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Georgia’s Jews weigh in on hotly contested Senate races

The fate of the United States Senate may hang in the balance of an unlikely political force in Georgia: the Atlanta Jewish vote.

Political operatives and election forecasters have zeroed in on the Atlanta metro area and its suburbs as the key sites for Democratic turnout, specifically Fulton, Gwinnett, and Cobb counties. This area happens to be where the majority of the state’s growing Jewish population is concentrated. As all indicators point to a close race, Atlanta Jews could play a pivotal role in the outcome.

There are about 95,000 Jews in the state, 56,000 of them voting age, according to the American Jewish Population Project. In the Presidential race, Joe Biden won Georgia by just 12,000 votes. The latest statewide poll show a pair of tight races. Democrat Jon Ossoff leads Republican Sen. David Perdue 48.7% to 47.3%, and Republican Sen. Kelly Loeffler trails Democrat Rev. Raphael Warnock 48.1% to 49%.

Given the role of the Jewish vote in an election that will decide which party controls the Senate, it’s important to understand the array of voices — liberal, conservative, young and old — that make up the Atlanta Jewish community. The Forward interviewed a broad cross-section of Jewish voters in Atlanta who offered strong, sometimes surprising opinions on the state of the election, how their Jewish values inform their politics, and the question of Israel.

Ronnie Van Gelder, former program director with The Temple, Atlanta’s oldest synagogue.

Ronnie Van Gelder

Ronnie Van Gelder

What are your thoughts about how the election has gone so far?

I’m a staunch Democrat and always have been. To me, this election is so vital because it is going to pave the way for years to come. We’ve got to change the leadership in the Senate or we won’t accomplish anything in Biden’s four years

How does your Judaism inform your political views and which candidates you decide to support?

My personal Judaism plays a tremendous part in how I feel about this race. It’s Jewish values, it’s Jewish justice, it’s embedded in our Torah over and over again. The way we treat others, the way we treat the widow and the orphan, the immigrant, the way we take care of the land—all of that stems from the Torah for me. I believe in living our Judaism and in voting for Ossoff and Warnock that’s what I’m doing.

What do you make of the media reports about Democratic candidate Rev. Raphael Warnock’s past comments about Israel?

I know Rev. Warnock and I know his position on Israel; I love Israel and have been there 12 times. I have no doubt that when Rev. Warnock says he wants to keep arms sales to Israel and opposes BDS that he means it. When you take sound bites and treat it as gospel, it distorts. He went to the AIPAC conference this year. That’s not the crowd to hang around with if you’re anti-Israel.

At times in other elections, Israel might be higher but right now we have bigger problems. I’m more troubled by homelessness and hunger. It’s not just Israel for me, it’s our whole international connection and what our allies are thinking of us now because of how awful Trump was on foreign policy.

Have you seen any anti-Semitism in the race?

Obviously, the Perdue ad where he was accused of enlarging Jon Ossoff’s nose was totally antisemitic, and it was scary. Of course he denied it, but I don’t think anything goes out like that without some approval. On the other side, Loeffler has been endorsed by Marjorie Taylor Greene who believes in QAnon which is totally antisemitic, and Loeffler thinks she’s just great.

Arnie Rubsenstein, a member of the American Jewish Committee:

What are your thoughts about how the campaign has gone so far?

I’ve been supporting Loeffler and Perdue because I think it would be a shock if one party controlled the legislative and executive branch. We need checks and balances. I don’t want a monopoly of one party in our government. A monopoly on our Federal government would be bad for the American people because it would just represent one side of the debate.

What do you make of the reports about Rev. Warnocks’ past comments about Israel?

As a Jew, I’m not happy about Warnock’s comments about Israel. I don’t want to go through whatever he has planned for our homeland.

If you’re a Jew, Israel better factor into your entire equation. If you know history you know why Israel is so important for the Jews because we’ve got to have a homeland.

Were you troubled at all by the reports that the Perdue campaign released a campaign ad of Jon Ossoff that elongated his nose?

Oh please, that’s ridiculous. To me, that has no consequence whatsoever. There was too much scrutiny with that incident.

John Eaves: member of The Temple, former Chair of the Fulton County Board of Commission, and Democratic Congressional candidate.

John Eaves

John Eaves

Why are you excited about Ossoff and Warnock as the two Democratic Senate candidates to represent Georgia?

It’s been a tricky campaign because the Democratic candidates have had to play defense a lot and avoid the Republican characterization of them as radicals and Socialists.

It’s been great to see both campaigns working in coordination reviving the Black-Jewish alliance because the typical person who’ll vote for one candidate will vote for the other so they’re trying to pool resources.

They’ve also been on the offensive in trying to characterize the Republicans as supporting the Trump agenda and not being serious about the pandemic while personally profiting from it through stock trading.

What do you make of the media reports about Rev. Warnock’s past comments on Israel?

Despite some of the attacks about Warnock being antisemitic, he has a personal relationship with the senior Rabbi Peter Berg of the Temple. Every year we have a joint annual Martin Luther King Jr. service with Reverend Warnock’s Ebenezer Baptist Church. We sing hymns together and Rev. Warnock is almost always the the main speaker

To me, Rev Warnock and Rabbi Berg’s relationship is reminiscent of Rabbi Rothschild and Martin Luther King Jr.’s relationship during the Civil Rights era.

They’ve been working together for 10 years so it’s not just a recent political move. Warnock actually has a real long standing relationship with Rabbi Berg. It’s sincere and genuine what Warnock is trying to do.

Why do you think Republicans are leaning on Israel as an issue in this campaign?

It’s two things. White Evangelicals care a lot about Israel, which they see as very important for theological reasons.

Part of the strategy is to win by subtraction, so they want to peel off enough Jewish voters who are Democrats but might not be as engaged or reading in between the lines of what they’re seeing in the media about Warnock being anti-Israel. Most Jews, particularly those of us in Atlanta, know that he’s being taken out of context.

Do you think it matters to Jewish voters that Jon Ossoff is himself Jewish?

I don’t know if the typical Jewish person says I’m going to get behind this candidate just because he’s Jewish. I don’t see a lot of enthusiasm behind Ossoff just because he’s Jewish; I see the community getting behind him because he’s young and charismatic and has good energy behind him coming off his Congressional race in 2017.

Daniel Israel, board member of the American Jewish Committee and a member of Atlanta’s B’nai Torah Temple

Daniel Israel

Daniel Israel

Why are you supporting Loeffler and Perdue?

I know Perdue personally and have had conversations with him about Iran, which is important to me. We also both believe that small businesses are the key to economic growth. I don’t know Loeffler as well but I like having two seasoned business professionals in office.

I think progressives are the real enemy. To hold progressives in check and get Biden to do bipartisan deals, we need Republican control of the Senate. The other thing you have to consider here is that every time a President has had all the levers of government, invariably, they get pulled to the extreme, so in this case to the left. That’s dangerous.

What kind of an effect do you think Trump will have on Republican voter turnout in Georgia?

I don’t want Trump to come down to campaign here in Georgia. It’s a net negative. I want Loeffler and Perdue to win as a check on Trump and also on progressives.

I think these two Senate seats are going to have a very, very big impact on how much weight Trump has coming out. If Loeffler and Perdue lose, then Trump can get on this pedestal and say, see, because these two candidates didn’t come out and support me enough or how the election was rigged, that’s why they lost. But if they win, I think it’s gonna actually do more to lower his ability to have as much impact on the party because it shows Republican candidates don’t need him.

What do you make of the media reports about Rev. Warnock’s past comments about Israel?

I think that it shows a lack of appreciation for how intertwined the history of Israel is with the Jewish people. When you make statements like that, it impugns the Jewish people. I think we spend a lot of time on what he did in the past but I don’t see anybody asking Warnock about why he supports the Iran nuclear deal, which I think would be the wrong decision. You don’t want to go back to the situation where Iran can now export its terrorism and create their Shi’ite Crescent and fund it now.

Does he still think peace in the Middle East goes through the Palestinians and will he go in lock step with The Squad? Trump has demonstrated that you don’t need the Palestinians to get peace in the Middle East, you go through other players in the region. No one is asking these tough questions of Warnock.

How much does the question of Israel impact which candidates you vote for?

Israel is the cornerstone of Jewish identity, so it’s incredibly important. Almost 80% of American Jews are Ashekazi and their touchstone is the Holocaust. When you have that mindset you have a victimization mentality. But I think if you have Israel as the touchstone instead, it’s about how you rebuilt this state of Israel and defended your land and rejuvenated the Jewish population. Then it’s a positive.

Rabbi Laurence Rosenthal of Temple Ahavath Achim Synagogue

Laurence Rosenthal

Laurence Rosenthal

What are your thoughts about how the election has gone so far?

The community is very divided; There of course are a lot of Democrats in Atlanta, but at my congregation for example we also have people who are very connected with the Republican party and have a lot of concerns about Israel. We also have a decent immigrant community in Atlanta who are Russian or Persian and they bring their experience from countries that are authoritarian or run by dictators. In America we use these buzzwords, but these immigrant Jewish groups in our community actually know what socialism and communism or authoritarianism really is and they bring that to our political conversations.

Some Jewish immigrants I know feel that America should close its borders. It makes you wonder: what if the country had done that when they were trying to come to the US. But they really don’t see it that way. They think it’s a very different experience today

Have you been supporting anyone in the election?

It’s difficult to balance this political moment as a rabbi; I try to stay focused on issues more than candidates. The topic that has really spoken to me is Israel as a wedge issue. What I mean by that is that the issue is being used to polarize a specific minority community which will then produce infighting among us and weaken the Jewish vote.

When it comes to accusations of anti-Zionism against Rev. Warnock, I try my best not to get involved directly. I don’t know what is in someone’s heart; I’ve read some of his statements and watched his sermons and seen the reporting but my point is that I don’t want Israel to be a wedge issue that divides the community.

The difficulty for me as a rabbi is that we’re not asking about other countries; we’re not asking what candidates think of Syria or support for Russia in terms of Crimea; we don’t ask any of those questions. So for me this ends up being a different question: Is Israel being used as a legitimate issue for a political campaign or just as a wedge issue.

Jennifer Johnson: owner of The General Muir Deli and member of the Temple

Jennifer Johnson

Jennifer Johnson Image by Jason Travis

What are your thoughts about how the election has gone so far?

I never thought I’d see Georgia go blue. Coming from a liberal bubble in D.C., it’s been a challenge to live here at times in the state but this election has been the most exciting political event I’ve been a part of. I always make it the Temple for the annual sermon Reverend Warnock gives at the Temple for the MLK memorial.

Has it been tricky at all as a business owner to take political stances?

Sometimes you feel like you need to include people of different political orientations, but at other times you feel like it’s a cop-out not to take a stance.

We were sent ‘Get Out The Vote’ shirts from a deli in California, and we’ve had our staff wear the shirts to encourage people to vote. Even though the shirts were non-partisan in nature, we got some push back. But I feel like as a business owner with a platform, we don’t want to miss this opportunity to engage politically.

What issues are important to you?

I have always voted for Democratic candidates because they stand for the social issues I align with. Aside from that, as a member of the Temple, I am so excited to see the Black-Jewish coalition as well as candidates who represent social justice issues like mass incarceration.

I believe broadly in inclusivity, which comes from my Jewish values. I look at many of the immigrant workers who make up the service workers that I work with and it really disturbs me to hear them referred to as bad hombres or devants.

Abby Schwartz: a recent graduate from Georgia Tech and a member of the Temple Sinai Atlanta

What are your thoughts about how the campaign has gone so far?

Growing up, a lot of my friends in Atlanta were liberal but at Georgia Tech a lot of people I was around were more conservative so it’s been interesting to have conversations with these people and hear their side. One idea that I would hear a lot about and that I have seen in this election is the question of what does it mean to be radical, which is used as a scare tactic by Republicans against Democrats as we’re seeing in this race

Also as someone who’s done research on illegal market trading it’s been interesting to see the allegations against Kelly Loeffler, and I find it confusing that people can get excited about her even though I wasn’t going to vote her anyways

What’s the political sentiment in the Jewish community that you’re a part of regarding the election?

I have seen a lot of my friends get involved with the Democratic party during this election cycle and a lot of people are moving here to help. There’s been a lot of excitement about the election among my friends and the young people I know.

Does it matter to you that Jon Ossoff is Jewish?

I would have said yes before Jared Kushner, but I thought he was such a negative political figure that I find it tough now to get excited about someone just based on identity. I think you should vote for someone based on issues.

Valerie Habif, Co-founder of the Jewish Democratic Women’s Salon

Valerie Habif

Valerie Habif

How divided is the Jewish community about the upcoming election?

Like much of the country, the Jewish community is very divided along partisan lines and that’s been exacerbated during the Trump years.

There’s certainly going to need to be healing from this division. That’s one of the things we’ll have to address when this election is over, how to bring our Jewish community back together again in support of the issues that matter most to us. For Jewish Democratic Women’s Salon, the seven issues that we’ve identified are—gun safety, women’s reproductive rights, healthcare expansion, education expansion, immigration and refugee rights, criminal justice reform. As soon as this election is over we’ll go right back to work on those issues.

Do you think it matters to the Jewish community in Atlanta that Jon Ossoff is Jewish?

I hope it matters to everyone, but I don’t believe that people will cross partisan lines to support him. People won’t cross partisan lines for anything anymore. I will tell you that I think there was a deliberate effort by the GOP to make antisemitism and racism an issue in this election. I think that their attacks against Rev. Warnock were designed to peel away Jewish support for him.

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