In Georgia, Raphael Warnock makes the case for a Senate full term

Supporters of the Democrat, who came under criticism during the 2020 campaign for his comments about Israel, point to his voting record on Israel issues since taking office

On a recent evening in early October, Sen. Raphael Warnock (D-GA) took the stage at a Jewish campaign event in suburban Atlanta to celebrate the recent conclusion of Rosh Hashanah. “It’s great to be among friends,” he said warmly, addressing a packed room of more than 200 enthusiastic supporters. “I need us to do it one more time.”

Dressed in a crisp blue suit, the 53-year-old senator, who built long-standing relationships with Jewish community members while leading Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta — where he continues to preach every Sunday — was clearly at ease as he exhorted attendees to help him return to Washington in January for his first full six-year term.

“Because you sent me to the Senate, we were able to get great things done for our state and for our families,” Warnock said of his efforts to boost infrastructure spending and combat climate change, while invoking the Jewish concept of tikkun olam — repairing the world. “That is the sensibility and conviction,” he averred, “that I bring to my job every single day.”

Left unaddressed, meanwhile, was his approach to Israel, which he has otherwise frequently sought to highlight as an elected official. Rather than an avoidance of what had once been a somewhat uncomfortable issue, however, the omission, intentional or not, suggested that Warnock is confident his Jewish supporters are largely comfortable with his Middle East policy positions, a subject of intense scrutiny during his first bid for public office nearly two years ago. In the final months of a closely watched race, the reverend had endured a barrage of Republican attacks stemming in part from past statements in which he had harshly criticized the Israeli government.

Even if the hits were predictable at the time, Warnock’s comments had also risked alienating Jewish Democrats whose backing would prove meaningful in his bid to become Georgia’s first Black senator. Eager to quell potential concerns, he quickly wrote an opinion piece clarifying his support for Israel, released a Middle East policy paper touting a number of mainstream positions and spoke at a widely viewed forum hosted by the Jewish Democratic Council of America. “Israel’s right to exist as a state in security is incontestable,” he said last December, echoing Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr., a former co-pastor of Ebenezer Baptist. “That will be reflected in my work in the Senate.”

Sen. Raphael Warnock (D-GA) speaks to a supporter during his campaign tour on Oct. 8, 2022, in Columbus, Ga. (Photo by Megan Varner/Getty Images)

This cycle, Warnock argues that he has fulfilled that promise, as he prepares to go up against Herschel Walker, the scandal-plagued Republican Senate nominee, in a bitterly contested matchup that could ultimately decide partisan control of the upper chamber. 

“I’m a strong ally of Israel, and I’ve built relationships in the Jewish community that have nothing to do with politics,” Warnock said in a phone interview with Jewish Insider, just minutes before his appearance at the recent Jewish community event, which was co-organized by the JDCA as well as a handful of local advocacy groups. “They are built on my lifelong career and service in mainly building coalitions to do good work together on a whole range of issues, from criminal justice reform to voting rights to a livable wage. I think, in the midst of doing that work, you build good, meaningful relationships that are much deeper than politics.” 

In the Senate, “that provides the foundation for the work that I do,” Warnock said. “I have been in constant contact with Jewish organizations like AIPAC, like J Street,” he added, “and those conversations have been important for informing my perspective, hearing various perspectives and trying to get the policy right on a whole range of issues.”

Michael Rosenzweig, the JDCA’s vice chair for management and operations in Atlanta, said Warnock has proven to be “a very safe bet when it comes to Israel,” even as he acknowledged fielding several phone calls last cycle from national pro-Israel advocates who had initially expressed reservations over his approach to Middle East policy. By then, however, Rosenzweig had already conferred with the reverend and helped craft his position paper. “I was happy to vouch for him,” he told JI.

While in office, the senator has often been out front on Middle East issues, Rosenzweig said, approvingly citing, by way of example, Warnock’s response to escalating violence between Israel and Hamas in Gaza last May, just over four months into his tenure. In his remarks, the reverend had expressed support for “Israel’s right to defend its innocent citizens,” while also recognizing “the deep, legitimate pain and suffering” of the Palestinians. “The fact that he was early in that statement,” Rosenzweig recalled, “was very important for the Jewish community here in Atlanta.”

“Now that he’s been in the Senate, he’s got a genuine voting record,” Steve Oppenheimer, a pro-Israel activist in Atlanta who has conferred with Warnock multiple times, told JI. Among other things, he commended Warnock as an original cosponsor of the Israel Relations Normalization Act, which seeks to bolster the Abraham Accords, while praising his involvement with legislation to prevent Iran from acquiring combat drones. “He absolutely gets the uniqueness of Israel, the security requirements of Israel and the importance of the U.S-Israel strategic relationship,” Oppenheimer averred. “He really gets how the issues are tied together.”

With just under a month remaining until the November election, Warnock has largely avoided charges of anti-Israel sentiment of the like that dogged his previous campaign. The would-be senator had, among other things, faced criticism for a 2018 sermon in which he accused Israel of shooting non-violent Palestinian protesters “like birds of prey” and for signing a letter comparing Israeli control of the West Bank to “the military occupation of Namibia by apartheid South Africa.”

“That’s sort of a non-issue this time, it seems,” Jeanney Kutner, a Jewish community activist in Atlanta who sits on J Street’s local steering committee, observed in a phone interview with JI last week. “I think Warnock has only picked up good vibes.”

Of course, that hasn’t kept Walker from occasionally seeking to denounce Warnock’s approach to Israel, albeit rather vaguely. “Raphael Warnock has done more for our enemies than he has done for our strong allies like Israel,” he charged in one August tweet, after speaking at a local event in Sandy Springs, Ga., hosted by the Republican Jewish Coalition, which has endorsed his campaign. 

For his part, Walker, a 60-year-old former football star, had initially struggled to relate to Jewish voters during the primary, when he first appeared at an RJC event billed as a “job interview” for Georgia’s Republican Senate candidates. 

Walker, a devout Christian, appeared out of touch with audience members as he frequently alluded to his faith in Jesus, which was off-putting to attendees, according to Marci McCarthy, who chairs the Dekalb County Republican Party and was present at the forum. “He referenced a lot of his life experiences and his insights back to Jesus Christ, and I think he came in third because he didn’t connect with the people there on a pro-Israel message, a pro-Jewish message, overall,” she said. “They were somewhat turned off.”

“Nobody’s chastising being religious,” McCarthy, who is herself Jewish, clarified in a recent interview with JI. “It’s just the terminology of what you use repeatedly to a roomful of Jews.”

By the time of the August meeting months later, however, Walker had noticeably sharpened his message, McCarthy confirmed. “It was a 180,” she said of his comments, which touched on school choice, rising crime rates and Israel, among other issues. “He really didn’t do that whole Jesus thing,” she explained. “There was a moment of it here and there, but nothing on the level of the whole mantra that was there a few months back. He respected people there and that they were also in a religion that is remarkably similar but still different. There was a very respectful tone, and I appreciated that greatly.”

Herschel Walker speaks at a campaign event on Oct. 11, 2022, in Carrollton, Ga. (Photo by Elijah Nouvelage/Getty Images)

Walker’s campaign did not respond to requests for comment.

In conversation with JI, Warnock declined to contrast his approach to Middle East policy with Walker, whose campaign has yet to promote his positions publicly. “I’m not going to try to speak for him,” Warnock said. “I can only speak for myself.”

On Sunday night, Warnock denounced his Republican opponent for refusing to attend Georgia’s second televised Senate debate. “This race is about who’s ready to represent the people of Georgia in the U.S. Senate,” Warnock said, breaking from the usually restrained tone he has cultivated on the stump. “And by not showing up tonight for the job interview, by giving nonsensical answers about his history of violence, Herschel Walker shows he’s not ready.”

In a recent statement to JI, Halie Soifer, the chief executive of the JDCA, argued that Warnock “aligns with the views of the overwhelming majority of American Jews, while Herschel Walker’s views are antithetical to Jewish values.”

“Sen. Warnock has nurtured the long-standing tradition of Black-Jewish partnership in Georgia and in the Senate,” she said. “He is a stalwart supporter of the U.S.-Israel relationship, opposed to all forms of extremism, and an unwavering defender of democracy and reproductive rights. By contrast, Herschel Walker denies the truth about the 2020 election and climate change, and hypocritically wants to deny access to abortion to the half the population.”

While the race has become saturated with intensely personal negative advertising, Walker has often found himself navigating more treacherous political terrain, most notably over an ex-girlfriend’s recent claim that he once paid for her abortion. Walker, who has called for a complete ban on abortion with no exceptions for rape or incest, has denied the allegation, even as he has acknowledged writing the check that paid for the procedure.

The first-time candidate has otherwise stirred controversy among Jewish voters for attracting supporters who have espoused antisemitic rhetoric. In March, for instance, Walker’s campaign announced that he had pulled out of a planned appearance at a rally organized by freshman Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene (R-GA), who had recently spoken at a white nationalist conference hosted by a prominent Holocaust denier. 

Last October, Walker canceled a fundraiser in Texas over criticism that an organizer had used Nazi imagery — syringes in the shape of a swastika — to oppose COVID-19 vaccination mandates. “Herschel is a strong friend of Israel and the Jewish community and opposes hatred and bigotry of all forms,” a Walker campaign spokesperson said at the time. “Despite the fact that the apparent intent behind the graphic was to condemn government vaccine mandates, the symbol used is very offensive and does not reflect the values of Herschel Walker or his campaign.”

His campaign has also run ads on Gab, a far-right social media platform widely regarded as a haven for antisemites, according to an investigation by Media Matters, the liberal watchdog publication.

“I think Dr. King put it best when he said whatever ‘affects one directly affects all indirectly.’ We are ‘tied in a single garment of destiny,’” Warnock told JI. “I believe that at my core, and it’s the reason why I’ve been very intentional about building coalitions of conscience, not only between the Black and Jewish community but with members also of the Muslim community and people across racial lines.”

Speaking with JI, meanwhile, Warnock emphasized that “we have to be unequivocal” in “using our voice to stand against” rising incidents of antisemitism. 

“It’s not difficult to do, especially when you recognize that antisemitism and racism really come from the same root,” said Warnock, who is a member of the Senate’s recently formed Black-Jewish caucus. “They are one cloth, and I think Dr. King put it best when he said whatever ‘affects one directly affects all indirectly.’ We are ‘tied in a single garment of destiny.’ I believe that at my core, and it’s the reason why I’ve been very intentional about building coalitions of conscience, not only between the Black and Jewish community but with members also of the Muslim community and people across racial lines.”

Warnock developed a close relationship with Sen. Jon Ossoff (D-GA), Georgia’s first Jewish senator, when they campaigned together last cycle during the high-profile runoff elections that helped deliver the Democratic majority he is now defending. “He and I were elected together,” Warnock said. “We work very closely together in the Senate, which is the exception and not the rule. I think, even when senators are of the same party, they don’t necessarily coordinate their efforts and work together in the way that Jon Ossoff and I do, and I think, in the end, it’s been a great benefit to the people of Georgia.”

The senator said he was proud to support “Georgia’s own” Deborah Lipstadt, the renowned Holocaust historian and Emory University professor who now serves as the Biden administration’s special envoy to monitor and combat antisemitism. “It’s important that someone of her background coming from Georgia is in that position,” he argued. “We have to be vigilant.”

Sens. Jon Ossoff (D-GA) (L) and Raphael Warnock (D-GA) hold a news conference with fellow Democratic members of Congress to push for a solar tax credit at the U.S. Capitol on Sept. 28, 2021, in Washington, D.C. (Photo by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)

“This kind of uptick is deeply concerning,” he added. “We have to build the kinds of coalitions that are very clear that this is intolerable and, ultimately, we have to build a country and a world that embraces all of us.”

Warnock explained that he has “long had strong relationships with members of the Jewish community,” referring in particular to his close connection with Peter Berg, senior rabbi of The Temple, a Reform synagogue in Atlanta, with whom he has collaborated on issues including gun violence and combating antisemitism. “We make it a point,” Warnock quipped, “of getting into what John Lewis called ‘good trouble’ together.”

While Berg declined a request for comment because he does not typically weigh in on political races, during the last election he was among a group of rabbis who signed on to a Nov. 2020 letter defending Warnock’s “strong support for Israel and his partnership with the Jewish people.” 

The statement was not “an endorsement of a particular candidate, but a rejection of false and divisive slander entering our community,” the signatories wrote, alluding to mounting Republican attacks from his Republican rival, former Sen. Kelly Loeffler (R-GA), whose campaign had unleashed a series of scathing ads condemning Warnock as hostile to Israel. In a rare but equally withering attack ad released after the letter was shared publicly, Christians United for Israel’s political arm had also charged that Warnock was “lying about the Jewish state” while “preaching a gospel of hate.”

Warnock forcefully denied the allegations, accusing his opponents of “trying to use Israel as yet another wedge issue,” after the past statements had resurfaced in the lead-up to the special runoff election in Jan. 2021 to serve out the remainder of the late Sen. Johnny Isakson’s (R-GA) term.

In public comments at the time, Warnock had stressed that he “was speaking to the issue of activists and human rights and the ability of people to be heard” when he denounced Israel’s military actions in his 2018 sermon. The reverend said he had since developed “an increasing recognition of Hamas and the danger that they pose to the Israeli people.” Warnock also clarified that he does “not believe Israel is an apartheid state, as some have suggested,” referring to the statement he had signed, in 2019, after touring Israel and the West Bank with a delegation of Black and South African Christian clergy members. 

While Warnock has since softened his rhetoric on issues relating to Israel, he has still maintained that “being a true friend also means being a truth-teller who does not shy away from hard conversations,” as he wrote in his position paper last cycle. “I am a true friend to Israel, which is why I know how important it is to express my strong reservations and concerns over settlement expansion and creeping annexation that ultimately impede our hopes for peace.”

During his time in office, Warnock has occasionally made efforts to hold Israel to account. In May, he was among a group of 20 Senate Democrats who joined a letter urging the Biden administration to engage in preventing the evictions of 1,000 Palestinians in the Masafer Yatta region of the West Bank. The following month, he signed on to a separate letter calling for “direct U.S. involvement” in an independent investigation of the May killing of Palestinian-American journalist Shireen Abu Akleh.

Meanwhile, Warnock has upheld his support for continued security assistance to Israel while condemning what he has described as the “antisemitic overtones” of the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions moment. In March, he joined a bipartisan letter to Secretary of State Tony Blinken requesting that the U.S. push the United Nations Human Rights Council to end its “discriminatory and unwarranted” permanent Commission of Inquiry on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

Even as he has held a slight lead over Walker in recent publicly available polling, the race remains difficult to predict. Early voting began on Monday.

The senator has notched endorsements from a range of national Israel advocacy groups, including JDCA, J Street and Democratic Majority for Israel, all of which backed his last campaign. Rachel Rosen, a spokesperson for DMFI’s political action committee, said the group will “be phone banking to help” Warnock in his bid for reelection but declined to reveal further potential involvement. “The rest we aren’t sharing until we do it,” she told JI via email.

On Wednesday evening, JDCA’s political arm is holding a phone and text bank to support Warnock with assistance from Ossoff, who defeated former Sen. David Perdue (R-GA) in 2021. The group is targeting 86,000, Jewish voters in Georgia, the majority of whom live in the Atlanta metropolitan area, according to Soifer.

“Warnock’s public record says a great deal about his concern about our issues and his support,” Levow added, noting that his statements and votes indicate that he is in favor of the memorandum of understanding guaranteeing U.S. aid to Israel and that he is against BDS. 

Somewhat conspicuously, Warnock did not gain backing from AIPAC’s newly launched PAC, which is otherwise supporting a number of Senate incumbents from both parties this cycle. Marshall Wittmann, a spokesperson for AIPAC, said the group “won’t have comment” when reached by JI.

Despite the apparent snub, Warnock has nevertheless often aligned with the bipartisan lobbying group, according to Alan Levow, an AIPAC board member in Atlanta who also serves as vice president of the American Israel Education Foundation. “I have had a very positive relationship with Senator Warnock and his staff who have been attentive and responsive on our issues,” he said in a text exchange with JI last week.

“Warnock’s public record says a great deal about his concern about our issues and his support,” Levow added, noting that his statements and votes indicate that he is in favor of the memorandum of understanding guaranteeing U.S. aid to Israel and that he is against BDS. 

Levow also emphasized that Warnock “has supported additional monies toward Israel’s missile defense and, recently and importantly, endorsed our position against the U.N. Human Rights Council that has set up a unique and odious commission to investigate Israel based on an open-ended agenda.”

Levow declined to address specific questions because, he said, “I believe my relationship and my discussions with Sen. Warnock should remain strictly private between us.”

For his part, Warnock was somewhat more forthcoming as he sought to explain the broader lessons he has drawn from ongoing discussions with Jewish leaders during his time in office. 

“What I’ve learned in the conversations that I’ve had with activists, with students, with faith leaders, is that the Jewish community, like all communities, is not a monolith, and there’s a range of perspectives on a whole range of issues, and I think it’s important to recognize the nuances,” Warnock told JI. “I think that, too, is important for informing one’s perspective on how best to come combat antisemitism and to be a good ally.”

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