NEW YORK — Democratic Senate candidate Raphael Warnock of Georgia said Tuesday that he has an “increasing recognition” of the danger Hamas poses to Israel since his harsh 2018 criticism of the Israel Defense Forces’ response to Gaza border protests, which his opponent has used to claim Warnock opposes the Jewish state.
Warnock, a reverend, made the statement during a candidates webinar organized by the Jewish Democratic Council of America ahead of the two Georgia Senate run-off elections that will be held on January 5.
Warnock is challenging Republican Kelly Loeffler and Democrat Jon Ossoff, who was also on the call, is seeking to unseat Republican Senator David Purdue.
Victories in both races would allow the Democrats to gain a majority in the Senate, with Vice President-elect Kamala Harris able to cast a tie-breaking vote in the event of a deadlock. Polls show both races to be neck-and-neck.
Loeffler throughout the campaign has highlighted Warnock’s sermon about Gaza, which he delivered days after Israeli troops fired on Palestinians during violent protests at the Gaza border against the US decision to move its embassy to Jerusalem.
“We saw the government of Israel shoot down unarmed Palestinian sisters and brothers like birds of prey,” Warnock said in the speech.
A Hamas official later said that 50 of 62 Gazans killed in the days of riots and clashes were its members; another three were members of Islamic Jihad.
“There has been some comment about a sermon I gave in May of 2018,” Warnock said on the Tuesday call.
“As you might imagine, I’m a pastor,” Warnock said. “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.”
“At the same time, I have an increasing recognition of Hamas and the danger that they pose to the Israeli people,” he added, asserting that he also supported “non-violent resistance.”
Warnock went on to unequivocally condemn the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement targeting Israel and said he supported US defense assistance to the Jewish state along with the two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
In condemning BDS, he noted Israeli solar panel companies operating in Georgia, and their contributions to the Georgia economy.
“My opponents are trying to use Israel as yet another wedge issue in this campaign,” Warnock said.
He said that he does not believe Israel is an apartheid state — an accusation that Loeffler has made repeatedly. The Republican has pointed to a letter Warnock signed last year that stated that Israel’s “heavy militarization of the West Bank [is] reminiscent of the military occupation of Namibia by apartheid South Africa.” It did not refer to Israel or its policies as apartheid, however.
Ossoff said on the Tuesday call he would use his position in the Senate to promote US-led diplomacy to bring about a two-state solution.
“I’ve got family living in Jerusalem and Tel Aviv, and like the reverend, I’m committed to Israel’s security,” Ossoff said.
Throughout much of the call, Warnock and Ossoff invoked the Black-Jewish alliance and how it persisted in Georgia beyond its heyday of the 1960s.
“You’ve got Jon, an awesome young Jewish man, and an African-American pastor running together with shared values, shared commitment,” Warnock said.
Warnock is the pastor at Ebenezer Baptist Church, where the Reverend Martin Luther King Jr. preached until his 1968 assassination.
President-elect Joe Biden is expected to travel to Georgia ahead of the runoff to campaign for Ossoff and Warnock.