Georgia runoffs leave turbulent aftermath as Jewish community ponders impact

Democratic candidates for U.S. Senate in Georgia Raphael Warnock (left) and Jon Ossoff. Source: Facebook/Jon Ossoff.

By Richard Friedman

Some are licking their wounds, others are celebrating, and what the future will bring is unclear.  What is certain is that in the wake of the two tension-laden U.S. Senate runoff races in their state on Jan. 5, the Jews of Georgia have been deeply affected by this toxic election season.

That’s the picture that emerges from post-election interviews with some of the state’s most passionate and partisan Jewish leaders as well as those who work professionally in the Peach State in non-partisan roles.

Feelings are raw and will likely remain that way for some time.  One Republican leader, who had been at the forefront of the runoff election, declined to be interviewed.  Other leaders, both Republican and Democratic, were unwilling to speak on the record.

One person who was willing to comment for attribution was Dov Wilker, the Atlanta-based Regional Director for the non-partisan American Jewish Committee.

“As an optimist, I believe the aftermath of Jan. 5 provides an opportunity for us, as a Jewish community, to bridge the known gaps. While we might not always agree on policy issues, we can be an example to the broader community on how to respectfully discuss our differences,” said Wilker.

Allison Padilla-Goodman, who heads the Atlanta office for the non-partisan Anti-Defamation League and is also ADL’s VP for its Southern Division, echoes Wilker’s sentiments:  “I think that Georgia’s Jewish community is strong, thriving and engaged. I do not expect these races to impact that.”

The conversations for this article, which focused on the runoffs, not only took place in the immediate aftermath of Democrats Jon Ossoff and Raphael Warnock being projected as the winners, but also right after pro-Trump insurrectionists invaded the U.S. Capitol.

“There is deep passion on both sides and lots of ugly rhetoric has been unleashed. Rhetoric, in my opinion, that has been insulting, nasty and condescending. It will not be easily forgotten at cocktail parties, community events or synagogue services,” lamented one long-time Atlanta Jewish community leader.

“Let the healing begin, but I fear the scab will be ripped off in two years,” he added, referring to the next round of major elections in the state. “Sadly, none of the candidates were stellar on either side of the aisle. To claim that they were is delusional.  So folks voted party allegiance, and more against than for a candidate.”

Like America

A long-time member of one of the state’s smaller Jewish communities predicted, “The Jewish community, like America, will remain divided.”

This person, a physician heavily involved in Jewish life, voted for Joe Biden for president in November because he was turned off by Donald Trump.  Yet, he voted for Republican incumbents David Perdue and Kelly Loeffler in the Jan. 5 runoff because he believes that divided government is a healthy thing that forces compromise.

However, he added, “I think the extreme negativism and fear of the Republicans was a great put-off and most of Warnock’s and Ossoff’s messages were very positive.”

The two Senate races, with Warnock and Ossoff winning by relatively small margins, will give the Democrats control of the U.S. Senate.  Massive amounts of money was spent because the stakes were so high.  Warnock is pastor at Atlanta’s Ebenezer Baptist Church, where Dr. Martin Luther King Sr. and Jr. once co-pastored. Ossoff is an investigative journalist.

There are an estimated 130,000 Jews in Georgia, with the bulk of them living in the Atlanta area.

There are no firm figures but some observers believe that Jews in Georgia followed the national pattern and voted 70 percent Democratic and 30 percent Republican.  Others believe it is more like 55 percent Democratic and 45 percent Republican, contending the percentage of politically conservative Jews is higher in the Deep South than in other parts of the country.

Either way, it’s likely that Jews, who traditionally have a high turnout, played a role in deciding the two races.  According to projections two days after the runoff election, Warnock won with 50.9 percent of the vote; Loeffler received 49.1 percent, a difference of about 80,000 votes.  Ossoff received 50.5 percent; Perdue got 49.5 percent, a difference of 41,000 votes.

“Although we have not yet seen the final results of how the Jewish community voted, we do know that a majority of the Jewish community voted for Warnock and Ossoff,” said Wilker.

“I think it is fair to assume that those who voted for them are pleased with the outcome. I also believe that the historic nature of their victories, which produced the first Black and first Jewish person elected to the U.S. Senate in Georgia, is something we should be very proud of in our state.”

Jewish Issues

Two Jewish issues coursed through the runoff races -— antisemitism and Israel.

“I have not seen any specific incidents of antisemitism as a result of Ossoff’s victory, but I would not be surprised if there were some. Ossoff has faced numerous antisemitic attacks through his time as a candidate for U.S. Congress and U.S. Senate. And most likely, during his time in the Senate, we will see more,” said Wilker.

Others felt that Loeffler, through some of her political associations, and Perdue, through his association with a campaign ad that distorted the length of Ossoff’s nose, reinforcing a classic Jewish stereotype, promoted antisemitism. Still others felt that some of Warnock’s past positions reflected an antisemitic attitude toward Israel.

All of these concerns were amply aired in the media and were focal points of intense debate within the Jewish community during the course of the runoff election.

“With this vote, Georgians have taken a stand against the divisive forces of racism and antisemitism,” said Atlanta’s Jewish Democratic Women’s Salon in a post-election statement celebrating the victories of Warnock and Ossoff.  “As we look forward to the 2022 midterm and gubernatorial elections, we will continue to oppose these forces of hatred wherever they appear.”

ADL’s Padilla-Goodman added this:  “I think that all eyes are rightfully on the atrocious events that happened at  the U.S. Capitol and the eruption of extremist-motivated violence that occurred as we watched hatred of all kinds be flamed.”

She added,  “ADL and others have reported on the enormous amount of antisemitism exhibited both at the riot and by its online supporters. The other hatred prominently on view at the Capitol was racism. This hatred exists irrespective of any particular state election results, and it’s another reason why the alliances we build are so important and should transcend partisanship.”

Many feel that the alliance between Warnock and Ossoff already has injected new and positive energy into the relationship between Atlanta’s African-American and Jewish communities, which share a rich and historic bond.

Part of Wilker’s work at the American Jewish Committee is strengthening ties between African-Americans and Jews.

“There has been a lot written about the unique relationship of the Black and Jewish communities and the role that Warnock and Ossoff played in strengthening it. Locally, AJC’s Atlanta Black-Jewish Coalition is looking at how it can now become stronger and how to continue bringing our communities together,” said Wilker.

“Hopefully this story will inspire other cities nationally to create their own Black-Jewish Coalitions.”