Local Jewish Leaders Laud Isakson
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Local Jewish Leaders Laud Isakson

With news of Senator Johnny Isakson's retirement, Jewish community leaders reflect on his career.

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

Johnny Isakson is resigning for health reasons.
Johnny Isakson is resigning for health reasons.

Several years ago, at the Rotary Club of Atlanta’s annual interfaith business prayer breakfast, Johnny Isakson made light of confusion about his heritage.

“I have a Jewish-sounding last name,” Isakson, a Methodist of Swedish descent, told the gathering, according to the SaportaReport. Isakson went on to recall being in a car with people who stopped themselves from making an anti-Semitic comment because they thought he might be Jewish.

The 74-year-old Republican from Marietta announced Aug. 28 that he would resign his U.S. Senate seat at the end of the year because of health concerns. Isakson recently underwent surgery to remove a growth from his kidney and continues to recover from four ribs fractured in a July fall, all while suffering the progression of Parkinson’s disease.

“I am leaving a job I love because my health challenges are taking their toll on me, my family and my staff,” he said. “With the mounting health challenges I am facing, I have concluded that I will not be able to do the job over the long term in the manner the citizens of Georgia deserve. It goes against every fiber of my being to leave in the middle of my Senate term, but I know it’s the right thing to do on behalf of my state.”

Chuck Berk, co-chairman of the Atlanta chapter of the Republic Jewish Coalition, praised Isakson. “Johnny Isakson has been 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 has had the unique ability to gain support from liberal and conservative Jews. He has helped propel our state forward to prosperity. Every Georgian and American, including the Jewish community, has benefited from his service and we’ll miss his leadership,” Berk said.

Before entering politics, Isakson built Northside Realty from a family-owned business in Cobb County to one of the largest real estate brokerages in the country.

Isakson was elected to a third six-year Senate term in 2016. He represented Georgia’s 6th Congressional District in the U.S. House of Representatives from 1999 until 2005. Isakson is the only Georgian elected to the state House and Senate, as well as the U.S. House and Senate.

Georgia Gov. Brian Kemp, a Republican, will select an interim senator to serve until the final two years of Isakson’s term are filled in the November 2020 election. Georgia’s other senator, Republican David Perdue, also will seek re-election next year.

Throughout his political career, Isakson positioned himself as a friend of the Jewish community and Israel.

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 was praised by Jewish community leaders.

“Senator Isakson will truly be missed. As one of the most respected members of the U.S. Senate, he has a long history of support for the Jewish community and the state of Israel. Having successfully served in the both houses of the Georgia General Assembly and the U.S. Congress, we will miss his leadership and ability to work across the aisle to better America,” said Dov Wilker, Atlanta regional director of the American Jewish Committee.

“With Johnny Isakson’s retirement, the pro-Israel community is losing a true ally and dear friend, said Doug Ross, chairman of Atlanta’s AIPAC (American Israel Public Affairs Committee) Executive Council. “He understands, at the deepest level, the powerful and multidimensional bonds which connect our two countries. Senator Isakson has been a steadfast proponent of the U.S.-Israel relationship, always demonstrating a willingness to reach across the aisle to help pass bipartisan legislation on this critically important issue. He will be sorely missed.”

Isakson opposed the Iran nuclear deal negotiated in 2015 by the United States, the United Kingdom, Russia, France, China and Germany, along with the European Union.

He 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 President Donald 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 statement posted on Twitter on Dec. 6, 2017.

As an opponent of the anti-Israel BDS (Boycott, Divest, 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 are being challenged in federal courts.

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