ATLANTA — In the hours after a gunman in Pittsburgh opened fire at the Tree of Life Synagogue in 2018, the phone rang in Atlanta for Rabbi Peter Berg, the leader of The Temple, Atlanta’s oldest Jewish congregation.
It was the Rev. Raphael Warnock, the senior pastor at Ebenezer Baptist Church.
“Raphael was the first to call,” Berg said. “(He said that) during this horrific moment of anti-Semitism in our country, he and the Ebenezer family are with us.”
The pastor offering Berg comfort in 2018 is now running as a Democrat against Republican incumbent Sen. Kelly Loeffler in an increasingly ugly fight that could determine control of the U.S. Senate.
Now in a one-on-one battle with each other, the attacks between Loeffler and Warnock have rained down, including Loeffler’s recent accusation that Warnock is “anti-Israel.”
It’s an allegation made heavier by the weight of history in Georgia, where the Black and Jewish communities joined forces in the 1950s in the face of deadly racist and anti-Semitic attacks against them both.
The Temple, where Berg presides, was bombed by white supremacists in 1958 after then-Rabbi Jacob Rothschild joined the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., then the pastor at Ebenezer, to oppose racist Jim Crow laws in the South.
As pastor and rabbi of those same congregations decades later, Warnock and Berg have become friends. Every year for more than a decade, Warnock has spoken at The Temple on the Friday night of MLK weekend, while Berg has given the sermon at Ebenezer every Sunday of the same weekend.
Loeffler’s characterization of Warnock as a danger to the Jewish state is at odds with the man Berg said he considers a “close friend and clergy confidant.”
“We often joke that every rabbi needs a pastor and every pastor needs a rabbi,” he said.
As a religious leader, Berg does not endorse political candidates, but he said, “The recent attacks against Rev. Warnock misrepresent his position on Israel.”
Election Day in November narrowed the field for the special Senate election from 21 to just Loeffler and Warnock. After months of battling Republican U.S. Rep. Doug Collins for conservative voters, Loeffler turned her focus to Warnock.
The future of the Middle East is important not just to Jewish voters, but also to evangelical Christians who form a large part of the GOP base.
Among the evidence the Loeffler campaign cited as proof that Warnock does not support Israel were a sermon in which Warnock forcefully denounced Israeli killings of Palestinians, as well as a letter that Warnock signed with American and South African clergy after a group trip to Israel and the West Bank.
In the letter, church leaders recounted learning more about “Hitler’s effort to exterminate the Jewish people,” but they also compared the military presence of the West Bank to “military occupation of Namibia by apartheid South Africa.”
In an op-ed published later in the Jewish Insider, Warnock detailed his formal position on Israel, including support for a two-state solution for Middle East peace, an agreement that would allow Israelis and Palestinians to live in secure sovereign territories as independent nations.
Warnock also wrote that he supports unconditional arms sales to Israel and opposes the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement. A separate position paper by Warnock calls for Jerusalem to become a shared capital after a Middle East peace agreement.
“Claims that I believe Israel is an Apartheid state are patently false,” he wrote in the op-ed. “I do not believe that.”
Loeffler, for her part, has followed President Donald Trump’s lead on issues related to Israel. The Trump administration supports a two-state solution with a unified Jerusalem as the capital of Israel. In 2018, Trump moved the U.S. Embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem. Trump strongly opposes the boycott movement and has approved unconditional arms sales to Israel.
In an interview, Warnock said he has spent his time as a Baptist pastor working with Jewish communities because “it’s just the way I see the world — we are tied together inextricably.”
When asked about the letter he signed from clergy, he detailed his support for a two-state solution.
“I have expressed my concern about continued settlement expansion,” he said. “And that’s because I’m concerned that it is a threat to the prospect of a two-state solution. Ultimately, my goal is peace.”
The attacks on Warnock as anti-Israel would seem to put Jon Ossoff, the Democrat running against U.S. Sen. David Perdue in the state’s other Senate runoff, in a difficult position. Ossoff is Jewish and was bar mitzvahed at The Temple.
But Ossoff defended Warnock without hesitation in an interview.
“Rev. Warnock is a beloved friend and ally of Georgia’s Jewish community,” Ossoff said. “And his support for the Jewish community, his presence in the Jewish community, his moral leadership as a figure in Georgia’s faith community who reaches out across faiths and denominations to unite people is beautiful and deeply appreciated.”
Ossoff called Loeffler’s attacks against Warnock “ridiculous, false invective,” and he added, “The only anti-Semitism in a Senate race is from David Perdue, who lengthened my nose in attack ads.”
A Perdue ad did lengthen Ossoff’s nose, but the senator’s campaign said a vendor made the change without its knowledge. Democrats at the time accused Republicans of pushing an anti-Jewish stereotype.
Not all Jewish voters are ready to look past Warnock’s earlier comments.
Dan Israel, a Republican and former board member of the American Jewish Committee, said he is troubled by what he’s heard.
“I don’t think he understands how someone Jewish can view a statement about apartheid and Israel as being anti-Semitic,” Israel said. “He thinks it’s a statement being made against the state of Israel, but it really impugns the Jewish homeland and the Jewish people because it is patently false. It demonstrates a lack of appreciation for what the Jewish people have gone through for millennia, and shows how tone deaf his statements are.”
But Michael Rosenzweig, the head of the Georgia chapter of the Jewish Democratic Council of America, rejects Loeffler’s attacks on the pastor.
“What the Loeffler campaign is trying to do with this is divide the Black community from the Jewish community and they’re trying to divide the Jewish community internally,” he said. “It’s very clear what they’re doing here, and honestly it’s heinous.”
Rosenzweig added that he was bothered by Loeffler’s endorsement by Marjorie Taylor Greene, who has repeated conspiracy theories from QAnon, which traffics in anti-Semitic and racist tropes.
“This is an effort to use Israel as a wedge issue, but the most important thing for Israel’s security is its relationship with the United States and that it be bipartisan,” he said.
Stephen Lawson, Loeffler’s spokesman, said the campaign is only raising what Warnock has said before.
“(Warnock’s) record, his statements, his own words are a direct reflection of his beliefs,” Lawson said. “We will continue to share with the people of Georgia the statements that he’s made, which stand in stark contrast to the values that Israel and the Jewish community hold.”
On Tuesday, a group of nearly 200 rabbis from Georgia and across the country signed a letter in support of Warnock.
“We stand with Rev. Raphael Warnock against these attacks, and implore other Jewish leaders to stand with us,” they wrote.
Some Jewish voters in Georgia are learning about Warnock for the first time. Jennifer Mosbacher went with her family to a joint Ossoff/Warnock rally in Cobb County recently.
She already supported Ossoff but had never seen Warnock deliver a stump speech.
While Ossoff lays out policy prescriptions with a Barack Obama cadence, Warnock takes his audiences to church.
“The forces of hatred and the demagogues of division are trying to distract us,” he told the cheering crowd. “My beloved, let’s stand together.”
Such overtly religious language from a candidate can be jarring for some Democrats, but for Mosbacher, it meant something.
“He’s inspirational, without a doubt,” she said, pointing out that Warnock had quoted Abraham Joshua Heschel, the Polish-born rabbi who marched with King and John Lewis in the Selma civil rights march in 1965. “It really resonates with our values,” Mosbacher said.
At that same rally, Warnock positioned his campaign and Ossoff’s as a chance for Georgia to send a Jewish man, the son of immigrants, and a Black man, the pastor from King’s pulpit, to the Senate to represent them, a scenario Ossoff talks about frequently as well.
Looking out at the multiethnic, multiracial crowd in the fast-changing suburban Atlanta county, Warnock said: “This is a glimpse of what God has intended for us. This is the dream.”
©2020 The Atlanta Journal-Constitution (Atlanta, Ga.)