Voters in Georgia will not just be deciding the state’s political trajectory on Tuesday, but the country’s as well. At stake is control of the U.S. Senate, and how much of President-elect Joe Biden’s legislative agenda will become reality.
In a state where the presidential race was decided by approximately 12,000 ballots and with the margins in the polls for Georgia’s two Senate runoff races within the margin of error, every vote matters.
With a small but dedicated group of Jewish voters in the Peach State, Jewish Americans could determine which party emerges victorious.
“This is going to be a turnout election,” says Bernard Whitman, a Democrat and founder and CEO of Whitman Insight Strategies. "The Jewish community, which numbers 100,000 voters, maybe just under that, could play a pivotal role."
Tuesday’s contests between Democrat Jon Ossoff, who is Jewish himself, and Republican incumbent David Perdue and between Democrat Raphael Warnock and GOP incumbent Kelly Loeffler were triggered as a result of Georgian election law stipulating runoffs after no candidates secured over 50% of the vote in November’s general election.
The majority of the Jewish population lives in Atlanta and the surrounding areas, places that were crucial to Biden’s Georgia victory.
Republicans have a 50-48 majority over the Democrats in those races that have already been decided for the Senate to be sworn-in later in January.
However, if both Georgia Democratic challengers win their contests, the Senate will have an equal number of Republican and Democratic legislators, with Democratic Vice President-elect Kamala Harris breaking any tied votes.
With tight runoffs expected, the candidates and their supporters are out in full force trying to get out the vote in the last days of the campaign.
All four camps have tried to woo Jewish voters specifically, by issuing open letters to the Jewish community, promulgating their positions on Israel.
“The Jewish vote is important to the future of the entire country and the future as far as our support of Israel and its sovereignty,” says Julianne Thompson, a Republican strategist and president of MSN Strategies, a public affairs firm based in Atlanta.
However, most Jews vote Democratic, with close to 80% of the demographic supporting Biden in the presidential election.
Rabbi Mario Karpuj, a dual Israeli-American citizen who voted absentee from Jerusalem, is one such example.
He recently immigrated to Israel from Sandy Springs, Georgia, where he was a rabbi at the Ohr Hadash synagogue, affiliated with the Conservative branch of Judaism.
Ossoff and Warnock "don’t preach the language of divisiveness that has been affecting politics in America for the last four years,” he says.
“They support issues like inclusiveness of working for the entire community, taking care of every member of society regardless of their background,” Karpuj says.
Morris Benveniste, a professor of neuroscience in Atlanta who identifies with Conservative Judaism, already voted early for Ossoff and Warnock.
“It’s very important to end Trumpism; it’s so anti-democratic,” he says.
“Sometimes, I considering how particular [candidates] vote or [their] attitude toward Israel. Conservatives are pretty strong on Israel, the very left of the Democratic Party is not very strong on Israel, but that hasn’t been shaping my vote as of late.”
According to Michael Rosenzweig, an Atlanta-based national board member of the Jewish Democratic Council of America, a win for Ossoff and Warnock is key to a successful Biden presidency.
“I fear that if the Republicans continue to control the Senate and [Kentucky Republican Sen.] Mitch McConnell continues to be majority leader, Biden won’t be able to accomplish much at all," he says.
"I happen to believe that the Democratic Party generally and Warnock and Ossoff specifically share my values, which I would describe as traditional Jewish values and Democratic Party values, and there’s a good deal of overlap between the two.
“If you look at the Republican Party generally and you look at [Loeffler and Perdue] in particular, they are not all that concerned about those kinds of values, [such as] concern for the other, the downtrodden, the widow, the child, to those who are less fortunate, tikkun olam [repairing the world],” Rosenzweig says.
“In the Jewish community here, I see more and more folks swinging to the right of center from left of center,” says Korman, a self-described “Reform Jew who congregates with an Orthodox synagogue” and who is also a member of the Republican Jewish Coalition lobbying group.
“But I think that they are very, very concerned with some new dogma that has shifted through the Democratic Party in the last 10 years,” Korman says, referring to Democratic representatives like Rashida Talib and Ilhan Omar, who have both backed a boycott of Israel.
And according to Republican strategist Julianne Thompson, Warnock shares those views.
“Warnock … is just very anti-Semitic in his rhetoric and I do not know that he would even support the nation of Israel as far as foreign aid is concerned,” Thompson says.
Karpuj disputes the claim that Warnock is anti-Semitic.
“I personally know Reverend Warnock; we have worked together for over a decade on different interfaith initiatives. I have seen him get involved with the Jewish community; I don’t think there is an issue there,” the rabbi says.
Thompson is hoping for more voters like Yitzchok Tendler, the executive director of Congregation Beth Jacob, the largest Orthodox synagogue in Atlanta, and a senior fellow for Israel & Jewish Affairs at the American Conservative Union.
“I will be voting for both Republican candidates. In addition to my own preference for conservative policies on domestic issues, I also have Israel’s safety and security very high on my list of priorities,” Tendler says.
'Political wedge issue'
Democrats concede that targeting the Israel issue has been somewhat successful for Republicans in gaining Jewish voters.
“I think it’s been partially effective, and I think what the Democrats need to do is localize this race,” Whitman says.
He argues, however, that the Republican characterization of the Democratic Party’s stance on Israel is not accurate.
“We have a robust debate about the best approach to support Israel. I think blind support for Israel and the corrupt Netanyahu propping up the settlements, from my perspective as a Jewish American voter is not the right strategy,” Whitman says.
“But the demonization of the Democratic Party as somehow entirely pro-Palestinian, anti-Israel … is just not true. John Ossoff is the only Jewish candidate in the race and Reverend Warnock has been quite clear that he is opposed to the BDS movement,” Whitman says.
“I don’t see that Loeffler and Perdue are better for Israel. In many ways, I think they are worse for Israel, because both of them are playing the Republican game of using Israel as a political wedge issue,” he says.
“When [the GOP employs this strategy], what they are really trying to do is peel off just enough Jewish votes to make a difference in elections that are going to be very close. I think that Georgia’s Senate races are a good example of that.”
Despite all the efforts, it remains unclear just how many Jewish voters will be receptive to microtargeting tactics.
“I think we need to understand that Jewish voters, yes, vote with Israel in mind, but I actually think as important if not more important is what are the policies here at home,” Whitman said.
According to the Jewish Electorate Institute, nearly 90% of Jews self-report being “pro-Israel,” but most do not agree with at least some elements of Israeli policy. In addition, most Jewish voters rank U.S. domestic policy issues as more important to them than Israel.
Orthodox Jews tend to have different political preferences than the more liberal Conservative and Reform Jews, according to Tendler.
“The closer you are to Israel, the higher it ranks on your list of priorities. The more observant the segment of the community, the greater likelihood they are to have children and other family living in Israel, or have studied in Israel,” he says. “The safety of Israel is probably the No. 1 issue for us.”
Korman believes the future of Jewish participation in American politics looks bright for the Republican Party, due to demographic changes within the community.
“The Orthodox are a very conservative population,” and their numbers are growing because they have large families, he said.
“So I see the Jewish vote shifting,” Korman said.
Article written by Tara Kavalar. Reprinted with permission from The Media Line