Jon Ossoff: Jewish upbringing gave me ‘conviction to fight for the marginalized’
With just over two weeks until the two runoff elections in Georgia that will decide who controls the next Senate, all eyes are on the Democratic candidates who are hoping to flip the upper house. It’s a remarkable moment for Jon Ossoff, who may well be the most high-profile Jewish Democrat in the United States right now.
“I’m descended from Ashkenazi immigrants who fled pogroms in the early 20th century, and I grew up among relatives who were Holocaust survivors,” he told Haaretz in an exclusive interview last week. “So my Jewish upbringing instilled in me a conviction to fight for the marginalized and oppressed, and also to be vigilant where there’s the risk that authoritarianism may emerge.”
He says the Trump era has seen a dangerous rise in right-wing extremism, noting that “ethno-nationalism had been a threat to Jewish people throughout the world and our history, and a threat to minorities in American society.” However, he adds that since Trump was elected in 2016, we’ve also “seen a renaissance of civic engagement. It rejects right-wing extremism and now has served to defeat Donald Trump. The task at hand is to ensure that this movement blossoms and continues as more than mere opposition, but as a movement to help provide jobs and justice for all people in Georgia and across the country.”
While the runoff elections may be unprecedented in this Southern state, they’re not a fluke. They’re the culmination of years of work by activists and state officials to make the Democratic Party viable again in the South. President-elect Joe Biden’s victory in Georgia last month, by some 12,000 votes, was the first by a Democratic presidential candidate since Bill Clinton in 1992. And the fact that both Ossoff and his fellow Democratic candidate, Rev. Raphael Warnock, have even a shot at unseating the two incumbent Republican senators is a remarkable turnaround.
“In the last decade, we’ve been building a multiracial, multigenerational coalition across race and faith lines committed to lifting working people of all backgrounds,” says Ossoff, 33. “The coalition in Georgia has invested in voter registration, volunteer mobilization and community outreach to grow this new Southern coalition.”
He adds: “I’m reflecting on the first meal I ever shared with [the late Georgia] Congressman John Lewis. He wanted to talk to me about the alliance between Jews and Blacks in the civil rights movement, and how he had marched alongside rabbis and Jewish activists for civil rights in the South in the mid-1960s. He stressed how important it was to sustain this alliance.”
What’s happening now, Ossoff believes, “is the emergence of this alliance coming out for health, jobs and justice for all people in this state. And that the standard bearers in these historic runoffs are a young Jewish son of an immigrant, mentored by John Lewis, and the senior pastor at Ebenezer Baptist Church, a Black preacher who holds Dr. [Martin Luther] King Jr’s pulpit and who pastored John Lewis, is a continuation of this tradition.”
More than 1.1 million Georgians have already voted either in person or by mail ahead of Election Day on January 5, which is about the same rate as in the November elections.
Biden hit the campaign trail in the state last Tuesday in support of both candidates. Speaking about Ossoff at a rally in Atlanta, Biden told the crowd that the Atlanta native “cut his teeth in politics, in justice, for equality, under our dear friend John Lewis. An immigrant’s son, who travels all across this state sharing his belief in delivering the promise of America to all Georgians. Beating this pandemic. Rebuilding our economy. Health care. Education. Jobs and justice. A husband, whose wife is a doctor at Emory, seeing this pandemic on the frontlines. A fresh voice who will only do the work of the people. Who will always put your interests first, because his only personal interest is the fact that Georgia is home, his heart.”
Ossoff is running against Sen. David Perdue, while Warnock is competing against Sen. Kelly Loeffler. Election polls currently put the GOP candidates marginally ahead in both races, but both are too close to call.
Why Ossoff has a chance
Ossoff and Warnock are the end products of a process that started in Georgia and the South in the early 2000s. One of its principal architects is Stacey Abrams, a former minority leader of the Georgia House and state gubernatorial candidate in 2018. In 2014, Abrams founded the New Georgia Project, an organization established to combat voter suppression, and she’s credited with registering an estimated 800,000 new voters over the past six years.
“Voter suppression goes back to the Civil War. People of color had no reason to vote because they had no culture of voting. You could be killed for voting in Georgia and all across the South,” Valerie Habif, co-founder of a grassroots effort known as the Jewish Democratic Women’s Salon, tells Haaretz.
“Ironically, this time, it has worked in our favor,” she notes. “The fact that a plurality of votes is needed to win in the Senate race — a law passed in 1963 that was meant to curb a Black leadership taking control of the governor’s mansion — means Ossoff still has a chance.
“The vision of Stacy was to come in and get people to recognize that their vote matters, and to give them tools to use it,” Habif adds.
Abrams lost her gubernatorial race against GOP candidate Brian Kemp, who openly advanced voter suppression and voter purges, by just 55,000 votes. But the loss didn’t deter her. Instead, she and others continued finding new ways to get people civically engaged and actively voting.
One of those people is Michael Jablonski, a lawyer with over 40 years’ experience in campaign strategy who has worked for Democrats at both the state and national level. “Apparently I’m retired now. But you can never walk away,” he tells Haaretz.
“The year 1998 was the last time we had a Democratic governor,” he recounts. “Georgia turned completely red after most of the other Southern states. In the beginning, we focused on voter registration. But around 2008, Stacey Abrams and others realized that voter registration wasn’t enough – we actually need to bring people to the polls.
“We built a strategy to make it easy for people to come to vote; and a backup plan if the Republicans would be successful in making it harder,” Jablonski explains. “For example, voter IDs: when we canvassed people to vote, we asked them to physically show us their ID. If they didn’t have one, we helped them with the process of getting one.”
Georgia is expected to be the next “majority-minority state,” in which ethnic or religious minorities make up over 50 percent of the local population. Along with a push for voter registration and mobilization of these communities, the renewal of the Democratic Party in Georgia (and the South overall) is partly due to an influx of young professionals from New York, Chicago and elsewhere, who move to cities like Atlanta for cheaper housing, friendlier tax breaks and better weather.
“Yes, that’s been a big boon for us — but demographics aren’t destiny,” Jablonski says. “It’s not enough that there are diverse communities and younger people in the state. We need to bring them together and mobilize them,” he adds.
A key community the Republican Party has been targeting in the runoff elections is Georgia’s Jewish voters. Sen. Loeffler chose to kick off her campaign, for example, by accusing her opponent of being anti-Zionist. “Rev. Warnock has a long history of anti-Israel extremism. He defended Jeremiah Wright’s antisemitic comments. He embraced the anti-Zionist Black Lives Matter organization. And he thinks Israel is an ‘oppressive regime’ for fighting back against terrorism,” she tweeted last month.
“In Georgia, there are approximately 100,000 registered Jewish voters,” says Michael Rosenzweig, a board member of the Jewish Democratic Council of America. “Out of them, 50,000 are unaffiliated. Biden won the state by 12,000 votes. Despite the Jewish vote historically going to the Democrats, if the GOP would’ve peeled off a few thousand more Jewish votes, the result might have been different.”
Rosenzweig continues: “It’s not that they’re counting on Jews voting Republican. But if in these runoffs they can convince enough of them to stay home because they’re unsure about the candidates, then they’ve done their job. That’s what we’re fighting against.”
Support for Israel is a red line for many Jewish voters. Norman Radow is a leading member of Atlanta’s pro-Israel community, an AIPAC Minyan member and a donor to the Democratic Party. For him and many others like him, conditioning aid to Israel is nonnegotiable.
That’s no doubt why, in a televised debate earlier this month, Warnock strongly rejected Loeffler’s attacks against him. “My opponents are trying to use Israel as a wedge issue. I wish I were surprised. I do not believe Israel is an apartheid state, as some have suggested,” he said, positioning himself as pro-Israel. Ossoff has done the same.
“The GOP attack on Warnock means we’re doing things differently than we’ve ever had to do before,” says Habif. “We’ve always been able to rely on Jewish Democratic voters, but it’s particularly important in this election cycle. The GOP is targeting Democratic Jewish voters by trying to suggest we shouldn’t trust Rev. Warnock. Their claims of him being anti-Zionist are nothing further from the truth, but they’re trying nonetheless. They can’t say ‘Don’t trust the Black man,’ but in these attacks they’re doing everything but saying it out loud,” Habif charges.
“We’ve been targeting voters in different ways — including 500,000 postcards personalized by our volunteers, delivered to people’s homes. That’s what’s called grassroots,” Habif adds.
She explains that her group has also been working alongside a national platform called Jewish Women for Joe. “When it was clear there would be a runoff, we reached out to them and they changed their name to ‘Jewish Women for Joe-Gia’ to reach out to voters all across the state,” Habif says.
Regardless of the outcome, activists say that renewed ties between the Jewish, Black and other communities, and the strategies devised by Abrams, Jablonski and other activists across Georgia, can serve as a blueprint for the Democratic Party as it looks to expand in the South and beyond.
“This strategy of dividing communities was born here in Georgia, and we hope it’s going to end here in Georgia,” Habif concludes.