanta synagogue where both Ossoff and I had bar mitzvahs, sits as an established pillar of the community, but its bombing by white supremacists in 1958 has long sat in the congregation’s mind. The lynching of Leo Frank was a reminder for many of how Jews were victims of racist terrorism.
Those incidents might seem like long ago, but they come to mind whenever a place like Pittsburgh’s Tree of Life synagogue is shot up or the far-right makes a Jewish philanthropist, George Soros, a symbol of anti-Christian communist conspiracies.
Growing up in the 90s, I found the "othering" of Jews to take on subtler, but still pernicious, form. Georgia Jews saw attempts to establish prayer in the state’s schools as enforcement of Christian hegemony and a rejection of the separation between church and state.
At that time, I often encountered Christian children who were simply perplexed that Jews didn’t believe in Jesus Christ. It wasn’t overt hostility, but looking back it’s hard to shake the feeling that if someone couldn’t fathom your religion or culture, they could come to fear you, too. And these conversations didn’t take place in backwaters, but in the well-manicured suburbs that surround Atlanta.
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It’s easy, then, to believe that someone like this could become extreme if exposed to dangerous political ideas. Greene herself is no bumpkin – she grew up in an Atlanta suburb and received a business degree from the University of Georgia.
Greene is extreme, but hardly alone, evidenced by the fact that the voters of her district found her fit for national office.
Former Speaker of the House (representing Georgia) Newt Gingrich has invoked the anti-Semitic "blame Soros" card in the false claim that he orchestrated the Black Lives Matter protests of 2020 – it’s the age-old white supremacist theory that a cabal of sinister Jews are instructing the inferior Black race in a campaign to bring down the West. Again, Gingrich doesn’t represent some uneducated wasteland – he’s a former history professor at the University of West Georgia.
Fox News host Sean Hannity has also been hit with charges of anti-Semitism – Georgians have known Hannity long before his Fox days, as he was a raving right-wing radio hound who blasted liberal anti-Christian crusaders as host at Atlanta-area station WGST.
It wasn’t always the right that was a problem – former Congresswoman Cynthia McKinney, a Black Democrat, was often plagued by accusations of antisemitism (and her father was certainly an outspoken Jew-hater), but voters eventually sent her packing and she’s been relegated to obscurity. Meanwhile, Greene, Gingrich and Hannity are prominent voices in the American right.
Georgia’s Jews’ fear manifests today. In Savannah, the Jewish community has reported an uptick in antisemitic activity. While Ossoff won his campaign, he did have to endure antisemitic campaigning from his Republican opponent. And when he was gunning for a congressional seat three years ago, a Republican mayor of a well-to-do Atlanta suburb dismissed him for having an "ethnic-sounding" name.
Greene has been a follower of QAnon, a conspiracy-driven cult that many experts say is rooted in long-standing antisemitic mythology like the Protocols of the Elders of Zion.
There is often a liberal condescension – especially when one first glances at the differences between Ossoff and Greene – that such quackery exists only in the hinterlands, that respectable urban society isn’t affected by this. But as Georgia shows, that’s not true. Georgia’s anti-Semitic history isn’t about enlightened, liberal Atlanta and Savannah versus the southern swamplands and the northern mountains.
The anger is rooted across class and geography – the Atlantic reported that 40 percent of those who participated in the QAnon-inspired January 6 riot at the U.S. Capitol were "business owners or hold white-collar jobs."
It’s a reminder that in the United States, especially outside of Jewish strongholds like New York City, progress for Jews, embodied in Ossoff’s election to represent Georgia in the senate, is still met by equal antisemitic resistance, embodied in Greene.
What’s the solution? At least one congressman believes her removal from committees isn’t enough and that she must be expelled from the legislature completely.
Anti-Semitism will never fully be stamped out in Georgia – or Ukraine or Hungary for that matter – and, worse, it seems to be have rising value in what we used to consider mainstream conservative movements. It's important, then, that Jews and non-Jews treat Greene not as some comical buffoon, but as what she should be: a pariah.