The Curious Case of Raphael Warnock

Warnock is not Ilhan Omar. But he’s not exactly Moshe Dayan, either.
December 14, 2020
Democratic nominee for U.S. Senate Rev. Raphael Warnock casts his vote in the runoff election on the first day of early voting on December 14, 2020 in Atlanta, Georgia. (Photo by Megan Varner/Getty Images)

The ongoing conversation about the importance of Israel to American Jews now moves to the state of Georgia, where one of the Democratic candidates in the Senate elections there has been struggling to reconcile his past controversial statements about the Middle East with the pro-Israel positions he has taken in the current campaign.

The Reverend Raphael Warnock occupies a storied place in Georgia’s religious and cultural history, serving as senior pastor for Ebenezer Baptist Church, the same congregation that the late Martin Luther King, Jr. once led. Over the years, he has spoken out on a number of domestic and foreign policy issues without attracting much notice, but as a candidate in the campaign that could provide Democrats with a working Senate majority, he is facing a more intense level of scrutiny.

Warnock has been extremely critical of Israel in the past. In a 2018 sermon he delivered days after the U.S. embassy was moved to Jerusalem, Warnock said “We saw the government of Israel shoot down unarmed Palestinian sisters and brothers like birds of prey.”

When asked about this sermon last week, Warnock defended his statement by arguing, “As you might imagine, I’m a pastor. I preach every Sunday — I preach a lot of sermons. And I think that — as I recall that sermon — I was speaking to the issue of activists and human rights and the ability of people to be heard.”

To be fair, Warnock went on to offer another perspective that he did not verbalize two years ago. “At the same time, I have an increasing recognition of Hamas and the danger that they pose to the Israeli people,” he said. “And so it’s a complicated situation. It’s one that I will always engage as a principled and honest broker, who both affirms humanity, human rights, and at the same time trying to get us to a place where Israel can exist alongside its neighbors in peace.”

But nowhere did Warnock offer any expression of regret  — let alone an apology — for comparing the Israeli government to “birds of prey.” The key words in his response were “I preach every Sunday – I preach a lot of sermons,” in which he essentially argues that this is a one-time statement that shouldn’t be taken seriously because he speaks in public so frequently.

Suppose I wrote a column arguing that the 19th Amendment should be repealed and that women in this country should no longer be allowed to vote. Imagine if my defense to the justified outrage toward such a contemptible statement was simply: “I write columns every week — this was just one of them.” My equally flawed explanation would be rightly and loudly dismissed, and I would deservedly be castigated and ostracized. Warnock’s rationalization was no different.

Nor was it unique. Just last year, months before beginning his Senate campaign, Warnock’s name appeared on a letter comparing Israel to “previous oppressive regimes” and the security barrier in the West Bank to the Berlin Wall, calling for an end to all U.S. arms sales in the Middle East and referring to the “heavy militarization of the West Bank” as “reminiscent of the military occupation of Namibia by apartheid South Africa.”

But in an opinion piece he wrote last month for Jewish Insider, Warnock said “Claims that I believe Israel is an apartheid state are patently false — I do not believe that.”

Again, I want to be fair. Warnock’s column was titled “I Stand With Israel” and also said, “Without reservation, you can count on me to stand with the Jewish community and Israel in the U.S. Senate.” He announced his opposition to the BDS movement and to conditioning U.S. aid to Israel and his support for the 2016 military aid package between the two countries.

So Warnock is not Ilhan Omar. But he’s not exactly Moshe Dayan, either. And the question confronting Jewish voters, donors and activists is a difficult one.

Warnock is not Ilhan Omar. But he’s not exactly Moshe Dayan, either.

The stakes in these Georgia elections are immense. Most American Jews supported Joe Biden in November and most would presumably prefer to see a Democratic-controlled Senate with which the new president could work. So it’s tempting for many to minimize or intentionally overlook Warnock’s troubling statements about Israel to justify that broader outcome.

Every one of us must decide for ourselves whether that’s a reasonable tradeoff.  But whether it’s the right decision or not, it’s appropriate to acknowledge that you’ve made it.

Dan Schnur teaches political communications at UC Berkeley, USC and Pepperdine. He hosts the weekly webinar “Politics in the Time of Coronavirus” for the Los Angeles World Affairs Council & Town Hall.

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