David Perdue and Jon Ossoff address antisemitism ahead of close election

Sen. David Perdue (R-GA) has strong words against antisemitism. 

“Antisemitism has no place in society, period,” he told Jewish Insider in a candidate questionnaire. “It’s horrifying any time you see hate perpetrated against Jewish people in the United States or anywhere around the world.”

Despite his emphatic beliefs, Perdue’s opponent in Georgia’s upcoming Senate election, former journalist Jon Ossoff — who is Jewish — has argued that Perdue himself has recently perpetrated antisemitic hatred. 

In late July, Perdue’s campaign tactics came under scrutiny when the first-term Republican senator published a Facebook ad that enlarged Ossoff’s nose — a classic antisemitic stereotype. A spokesman for Perdue told The Forward, which first reported on the image, that the edit was “accidental” and the ad would be removed from the site. 

But Ossoff wasn’t buying it. “This is the oldest, most obvious, least original antisemitic trope in history,” the 33-year-old Democratic candidate wrote in a Twitter statement when the ad was publicized by national media outlets. “Senator, literally no one believes your excuses.”

(Read the complete Perdue and Ossoff questionnaires, along with many others on JI’s interactive election map.)

Perdue did not mention the ad in his responses to the JI questionnaire, which includes a question asking candidates whether they believe there is a concerning rise of antisemitism, including in their own party.  

“I’ve been a friend of Israel and the Jewish community since I was very young,” the senator averred. “Since I got to the U.S. Senate, I’ve made fighting antisemitism and all forms of bigotry a top priority. Unfortunately, we saw this issue at the forefront in 2017 after a string of bomb threats at Jewish Community Centers across the country. That was unacceptable, and I worked with national security officials in the Trump administration to make sure there would be a long-term strategy to protect these JCCs and other places of worship.”

For his part, Ossoff also chose to not directly address Perdue’s controversial ad in responding to JI’s questionnaire, despite his previous caustic statement directed at the incumbent. 

“Sectarianism and racism often increase at moments of great social, economic, and political stress — especially when dangerous political demagogues like Donald Trump deliberately inflame mistrust, resentment, and hatred to gain power,” Ossoff told JI. “Racism, anti-Semitism, and xenophobia have increased in America as President Trump has deliberately pitted Americans against Americans, stirring up conflict within our society rather than uniting us to move forward together as one people.”

But Ossoff’s answer could also have been regarded as an implicit critique of Perdue’s reelection tactics. “I learned about public and political leadership from my mentor, Congressman John Lewis, who taught me to focus on our shared humanity above our racial, religious and cultural differences,” Ossoff continued, referring to the Georgia representative and civil rights leader who endorsed Ossoff before his death on July 17. 

“My state, our country and all humanity will only achieve our full potential and build the Beloved Community [a term coined by Lewis] by recognizing that we are all in this together, that our interests are aligned and that hatred, prejudice and discrimination only hold us back.”

Despite the tension between the two candidates, both emphasized their support for a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. 

“Any peace deal should protect the political freedom and human rights of all people in the region and ensure Israel’s security as a homeland for the Jewish people without threat of terrorism or invasion,” Ossoff declared. “The aim of the peace process should be secure and peaceful coexistence, political freedom and prosperity for people of all faiths and nationalities in the Middle East.”

“Obviously there is no simple fix but a two-state solution would be the best outcome for both sides,” Perdue told JI. “However, that won’t happen unless the Palestinians are willing to come to the table, negotiate in good faith and cut ties with terrorist groups like Hamas and Hezbollah. The Palestinian Authority has to end their practice of providing stipends for known terrorists. It’s ridiculous and the reason I support the Taylor Force Act. We’ve got to make sure the United States isn’t sending foreign aid until these payments end. Israel has made it clear that they are open to living in peace with the Palestinians. You’ve seen a willingness by Israel to begin negotiations. The Palestinians must do the same in order to solve this issue.”

Perdue and Ossoff also both expressed their commitment to ensuring that Israel maintains its security edge in the Middle East. 

“The special relationship between the U.S. and Israel is deeply rooted and strategically important to both countries, but it cannot be taken for granted,” Ossoff told JI. “Security cooperation, trade and cultural ties enrich and strengthen both countries. The U.S. Congress, with strong bipartisan support, should play an essential role in maintaining and strengthening healthy and open relations between the U.S. and Israel.”

“The U.S.-Israel relationship is both special and strategic,” Perdue said, while noting that his first foreign trip as a senator was to Israel. “It is special because we share the common values of freedom and democracy, and it’s strategic because Israel is America’s strongest ally in the Middle East.”

“President Trump has shown that Israel is and will continue to be a priority,” Perdue added. “By moving our U.S. Embassy to Jerusalem, the president recognized the historic and modern reality that Jerusalem is the center for the Jewish people and all parts of Israeli government. Jerusalem is unquestionably Israel’s capital.”

Still, Perdue and Ossoff differ when it comes to the Iran nuclear deal, known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA). 

Perdue supports Trump’s decision to pull out of the agreement. “President Obama’s Iran deal was an unmitigated disaster,” he told JI. “It’s very clear that the Obama-Biden Administration’s weak foreign policy only emboldened Iran and made the world less safe. Trusting Iran to change was not only naive, but it also created a national security risk for our ally Israel.”

Ossoff disagrees, with qualifications. “Nuclear weapons proliferation is one of the gravest threats to U.S. and world security,” he said. “I support robust efforts to prevent the spread of nuclear weapons anywhere. An Iranian nuclear weapons capability would pose an existential threat to Israel and other U.S. allies and would pose a critical threat to U.S. national security.”

“I opposed the Trump administration’s unilateral U.S. withdrawal from the JCPOA,” he added. “In the Senate, I will support U.S. participation in an agreement that prevents Iran from developing nuclear weapons, whether based on the JCPOA, another multilateral agreement or a desperately needed new global nuclear arms reduction and nonproliferation treaty.”

Ossoff, who narrowly lost a 2017 congressional bid, is hoping he can best Perdue in November’s election as the Democrats are strategizing to flip the Senate. The Cook Political Report has rated the race a “toss-up.”

Nita Lowey looks back on more than 30 years in Congress

In November 1988, a 51-year-old upstart Democratic candidate named Nita Lowey overcame the odds to defeat two-term Republican incumbent Rep. Joseph J. DioGuardi in a nail-biter of a congressional election. Lowey’s upset, all those years ago, feels reminiscent of the current political moment, as establishment players face stiff competition from progressives.

Last August, Lowey got a taste of that dynamic when Mondaire Jones, a 33-year-old attorney, announced he would challenge Lowey in the Democratic primary. Two months later, Lowey declared that she would not seek re-election. The congresswoman has said she made her decision independent of Jones, who is now poised to succeed her. But the timing may have been significant: Rep. Eliot Engel (D-NY), who serves in a neighboring district and entered Congress in Lowey’s class, appears to have fallen to a left-leaning challenger in the June 23 primary.

Lowey, for her part, is sanguine about the recent primary election in her own district, the results of which have not yet been officially called. “Whoever wins, I wish them well,” she told Jewish Insider in a phone interview. “I just would hope that they would continue a legacy that, to me, is very important: helping people.”

As she prepares to retire at the end of her term, Lowey, 83, reflected on her decades-long run serving the northern suburbs of New York City. 

“It’s been an extraordinary opportunity for me,” said the congresswoman, who represents the 17th congressional district, which includes portions of Westchester and all of Rockland County.

That is, of course, an understatement. Throughout her 32 years in office, Lowey has established herself as a formidable presence in Washington, having ascended to the upper ranks of the House Appropriations Committee, which she now chairs along with its subcommittee on State, Foreign Operations, and Related Programs.

“She was a powerhouse,” said Howard Wolfson, a Democratic strategist who worked for Lowey in the early 1990s as her chief of staff and press secretary and in the early 2000s when she served as the first chairwoman of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee. “I learned an enormous amount from her — about how she operated, how she built coalitions, how she was able to work with people from both sides of the aisle, how she used her charisma and her energy and enthusiasm.”

“She wanted to make a difference,” Wolfson added. “She was there to legislate.”

In her conversation with JI, Lowey rattled off a number of achievements, such as her advocacy on behalf of public television, abortion rights, food allergy labeling, gender equity in preclinical research and environmental protections for the Long Island Sound. 

Her work advocating for pro-Israel causes, she said, is a part of her legacy she views as particularly important. “The work that I’ve done regarding the Israel-United States relationship almost makes me feel as [though] I’m carrying on l’dor v’dor, the tradition,” said the Bronx-born Lowey, who is Jewish and has long felt a kinship with Israel.

“I think it’s very important to continue that relationship,” said Lowey, adding her concern that partisan politics have, more recently, interfered with bipartisan support for the Jewish state. 

Lowey recalled the time in 2015 that Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu — who she refers to using his nickname, Bibi — appeared before Congress to deliver a controversial speech that was highly critical of former President Barack Obama’s support for the Iran nuclear deal. 

“I called Bibi on the phone and I said, ‘Your coming here without a bipartisan invitation is a mistake,’” she said. “‘I will make sure that you get another invitation, but please, you’ve got to keep Israel a bipartisan issue.’ He came anyway. He didn’t listen to me.”

The congresswoman is also worried about possible annexation of parts of the West Bank, which Netanyahu has said could happen as soon as this month. “I have many concerns about the annexation,” she said. “This expansion would put an end to a two-state solution, in my judgement.” 

Still, Lowey spoke affectionately of Netanyahu, whom she has known for decades. Earlier this year, she traveled to Israel as part of a bipartisan congressional delegation commemorating the 75th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz. 

“It was a very emotional — a very emotional time — for me,” said Lowey, who remembers chatting with the prime minister about her first trip to Israel as a member of Congress, during which they rode a helicopter together around the country. “It was just the two of us,” she remembered, “flying over and understanding what this issue was all about.”

Nita Lowey poses for photo
Rep. Charles Rangel (D-NY), U.S. Secretary of Labor Tom Perez, Rep. Nita Lowey (D-NY) and Rep. Jerrold Nadler (D-NY) appear at an event in New York in May 2014. (Gary He/ U.S. Department of Labor)

Constituents in Lowey’s district, which includes a sizable Jewish population, are more than grateful for her commitment to their needs.

“She’s always available, which is always so special,” said Elliot Forchheimer, CEO of the Westchester Jewish Council. “People appreciated being able to hear from her and being able to have a quick conversation with her, which she would take back to her office and down to Washington as needed.”

Debra Weiner, who is active in the Westchester Jewish community, said Lowey’s voice will be “sorely missed” after she steps down. “A big hole will be left both in our Westchester community here and certainly representing us in the United States Congress.”

“Many of us felt that she was very much one of us,” said Michael Miller, executive vice president and CEO of the Jewish Community Relations Council of New York, recalling that Lowey would wear a Lion of Judah pin indicating her annual support for the United Jewish Appeal. 

Lowey’s decision to work on the foreign operations subcommittee, Miller added, made her their “go-to person.” Miller also noted that Lowey had helped procure federal security funding for nonprofit religious organizations as the country saw an uptick in incidents of antisemitic violence. 

“We owe her a tremendous debt of gratitude,” Miller said.

Jackie Shaw, executive director of the Interfaith Council For Action in Ossining, was equally appreciative of Lowey’s service. 

“Through Nita Lowey’s hard work and dedication to underserved communities, IFCA was able to receive funding to address critical housing needs,” Shaw said in an email. “With these funds, IFCA was able to continue its mission of providing safe, quality affordable housing. Nita’s leadership will be sorely missed.”

In a statement, Rep. Rosa DeLauro (D-CT), echoed that sentiment. Lowey’s “career is marked by her fierce advocacy for working families and steadfast desire to give underrepresented communities a seat at the table,” she said, adding, “I will miss seeing her in the halls of Congress.”

Lowey looks back on her tenure in Congress with a strong sense of accomplishment, but pointed out that nothing came without a fight. 

“I was one of a small group of women when I got to Congress,” the 16-term congresswoman said. The number of female representatives who now serve in the House, Lowey told JI, gives her faith that the country will be well-served as she prepares to retire. “They come to me and want to learn from me, but I’m continuing to learn from them as I try to help them adjust to this important responsibility.”

More broadly, Lowey emphasized the work she has done since 1989 for constituents in need. “I’m very proud of all the casework we’ve done just helping people,” she told JI. “There are so many thousands of people who have benefited because of the great casework we do in my district office.”

Not that she has any plans of becoming complacent in her final six months in office. 

Rabbi Steven Kane, who works at Congregation Sons of Israel in Briarcliff Manor, said he spoke with Lowey just last week about a $100,000 grant his synagogue had received for security upgrades. Though Lowey is in her final term, Kane marveled at the fact that she had made the decision to personally inform him of the grant.

“We were very fortunate to have her,” he said.

Lowey has also been working to pass the bipartisan Middle East Partnership for Peace Act, which, she said, creates joint economic ventures between Israelis and Palestinians as well as “people-to-people” programs — all with the intention of encouraging a “strong foundation,” as Lowey put it, for a two-state solution. 

The act, she seemed to suggest, would be one of the crowning achievements of her legacy. “I want to get all these things done before I leave,” she said. “So I’m working very hard.”

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