B. Shira Levine
Navigating new wilderness

The Black Candidate and the Jewish Candidate


It’s election day already, and I am ashamed for not speaking up sooner for Raphael Warnock and Jon Ossoff. But Hineni, I’m standing up to be counted, even if I’m late.

Raphael Warnock is a Black candidate running alongside a Jewish candidate. They campaign together and for the same things. They demonstrate trust of one another. They are friends. Some of my friends outside Georgia asked me if there is any possibility that one wins and one loses. Initially my thought was, Perdue is a long-term incumbent and a white man; Loeffler is a woman and has less name recognition … in Georgia the Democratic base is Black voters… I could imagine a world in which Warnock turned out a demographic who left the ballot blank there? Maybe? But another possibility emerged – that the Jewish candidate could win the battle of the white guys but the Black candidate would lose – and that the Jewish community would contribute to that split, as the threat of anti-Semitism within the Black community need only be hinted at to spread like wildfire.

This Georgia-based AJT / TOI blogger who spent 2017 blogging about Jon Ossoff is officially derelict in not writing about the Senate runoff topic. Perhaps I have lacked the will to write because after Ossoff lost in 2017, I wrote this and then … more or less bunkered myself away from politics or activism for the next three years (I poked my head up for Stacey Abrams’ heartbreaker and then crawled right back underground).  Perhaps it’s because I have been spending the pandemic in an existential vortex… well, or, getting sucked so deep into the existential vortex I’ve always lived in that it spat me out long enough for me to see what kind of vortex it was (ultimately a good thing, but I digress).

Ossoff held my baby in 2017! back when that was a thing

In addition to being super pumped about how boss Ossoff has become in the last few years (can we call him Bossoff now? no?  No more puns this time?  ok deal), when a Black public figure gets accused of anti-Semitism based on something having to do with Israel, I often have opinions to the tune of suggesting to the Jewish community that it may be acting against its long-term interests by “BDS-ing BDS.” Most of the substance I would want to write specific to this case I don’t have to address at all because Deborah Lipstadt already wrote it.  She even addressed the whole “PS remember the anti-Semitism on the right” concept. So please, listen to her. Add this Georgia girl’s endorsement to the long list of accolades for that piece.

Since the time of my last sentiments about the Black-Jewish dynamic – almost exactly a year ago – my career has veered in the direction of specializing in Diversity & Inclusion.  It’s a painful specialty that merits learning that spans many different disciplines such as history, behavioral economics, psychology, neuroscience, even my undergraduate major linguistics.

I have to wake up every morning and go to work and think about all of the ways in which I have done racist things my whole life and do racist things without even thinking about them, even while trying really hard to dismantle systemic racism, even in the process of attempting to do so. I have some regrets about posting this, and I probably wouldn’t make this decision again to put “We Shall Overcome” on my Friday night Shabbat album again. And as diligently as I study anti-racism, speaking / writing as an authority on the topic is bewildering. The stakes are high; if I bungle the message, it’s not just a white person bungling the message, it’s a self-described white diversity expert bungling it. Who the hell am I taking up that mantle?!?! In my mind I try to do so because I believe that too often, people of color bear the sole burden of explaining racism to white people. But there is a fine line between this and white saviorism and I know I’ve been on the wrong side of it at times.

Thinking about racism every day is emotionally exhausting, and it involves a lot of suffering, and it’s also something I have the privilege to choose to do, whereas people of color do not. Those who are Black always have to have a portion of their headspace occupied by racism.  Whereas whatever suffering I have to endure by confronting my racism and trying to walk the tightrope of doing that while also getting others to confront theirs and drawing out the racial dynamics in mixed settings for diversity workplace initiatives… is something I get to choose every day, knowing that if one day I don’t choose it, I’ll still be white and get all of the privileges and benefits and comforts of being white. It gets better – the successes I’ve had in my life I owe in part to the luxury of time and energy I had to focus on things other than overcoming racial stereotypes.

Sometimes, the discussion about “white privilege” gets uncomfortable in Jewish settings, and I cannot imagine what it is like to be a Jewish person who remembers the Holocaust being told that they have “white privilege.”  Isabel Wilkerson’s Caste connects the dots between the caste system of American slavery used as a “template” for Nazi Germany, and at one point notes that the Nazis expressed confusion about the Americans’ treatment of Jewish people as white under Jim Crow.  In Georgia in 2020, though, white Jewish people have white privilege. Jon Ossoff has white privilege, and Raphael Warnock does not. Ossoff himself is circumspect about this, calling out racist attack ads against Warnock and attempting to use his privilege for good.

We see a Jewish candidate stand next to a Black candidate as the two campaign together and support one another for the same ideals, and many still openly refuse to vote for the Black candidate.

To the Atlanta Jewish community on election day who is skeptical of Warnock, regardless of how you vote or voted, a plea for reflection and learning –

-Read (or reread) Deborah Lipstadt’s piece and really force your brain as a thought exercise to consider “what if she is right?”

-Read about cognitive biases and consider which may be driving your vote – we all have them.

-Consider that if you have spent most of your life in the US, you are under the influence of a system of deeply entrenched societal racism against Black individuals. This impacts both your perspectives / actions / affiliations and Raphael Warnock’s.

-Ask yourself about your goal and whether depriving Warnock of your vote achieves that goal in any meaningful sense. To what extent is fear driving the bus? Attack ads work because of real evolutionary biology. Is there a tipping point at which the Jewish community may actually be subject to manipulation based on this fear, by politicians who *do not* have the Jewish community’s best interest at heart?

-Jon Ossoff is a Jewish candidate… and a Jewish person of a new generation of Jewish leaders. He supports Warnock, as do many Jewish people of his generation. If what we want is a future for the Jewish people, at some point don’t we need to trust the future of Jewish leadership, as well as who they endorse?

In the end, I am not sure that the number of skittish Jewish voters will make a difference to Raphael Warnock.  I’m happy he wrote to the AJT anyway even though he is probably smart enough to know that readers were never going to change their preconceived notions about him.   I’m more worried about what it means if the community can’t get past this cycle arising from –yes, race-driven –fear.  I would like to see more education about anti-Semitism and about Israel within intersectional settings, while recognizing that in this election, in this country, racism is more prevalent and the bigger systemic and ingrained issue; if we become too myopic about Israel, we risk anti-Semitism’s seat at an important table, and on some level we could risk further dilution of the issue even among younger Jewish leaders.

I believe that sending Warnock and Ossoff to Washington together is the best result for Israel and the American Jewish community.  I also am skeptical it will happen this time – steeling myself for yet another Georgia nailbiter / heartbreaker election.

About the Author
B. Shira Levine writes about Jewish spirituality and observance, parenting, intersectionality, and the U.S. and Atlanta Jewish communities. Views are her own and not those of her employer, synagogues, or any other organization.
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