Georgia Senate candidate rejects anti-Israel allegations as 2018 sermon surfaces

After speech and statement Raphael Warnock signed criticizing Israeli policies in West Bank, Gaza is flagged, Georgia Democrat says he’ll stand up for Jewish state in Senate

Jacob Magid is The Times of Israel's US bureau chief

Raphael Warnock, a Democratic candidate for the US Senate, speaks during a rally on November 3, 2020, in Atlanta. (AP Photo/Brynn Anderson, Pool)
Raphael Warnock, a Democratic candidate for the US Senate, speaks during a rally on November 3, 2020, in Atlanta. (AP Photo/Brynn Anderson, Pool)

NEW YORK — A Democratic candidate in a decisive Senate run-off election is pushing back against accusations of anti-Israel bias after footage of a sermon he gave two years ago criticizing Israeli policy in Gaza resurfaced online.

“I wholeheartedly and unabashedly echo Dr. King’s declaration that ‘Israel’s right to exist as a state in security is incontestable,'” Reverend Raphael Warnock wrote in an op-ed published Monday, referring to civil rights icon Martin Luther King Jr.

The editorial was published by Jewish Insider hours after his 2018 sermon was flagged by the news site.

Warnock gave the speech in his capacity as senior pastor of the Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta, King’s old congregation. He is now running to replace Georgia Senator Kelly Loeffler, who was appointed to the seat after Johnny Isakson resigned last year. A special election will be held on January 5 and is expected to be closely contested.

In the 2018 speech, Warnock lamented the “tough week” that had been, during which the US opened its embassy in Jerusalem as Palestinians in Gaza marched toward the border in protest of the move.

“Standing there [were] the president’s family and a few mealy-mouthed evangelical preachers who are responsible for the mess that we found ourselves in, both there and here — misquoting and misinterpreting the Scripture, talking about peace.”

“Meanwhile, young Palestinian sisters and brothers, who are struggling for their very lives, struggling for water and struggling for their human dignity stood up in a non-violent protest, saying, ‘If we’re going to die, we’re going to die struggling.’ And yes, there may have been some folk who were violent, but we oughta know how that works out,” Warnock said. “We know what it’s like to stand up and have a peaceful demonstration and have the media focus on a few violent uprisings. But you have to look at those Palestinian sisters and brothers, who are struggling for their human dignity and they have a right to self-determination, they have a right to breathe free.”

“We need a two-state solution where all of God’s children can live together,” Warnock continued. “We saw the government of Israel shoot down unarmed Palestinian sisters and brothers like birds of prey.”

“And I don’t care who does it, it is wrong. It is wrong to shoot down God’s children like they don’t matter at all. And it’s no more anti-Semitic for me to say that than it is anti-white for me to say that Black lives matter. Palestinian lives matter.”

Asked for comment on the video that’s been online for the past two years, Warnock’s campaign told Jewish Insider in a statement that its opponents were “going through thousands of hours of footage trying to find a way to misrepresent who Reverend Warnock is and scare Georgians.”

“But that does not change the fact that Reverend Warnock is a staunch ally and supporter of Israel and the Jewish community in our state,” the campaign said.

CNN shows the US embassy opening in Jerusalem on a split screen with violence on the Gaza border, May 14, 2018 (Screenshot)

In the op-ed, Warnock acknowledged that he was “deeply concerned about settlement expansion,” calling it a “threat to the prospect of a two-state solution.” He vowed to advocate for Palestinian self-determination as senator, “because I want to see a Palestinian state living side by side with a safe and secure Israel.”

“Without reservation, you can count on me to stand with the Jewish community and Israel in the US Senate,” he wrote.

The sermon resurfaced just days after a letter he signed in 2019 likening Israeli control of the West Bank to “previous oppressive regimes” was picked up by Jewish Insider.

Published over a year ago by the National Council of Churches, the statement said Israel’s “heavy militarization of the West Bank [is] reminiscent of the military occupation of Namibia by apartheid South Africa.” It did not explicitly refer to Israel or its policies as apartheid, however.

The letter, which was published after a visit to Israel and the West Bank by clergy members who signed it, also expressed support for the two-state solution.

Former US president Barack Obama stands on stage with Jon Ossoff, left, and Raphael Warnock, right, after speaking at a rally as he campaigns for Democratic presidential candidate and former vice president Joe Biden on November 2, 2020, at Turner Field in Atlanta. (AP/Brynn Anderson)

“We felt the thick density of Israeli fear that begets hatred and the support for draconian security measures; and the Palestinian fear that gives rise to a paradoxical combination of despair and hopeful resolve in a grinding and dehumanizing existence,” the letter read.

In his op-ed, Warnock rejected accusations that he had likened Israel to South African apartheid and voiced his opposition to the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions (BDS) movement against Israel “and its ​anti-Semitic underpinnings.”

“Claims that I believe Israel is an apartheid state are patently false — I do not believe that,” he wrote.

Warnock’s opponent, Republican incumbent Kelly Loeffler, used the letter to accuse the reverend of having “a long history of anti-Israel extremism.”

“He embraced the anti-Zionist Black Lives Matter organization. And he thinks Israel is an ‘oppressive regime’ for fighting back against terrorism,” she tweeted.

The Warnock campaign did not immediately respond to a request for further comment on the matter.

Loeffler and Warnock will face off in one of two Georgia Senate run-off on January 5, which hold the balance of the upper chamber on the line.

If Warnock defeats Loeffler and Democrat Jon Ossoff edges out Republican incumbent David Perdue, both parties will have 50 seats in the Senate. However, the tie would be broken by Vice President-elect Kamala Harris, giving Democrats control of both houses.

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