With less than a month until the Jan. 5 runoffs for Georgia’s two U.S. Senate seats, the degree of Democrat Rev. Raphael Warnock’s support for Israel remains an issue in his race against interim Republican Sen. Kelly Loeffler. As Warnock asserts a pro-Israel stance, Loeffler argues that statements he made before becoming a candidate prove that he is anti-Israel.
On a Dec. 8 video conference call organized by the Jewish Democratic Council of America, Warnock said, “I am a staunch ally and supporter of Israel and I echo without reservation Dr. King’s perspective that Israel’s right to exist as a state and in security is incontestable.” Warnock is senior pastor at Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta, where Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. also served.
The videoconference with Warnock and Jon Ossoff, the Democrat challenging incumbent Republican Sen. David Perdue, drew an audience of 2,000 and was moderated from Israel by Daniel Shapiro, the U.S. ambassador to Israel from 2011 to 2017.
The next day, the Republican Jewish Coalition issued a statement to the AJT that called the Democratic event “an attack on the truth, and an affront to all Jewish voters in Georgia.”
Note: The RJC held a video-conference Dec. 2 with Loeffler and Perdue, but would not permit on-the-record coverage and turned down an AJT request for a recording afterward.
On the Democrats’ videoconference, Warnock said, “My opponents are trying to use Israel as yet another wedge issue in this campaign and I think that’s quite unfortunate. I wish I were surprised. I’m not. They are worried and they should be.”
Polls released in December have ranged from Warnock leading Loeffler by 5 percentage points, to Loeffler leading Warnock by 7 points. The same surveys have shown Ossoff and Perdue holding 2-point leads over each other. Republicans must win one of the races to maintain control of the Senate. Democratic victories in both would create a 50-50 division, with the vice president, projected to be Democrat Kamala Harris, holding the tie-breaking vote.
Much of Warnock’s time on the Dec. 8 videoconference was spent discussing Israel.
“I am a supporter and an advocate for the two-state solution. I see that as the viable way to a democratic Jewish state and I’m committed to that work and I think it deserves attention and focus and engagement,” Warnock said. “I come out of the Kingian tradition of nonviolent resistance and so I will always affirm the right of people to protest nonviolently, but at the same time I condemn BDS [the Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions movement], its refusal to acknowledge Israel’s right to exist, and I support President [Barack] Obama’s memorandum of understanding.” That 2016 agreement provides Israel with $38 billion in U.S. military aid over a 10-year period. “Israel is an important ally for us, the most important ally for us in that part of the world. … Our aid and support of Israel is something that I would advance as a member of the Senate,” Warnock said.
Warnock has been targeted by Loeffler and her Jewish supporters for a letter that he signed following a February 2019 trip to Israel and the Palestinian territories with a delegation of African American and South African ministers organized by the National Council of Churches. The clergy said that they observed “the heavy militarization of the West Bank, reminiscent of the military occupation of Namibia by apartheid South Africa.”
On the Dec. 8 video call, Warnock said, “I do not believe Israel is an apartheid state, as some have suggested.”
In its response, the RJC stated, “Perhaps the most insulting exchange for the Jewish community came when Rev. Warnock claimed to not believe that Israel is an apartheid state, despite the fact that he signed a letter just last year stating the complete opposite.”
Warnock also addressed the May 2018 sermon in which he discussed a week that included dedication of the U.S. Embassy location in Jerusalem and clashes between Israeli troops and Palestinians. In that sermon he said, “We saw the government of Israel shoot down unarmed Palestinian sisters and brothers like birds of prey. And I don’t care who does it, it is wrong. 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.”
Warnock told listeners on the call, “I was speaking to the issue of activists and human rights and the ability of people to be heard. At the same time, I have an increasing recognition of Hamas and the danger that they pose to the Israeli people.”
Warnock said that he would engage with the “complicated situation” as “a principled and honest broker who affirms human rights and at the same time is trying to get us to a place where Israel can exist alongside its neighbors in peace.”
Loeffler released a television ad on Oct. 10 titled “Birds of Prey.” In an accompanying statement, she said, “Raphael Warnock is the most anti-Israel candidate anywhere in the country who supports cutting all military aid to our country’s strongest ally. This unfortunately follows a pattern in which he has called Israelis ‘birds of prey,’ compared Israel to an apartheid state, and celebrated notorious anti-Semite Jeremiah Wright. Unlike my opponent, I will always fight for Israel’s sovereignty and I will always stand fully behind America’s strongest friend and ally.”
Note: In 2008 and later, Warnock defended and sought to explain the April 2003 Palm Sunday sermon at Trinity United Church of Christ in Chicago during which Rev. Wright used the words, “God damn America.” When a tape of Wright’s sermon emerged during the 2008 presidential campaign, the ensuing controversy prompted Barack and Michelle Obama to resign from the church.
In his remarks, Ossoff mentioned a digital advertisement, posted and withdrawn in July by the Perdue campaign, in which Ossoff’s nose appeared to have been lengthened. “Did David Perdue run an anti-Semitic attack ad in which he lengthened my nose? Yes, he did. Was it disgusting? Yes, it was. Has he apologized for it? No, he hasn’t,” Ossoff said. [Perdue’s campaign blamed the advertisement on a subcontractor subsequently fired.]
“So, he may be an anti-Semite but, worse, he’s corrupt,” Ossoff said. He repeated allegations that Perdue profited from stock transactions while playing down the COVID-19 pandemic. A Perdue television ad restates his campaign’s position that the Republican incumbent has been “exonerated totally” of any wrongdoing.
In its statement, the RJC said, “Recently, to everyone’s amazement, no one stood up to Ossoff or Warnock for campaigning with Rep. Hank Johnson, Ossoff’s former boss, who has called Israelis termites, or for Warnock’s previous defenses of anti-Semitic sermons from Reverend Jeremiah Wright. The entire event was a huge disservice to the entire Jewish community and Georgia’s Jewish voters can see through the untruthful campaign rhetoric of Raphael Warnock and Jon Ossoff.”
Note: Ossoff left Johnson’s Capitol Hill staff in 2012. In 2016, Johnson compared West Bank housing construction to “a steady [stream], almost like termites can get into a residence and eat before you know that you’ve been eaten up and you fall in on yourself.” His office later said that Johnson “did not intend to insult or speak derogatorily of Israelis or the Jewish people.”
- Dave Schechter
- Raphael Warnock
- Kelly Loeffler
- Jon Ossoff
- Runoff Election
- David Perdue
- Barack Obama
- Jewish Democratic Council of America
- Ebenezer Baptist Church
- Republican Jewish Coalition
- Kamala Harris
- BDS Movement
- Jeremiah Wright
- Hank Johnson