Jewish Atlanta Remembers Isakson as a Friend

Jewish Atlanta Remembers Isakson as a Friend

The late Senator was “an incredible example of the importance of finding common ground and mutual respect.”

Dave Schechter is a veteran journalist whose career includes writing and producing reports from Israel and elsewhere in the Middle East.

Johnny Isakson knew that his name caused confusion.

“I have a Jewish-sounding last name,” Isakson, a Methodist of Swedish descent, told the Rotary Club of Atlanta’s annual interfaith prayer breakfast several years ago. Isakson then recalled being in a car with people who stopped themselves from making an anti-Semitic comment because they thought he might be Jewish, according to the Saporta Report.

The 76-year-old Isakson, who resigned his seat in the U.S. Senate at the end of 2019 because of Parkinson’s disease and other ailments, died Dec. 19.

Throughout his political career, Isakson positioned himself as a friend of the Jewish community and of Israel, and that was the theme of the reaction to his death.

“Johnny was quite frankly the best public servant I have ever met. He truly cared, about his community, state and country. Despite his illness, he flew several times to bring back hostages in hostile lands without ever seeking recognition. His leadership to improve the lives of our veterans and efforts to strengthen ethics in Congress is the gold standard. Never afraid to go after bullies, he criticized [former President Donald] Trump when he attacked former Senator [John] McCain upon his death,” said Sam Olens, former Georgia attorney general and Cobb County Board of Commissioners chairman.

“Our friend Johnny Isakson always sought to do what is right, making us a better nation. You could not have a better mentor. And if you look in the dictionary under public servant, you can find his photograph,” Olens said.

After the Oct. 27, 2018, massacre of 11 worshippers at the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh, Isakson said, “I am outraged and saddened by the horrible act of terror that took place at the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh. I condemn any such act and stand in solidarity with our ally Israel and all Jewish Americans. This type of hate and bigotry has no place in America.”

Isakson co-sponsored legislation objecting to the December 2016 United Nations Security Council resolution that declared Israeli settlements in “Palestinian territories occupied since 1967, including East Jerusalem” to be a “flagrant violation” of international law with “no legal validity.” The U.S. abstained from the 14-0 Security Council vote, a controversial decision by the administration of President Barack Obama.

Isakson supported Trump’s decision to relocate the U.S. embassy in Israel to Jerusalem from Tel Aviv. “Israel has been a reliable and valuable partner to the United States in a volatile region. For nearly seven decades, Jerusalem has been recognized as the capital of Israel and the seat of its democratic institutions. Two decades ago, Congress passed bipartisan legislation recognizing the same reality. Today’s news solidifies that the United States is steadfast in our commitment to Israel,” Isakson said in a December 2017 statement.

As an opponent of the anti-Israel BDS (Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions) movement, Isakson co-sponsored the Israel Anti-Boycott Act, allowing U.S. states to enact laws that require contractors to sign a pledge that they will not boycott Israeli goods. Several such laws, including Georgia’s, have been challenged in federal courts.

The American Jewish Committee honored Isakson in November 2020 with its annual National Human Relations Award. “I am honored to have worked for decades with the Jewish community and so many good friends to help bring together Atlanta’s and America’s diverse religious and ethnic communities and to help build bridges of understanding and promote democratic values,” he said then.

During the ceremony, held online because of COVID-19, Dov Wilker, AJC Atlanta’s regional director, told Isakson, “You are an incredible example of the importance of finding common ground and mutual respect.”

Isakson was a frequent guest at Congregation Etz Chaim, whose Rabbi Emeritus Shalom Lewis told the audience that Isakson merited recognition for “his goodness, his vision, his decency, and his service to our community and to our country.”

Democratic state Rep. Mike Wilensky, the only Jewish member of the General Assembly, reacted on social media to Isakson’s death. “It was an honor to get to meet Senator Isakson on the state House floor in 2020. While we had some opposing views, I always thought highly of him because he was able to work with both sides. He was a giant in Georgia politics and is a tremendous loss,” Wilensky said.

Chuck Berk, co-chairman of the Atlanta chapter of the Republican Jewish Coalition, praised Isakson: “Johnny Isakson was a statesman in the mold of Paul Coverdell, who worked with both sides to build consensus. A strong supporter of Israel, our veterans and military, Johnny had the unique ability to gain support from liberal and conservative Jews. He helped propel our state forward to prosperity. Every Georgian and American, including the Jewish community, benefited from his service and we’ll miss his leadership.”

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