The Complex Reality of Black–Jewish Coalitions in Georgia

Local organizers say Warnock and Ossoff’s winning campaign is a promising sign for intercommunal relations. But a romanticized narrative obscures persistent class divisions and conflict over Israel.

Mari Cohen
January 26, 2021
Then-Democratic Georgia Senate challenger Jon Ossoff addresses supporters during a rally with fellow candidate Rev. Raphael Warnock in Atlanta on the first day of early voting for the Senate runoff on December 14th, 2020. Photo: Ben Gray/AP Photo

AT A JEWISH DEMOCRATIC COUNCIL OF AMERICA virtual election celebration on January 17th, newly elected Georgia Senator Raphael Warnock reminded the audience about “the longstanding relationship between the African American community and the Jewish community, our shared values, our sense of justice and struggle for peace in the world,” citing the connection between Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., who had once been a pastor at the Atlanta church where Warnock now presides, and Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel. His fellow Georgia senator-elect, Jon Ossoff, offered a similar sentiment, referencing his mentor Rep. John Lewis’s support for Black–Jewish coalitions. “I know that Congressman Lewis is looking down at us in Georgia right now and smiling . . . the heart of the old Confederacy and the cradle of the Confederacy will be represented in a few days by the Jewish son of an immigrant and an African American pastor of Ebenezer,” he said. 

Such rhetoric has been widespread since Warnock and Ossoff’s improbable victory in Georgia’s Senate runoffs, a result that has handed control of the Senate to the Democrats and marked a political turning point for the state of Georgia, which had also gone blue in the presidential election. Commentators in publications from Haaretz to The Los Angeles Times have celebrated Ossoff and Warnock as a symbol of rebirth of the Black–Jewish civil rights alliance in the South, and the senators themselves have frequently referenced such symbolism.

But according to organizers on the ground in Georgia, the reality is more complex than the rosy picture some have painted of intercommunal relations. On the one hand, many Georgians do see the campaign to elect the two senators as an exciting example of Black–Jewish cooperation, particularly in the Atlanta area, where Jewish Democratic groups worked side-by-side with Black organizers to get out the vote for both candidates. And some are eager to highlight Atlanta’s longstanding structures for Black–Jewish cooperation, such as the American Jewish Committee (AJC)’s Black/Jewish coalition, co-founded by Lewis in 1982. On the other hand, some organizers say that focusing only on positive intercommunal relationships obscures a crucial class analysis: Atlanta’s largely affluent white Jews might sit at the table with the area’s robust Black middle class and local Black leadership, but they aren’t always present for more radical working-class struggles that pit grassroots initiatives against centers of political and economic power. And in addition to such economic divisions, many Atlanta Jewish groups have been unwilling to associate with radical Black movements given those movements’ support for Palestinian liberation, following a common nationwide dynamic in which Jewish groups distance themselves from or even thwart Black organizing in solidarity with Palestine. 

The history of Black–Jewish intercommunal relationships in Georgia is generally told in romanticized terms—often with a focus on the civil rights advocacy of The Temple, a Reform synagogue that was bombed by white supremacists in 1958. But recountings tend to underplay tensions. For instance, when Rabbi Jacob Rothschild arrived at The Temple in 1946 and began speaking about integration and civil rights from the pulpit, he initially received little support from the congregation. In her book The Temple Bombing, Melissa Fay Greene explains that Atlanta’s early-20th-century German Jewish Reform elite generally aimed to keep a low profile to assimilate into the city’s WASP social scene—especially as nativist, anti-Jewish sentiment increased, and an influx of less-assimilated Eastern European Jews threatened the existing community’s status. Many Atlanta Jews were also haunted by the memory of the 1915 lynching of Leo Frank, a Jewish man who was accused of raping and murdering a 13-year-old girl at the factory he managed. (As scholar Jeff Melnick has written, this case exhibited the divides between the Black and Jewish communities, as many Jews relied on racist tropes when attacking the Black janitor and crime suspect who testified against Frank.) 

According to Greene’s account, the bombing of The Temple did galvanize more Atlanta Jews into supporting civil rights, especially after they received an outpouring of support from local politicians and Christian organizations around the country. But even with the upsurge, white Jewish support for civil rights was not ubiquitous. “It was more likely for a Jewish Atlantan than a white gentile Atlantan to be an advocate for civil rights. But the vast majority of Jewish Atlantans were not involved in civil rights activism and were either silent on the issue or were hostile to it,” said Marni Davis, a historian of American ethnicity and immigration at Georgia State University. She added that the popular narrative ignores the ways white Jews were invested in systemic racism. “There’s a tendency to look at the politics and avoid the economics. Though Jewish attitudes towards desegregation and political equality were more likely to be on the liberal side of the debate, Jews were also participants in a Jim Crow economy in ways that maintained African Americans’ second-class status.” 

In the decades following the civil rights era, the communities continued to find common ground in opposition to white supremacists despite divergent interests. Sherry Frank, who was the executive director of the Atlanta regional office of the AJC when the Black/Jewish coalition was founded there, recalled a meeting in the 1990s in which Black and white Jewish coalition members described their respective priorities. “For Jews, it was antisemitism and Soviet Jewry and intermarriage, and Blacks would say ‘It’s incarceration, it’s the redlining of banks,’” she said. “We laughed and pondered, ‘If our priorities are so different, why are we having lunch together?’ The bottom line, to me, was those who would hate Blacks would hate Jews and vice versa. Fighting bigotry and discrimination would bring us together.” 

According to Victoria Raggs, co-founder and executive director of the Atlanta Jews of Color Council and a newly appointed co-chair of the AJC Black/Jewish coalition, the increase in right-wing antisemitism under the Trump administration once again galvanized more Georgia Jews to get involved in anti-racism work. “The Jewish community stopped participating so much in that movement because they had upward mobility, greater proximity to white privilege,” she said. “But now that we saw the terrorist attacks on the national Capitol and we saw how some of those people had Nazi slogans written on their T-shirts, it kind of woke everybody up.”

Currently, the coalition’s flagship program is a yearly “Emerging Leaders Retreat” for 16 Black and 16 Jewish Atlantans to come together for 24 hours of programming. They are also launching programming for teens and for adults 40 years and older. In recent years, Atlanta AJC Regional Director Dov Wilker said, the coalition has also been involved in advocating for renewal of voting rights legislation, and pushing for stronger hate crime laws. 

The local AJC’s leadership of the coalition creates a complex situation: While many of the priorities of the coalition are liberal causes, the national AJC has, in the 21st century, moved away from its traditional role as a liberal civil rights organization and toward operating as an Israel-advocacy group, pushing it to the right. And because Georgia’s Jewish community is sharply politically divided, local AJC leadership is, too. According to exit polling, 49% of Jews in the state voted for Biden and 49% for Trump in November—compared to 68% for Biden and 31% for Trump nationwide—though results were based on an extremely small sample size. Some of the community’s most prolific donors are staunchly conservative. Bernie Marcus, the co-founder of Home Depot and a vocal Trump supporter, is a major funder in the Atlanta Jewish community, and has been a member of the AJC Atlanta Board of Trustees and a past winner of the AJC Atlanta “National Human Relations Award.” Wilker said that he believes it’s important for the Black/Jewish coalition to be bipartisan, and that the coalition bars “racist or antisemitic people” but “we’ve worked very hard to ensure there’s political diversity . . . the coalition provides an opportunity for people who are more conservative-minded to have honest conversations.”

But Tarece Johnson, a Black Jewish elected school board member in Gwinnett County—a suburban Atlanta county—and co-founder of the Alliance for Black Lives, said the fact that Trump supporters are involved in the organization, and that the AJC is mostly white-led, makes her distrust the coalition’s work. The AJC’s Wilker noted that a new key focus for the coalition is “religious diversity in the Black coalition and racial diversity in the Jewish coalition” and pointed to the fact that Raggs is now a co-chair. But Johnson said that’s insufficient. “I think we have an opportunity for [the coalition’s] work not to exist under that organization. I would hope for it to exist under a different organization, and if it does exist under the AJC, to be revamped to be owned and operated by Jews of color,” she said.

Johnson said the prospects for Black–Jewish cooperation in Atlanta would improve in general if Black Jews had more opportunities for leadership in local Jewish organizations, especially since Black Jews are well-positioned to lead coalitions. “I feel like I have been ostracized because I’m a Black Lives Matter activist. I’m very outspoken, and many organizations just didn’t invite me to the table because they were afraid to deal with me head on,” she said. “It’s important for our Jewish community to empower Black Jewish people to be leaders in being the bridge between the Black community and the Jewish community.” 

Kate Shapiro—an organizing director at the Women’s March who previously spent eight years on staff at the Atlanta organization Southerners on New Ground, which mobilizes locally for LBGTQ liberation and economic and racial justice—said that while the relationship between Jewish groups and upper-class Black organizations and Black political leadership in Atlanta is generally strong, there’s less visible Jewish organizing presence on behalf of radical Black working-class causes. And, she said, there can be points of friction between some Jewish groups’ priorities and those of groups organizing against the criminal justice system: For example, some Jewish groups are focused on pushing hate crimes legislation, while more radical organizers believe that increasing any kind of criminalization laws will ultimately punish Black and brown communities. “The class divide in Atlanta is highly racialized, but that gets obscured because so much of the city council is Black,” she said. “There are these [Black–Jewish] alliances in terms of elected officials, in terms of more establishment governing bodies, but there seems to be a long-term disconnect between that set of interests and the real conditions on the ground.” 

That disconnect can be exacerbated by Jewish communal support for Israel. According to Ilise Cohen, co-founder of the Atlanta chapter of Jewish Voice for Peace (JVP), the mainstream Jewish community often plays a “gatekeeping” role in its relationships with Black communities, in which part of the focus of coalition work is ensuring that Black organizations fall in line with Jewish communal goals and provide outspoken support for Israel. She believes these dynamics were on display during the senate campaign when Warnock was targeted by Republicans and some Jewish groups because he had previously visited the West Bank and compared conditions in the occupied territories to racism in the United States. (Warnock ultimately retained the strong support of Jewish Democratic groups after he put out statements pledging strong support for the Jewish state.)

Often, Shapiro says, the fact that many Jewish organizations link Black radical organizing to the Movement for Black Lives—which endorsed the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions movement in its 2016 platform and used the words “apartheid” and “genocide” to describe Israeli treatment of Palestinians—has made them hesitant to participate. She said many local rabbis, when asked to show up in support of fights for racial and economic justice and refugee rights, say they “can’t do any organizing because of Israel/Palestine, because it’s all too much of a live wire.” Cohen said that after the platform was released in 2016, she attended an AJC Black/Jewish coalition meeting about the platform, which largely ignored the whole of the platform in favor of focusing only on framing the platform language about Israel as antisemitic. (Wilker noted that in the Atlanta coalition, “Israel is always a small part of the conversation, but it’s not a huge component of the conversation.”) 

Rabbi Joshua Lesser, the founding Rabbi of Atlanta’s LGBTQ synagogue Congregation Bet Haverim—now considered one of the area’s most progressive synagogues—said that in recent years, he’s noticed that the AJC Black/Jewish coalition has been opened to more difficult conversations and has engaged him as a speaker, which he hopes is a sign of general change in the greater Jewish community. “I have seen greater sophistication and willingness to wrestle with harder issues. I’m somebody who will talk about white supremacy and how that impacts the Jewish narrative. I will talk about lack of leadership and listening to Jews of color, and I haven’t been censored,” he said. He has also been encouraged by the recent participation of more Jewish leaders in the fight for bail reform. However, he said that generally, in his activism around issues like affordable housing and the death penalty, there’s rarely an active, visible Jewish presence.

Shapiro said she hopes to see the Jewish community go further with its class analysis so that they can show up for what she sees as the city’s most important fights. “Let’s have a Black–Jewish alliance in deed, not just in word. We have so many opportunities to intertwine our destinies in a more real way.”

The article has been updated to reflect the statistical limitations of the exit polling in Georgia in the 2020 presidential election.

Mari Cohen is associate editor at Jewish Currents.