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Democrat candidates in Georgia Senate vote offer a bridge to decency

Dan Coleman
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Published: 20 November 2020

Last updated: 4 March 2024

DAN COLEMAN: The secular Jew, Jon Ossoff, and the Baptist minister, Raphael Warnock, are vying for the right to give their party control of the Senate

THERE MAY NEVER BE an iconic photo of Senate candidates Jon Ossoff and Raphael Warnock side-by-side like that of Rabbi Abraham Heschel and Reverend Martin Luther King crossing the Edmund Pettus Bridge in 1965.

After all, Heschel is the man King referred to as “a truly great prophet.” Heschel, in turn, described King as “the hope of America. His mission is sacred.” Their stature ensured the enduring importance of their interfaith alliance for justice.

Yet the two Democratic contenders in Georgia’s Senate run-offs on January 5 stand very much on a bridge in American history. In a time of rising anti-Semitism, brutal racism that has led to Black Lives Matter, and deep scars of injustice laid bare by Covid-19, they have become the last hope of the Democrats taking control of the US Senate and reversing the foul politics of President Donald Trump and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell.

Most assuredly, Jon Ossoff is no prophet, at least not in any religious sense. Interviewed in Moment magazine, he said his level of religious observance and “theological certainty” has varied through his life.

Although Ossoff described his commitment to “peace, justice, and kindness” as rooted in his Jewish upbringing, he reached political life by a decidedly secular route, first as an investigative journalist, later as an aide to Georgia Congressman Hank Johnson.

Warnock stands more firmly in the footsteps of Martin Luther King, if only by virtue of his ministry at Atlanta’s Ebenezer Baptist Church, the pulpit once presided over by King. Warnock delivered the benediction at Barack Obama’s second inauguration.

As an activist minister, he has hosted a summit on climate change featuring Al Gore and Reverend William Barber II, and led a sit-in at the Georgia state capitol calling for the expansion of Medicaid.

The secular Jew and the Baptist minister may seem an unlikely duo to find on the bridge to a more just America. Ossoff attended an elite private school in Atlanta and studied at Georgetown. Warnock grew up in public housing and went to a public high school.

But there is a profound connection between the two, embodied by the late Congressman and civil rights icon John Lewis. It was then 25 year-old Lewis who organised the Selma to Montgomery marches in 1965. Photos show him in the forefront alongside King and Heschel.

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While still in high school, Ossoff cut his teeth politically as an intern for Lewis. Warnock was Lewis’ minister and presided over his funeral last July. If, as Barack Obama said in his eulogy, “John Lewis will be a founding father of a fuller, fairer, better America,” Ossoff and Warnock may be counted among his noteworthy disciples.

Ossoff told The Nation that Lewis urged him to work to revive the Black-Jewish coalition that was a key part of the 1960s civil rights struggle. He and Warnock could be among the leaders of a revitalised alliance in the 21st century.

For the next six weeks, however, these allied Georgians of such diverse backgrounds will find themselves on a world stage in which, as polling analysts FiveThirtyEight described it, “Georgia will be the centre of the political universe.”

What is at stake in the special election is the ability of America to move forward on a host of issues from racial and economic justice to climate change to healthcare. Blocking that progress is the powerful obstructionism of Senator McConnell. Over the past two years, the Democratic controlled House of Representatives has passed nearly 400 pieces of legislation. Most of these gather dust on McConnell’s desk.
Ossoff told Moment his Jewish story informs his “commitment to a vision of America that is open and decent, kind and respectful. That lives up to our national character as a place that welcomes those fleeing violence and persecution.”

As Ossoff told ABC’s This Week, “it’s so important to win these two Senate races so that the incoming presidential administration can govern, can lead, can enact the solutions necessary to contain this virus and invest in economic recovery.

“With Trump departing, we have the opportunity to define the next chapter in American history, to lead out of this crisis. But only by winning these Senate seats.”

American Jews have a strong stake in the outcome of this election. History has demonstrated that diaspora Jews thrive in pluralistic, democratic societies, those marked by inclusion and respect for diversity. Ossoff and Warnock embody that diversity. Their election will herald a rebuke of Trumpism and of the bigotry and racism that define the contemporary Republican Party.

Ossoff told Moment his Jewish story informs his “commitment to a vision of America that is open and decent, kind and respectful. That lives up to our national character as a place that welcomes those fleeing violence and persecution.”

Warnock, despite his religious ministry, characterises himself in more secular terms as “an iteration of the American dream… I’m running for the Senate because that promise is slipping away from far too many people.”

Historians may judge whether the stakes today are as high as they were 55 years ago when King and Heschel marched together across the bridge toward justice in Selma, Alabama. But it is indisputable that America is at a crossroads. In these run-offs, and in the shared purpose of Jon Ossoff and Raphael Warnock, may lie the future of the US as a democracy, as a world leader, and most fundamentally, as a place of common decency.

Photo: The Rev Raphael Warnock, left, and Jon Ossoff are the Democratic candidates in Georgia’s runoff Senate elections scheduled for January 5 (Erik Lesser/EPA)

About the author

Dan Coleman

Dan Coleman is a former member of the Carrboro, North Carolina Town Council, and a former political columnist for the Durham (NC) Morning Herald. He is the author of Ecopolitics: Building A Green Society. He lives in Melbourne.

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