B. Shira Levine
Navigating new wilderness

Why Karen Handel Does Not Deserve the Jewish Vote

On May 11, the Atlanta Jewish Times published a third-party op-ed entitled “Why Karen Handel Deserves the Jewish Vote.” AJT  has published other pieces about the election as well, including an uncritical interview with Handel, and a similar pro-Ossoff op ed.  I’ve blogged about this on AJT before as well. As far as I know, AJT has not officially endorsed any candidate post-runoff (AJT editor Michael Jacobs voted Republican in the primary, but not for Handel). But folks in my circles are pretty fired up about the AJT’s decision to publish this most recent op-ed, and on balance, I do perceive a lean toward Handel in this very important publication for Jews in the 6th.

With that background, here’s my latest half-shekel on the competitive and increasingly-symbolic 6th District Special Election to replace Tom Price in the House of Representatives.

Why, in the author’s view, does Karen Handel deserve the Jewish vote? The answer, in a nutshell, was “Israel.”  But the pro-Handel piece provides no real evidence for its headline, nor the Israel drum it beats loudly throughout.

The thrust of the op-ed’s argument is that Handel will protect Israel because she’s a Republican from the baby boomer generation, and Jon Ossoff is a Democrat millennial.

This wildly oversimplistic trope is a foreseeable pander, and a good strategy. A sizable chunk of Jewish voters consider themselves unabashed single-issue voters for whomever they believe will best protect Israel. And over the last decade, Republicans’ efforts to breed existential fear into the hearts of Jews and cast the entire Democratic party as anti-Israel have successfully expanded their piece of our “likely voter” constituency’s pie.

In the op-ed, the author leverages this polarization, crediting Handel with every Republican’s pro-Israel accomplishments–Nikki Haley is a reason to vote for Handel? Really?–and holding Ossoff accountable for every Democrat’s anti-Israel deeds. I get the proclivity to throw anyone with the Democrat label under the bus after Obama’s 2016 U.N. resolution debacle, but this transparently partisan line of reasoning in no way supports the conclusion that Karen Handel “deserves” the Jewish vote.

Perhaps more interestingly, the subtext of this piece plays on a phenomenon that I have experienced frequently: the fear that younger American Jews–many of whom lean Democratic and have more nuanced views on Israel–will not adequately prioritize Israel’s protection. My response to anyone anxious about millennial views on Israel–with the caveat that I was born in 1980 and just missed the apparent millennial cutoff of 1981–let us embrace reality.

At some point we as a community will need to take a leap of faith and entrust Israel in the hands of the millennial generation.

As I’ve previously written, I too am frustrated by the anti-Israel narrative and its increasingly-unchallenged popularity in Europe and on the U.S. left. Israel has tirelessly negotiated for peace, but until Palestinian leadership wants their own state more than they want to destroy Israel, how can the responsibility for peace be so universally placed on Israel’s shoulders? Those born before my time lived through much agony over failed peace negotiations, and seeing Israel be so unfairly treated by the international community now is galling.

At the same time, I believe the next generation of Jews is well equipped to carry on Israel’s legacy in this country.  Lots of us have been on Birthright trips that were among the most meaningful experiences of our lives, deepening our already-ingrained love of Israel. Many younger Jews have views on Israel that line up with the Jewish establishment (for lack of a better term) completely or nearly so.  We consider ourselves Zionists even if we care about other things just as much, or won’t compromise other values to vote for those views, or disagree with you on which candidate best serves them, or disagree on some ways to achieve the shared goals, or are interested in hearing the other side.  And every Jew I know who has a non-mainstream view of Israel comes from a place of love for Israel, and desire for stability there.

Accepting that the torch of American Jewish support for Israel must soon be passed, how can we accomplish it in a way that preserves the American-media-unsung reasons why Israel’s security is critical?  Not a simple answer.  But I am confident that for Israel’s sake (and America’s!), Jon Ossoff represents exactly who American Jews should want serving as our elected representatives at this moment in history.

Ossoff openly lists US-Israel Relations as a priority on his campaign site. His site details a platform on it that is unobjectionable at worst, and I (a Zionist who used to vote Republican largely based on Israel) personally find it impressive.  It begins: “Jon is committed to Israel’s security as a homeland for the Jewish people and to strengthening the historic, unbreakable bond between the United States and Israel.” He has provided a policy paper to AIPAC to this effect.  He mentions his personal connection to Israel, having visited twice including once after his bar mitzvah (an unsolicited public identification with Judaism, something some other Jewish politicians downplay).

Karen Handel, by contrast, does not mention Israel on her site, which demonstrates that she intends to focus on the American nationalism Trump espouses.  While such nationalism could be paralleled to a similar sentiment for Israel, the two should not be conflated–a policy of “America First” means shifting focus away from Israel.  And there is little evidence that Handel has ever paid Israel an ounce of attention.  The AJT op-ed cites her support for anti-BDS legislation in Georgia, support for Israel bonds, and support of Iran divestiture legislation.  But  none of these examples required any political capital from Handel whatsoever.  Nor can I (in my limited time to write this) find any mention of them outside of Jewish sources.  If this is the best the author can find to prove that a career politician like Handel is good for Israel, this tends to disprove the author’s thesis.  Has Karen Handel ever been to Israel?

You may not have heard much about Ossoff’s levelheaded and unashamed pro-Israel stance.  The no-holds-barred smear campaign against Ossoff desperately flings terms like “Al-Jazeera” and “J Street” to invoke the Jewish knee-jerk reaction against those trigger words, and uses sensationalist imagery to play on Islamophobia and stereotypes of the young whippersnapper who has no clue what he’s doing.  Don’t be distracted. Jon Ossoff’s connections to J Street are limited to their endorsement of him.  But was progressive J Street ever going to endorse Handel? Shouldn’t we be more concerned about KKK leaders and anti-Semitic organizations endorsing and donating to Trump?  (This Forward piece‘s misleading headline similarly states that Jon Ossoff “leans to J Street on Israel” and substantiates it with nothing but the J Street endorsement.)  As for Qatari-owned Al-Jazeera–arguably the only reputable news source in its region (outside of Israel)–it donated to his campaign, was a client of Ossoff’s UK company, and the company produced a single documentary film for it.  Think hard before you consider these types of connections dealbreakers for you. And think hard before you fall victim to vicious, cherrypicked mudslinging that Ossoff’s campaign avoids.

If you are still on the fence because of Israel, consider this: what better way to persuade the next generation of U.S. politicians to maintain support for Israel than to elect a young, openly pro-Israel Jew who inspires excitement of other young Jews?

As we all know, the anti-Israel narrative is persistent among non-Jewish millennials, leading to a distorted perception of Israel and even disgraceful anti-Semitism on college campuses.  It is important to upend this narrative in a way that convinces the next generation–beyond merely indoctrinating them, an unsustainable and short-sighted strategy.  If we wait until the current, majority-Republican Congress has been retired or ousted to elect someone like Jon Ossoff, we may miss a real opportunity to shape the discourse.

For those concerned about the Jewish people, we must also be mindful of increasing anti-Semitism not facially related to Israel.  This too is an oversimplistic fear-motivated trope, of course.  Truth be told, despite my having argued before that this is concerning enough to weigh in favor of Ossoff, anti-Semitism is not even in the top ten reasons I support Ossoff.  But make no mistake, anti-Semites and white supremacists are an important enough part of the Trump base that Republicans–who are frighteningly coalescing around Trump no matter how many antidemocratic statements he makes or actions he takes–care about their votes.  Regarding this anti-Semitism, we haven’t seen anything comforting from the Trump administration so far but lip service.  ‘m not sure what motivated Karen Handel to omit Israel from her website, but this pattern continues to bother me.  All of the smear ads I’ve seen walk a convenient line to pique the interest of Jews, but avoid disenfranchising anti-Semites.

Even regarding Israel, this administration’s message is a moving target at best.  He recently made a vague pronouncement of “standing with the Jewish people,” and is visiting Israel on its 50th anniversary–these are steps in the right direction.  But his and his surrogates’ statements are internally inconsistent, ignorant of history, tone-deaf, and released strategically to gather minimal attention from target audiences.  He appointed his Jewish son-in-law to broker a peace deal, but nothing meaningful has happened on that score.  This is not to mention other disturbing incidents of insensitivity to the Jewish community (since my last post, the president’s press secretary justified a missile strike by saying that “not even Hitler” would gas his own people).

There are a handful of other anti-Ossoff arguments scattered among AJT pieces, none of which are particularly compelling.  The GOP talking point about out-of-district financial support certainly falls short.  Not only is out-of-district support irrelevant to the issues, but post-Citizens United, the only way to win an election is to throw money at it, and the Democrats can never compete in swing districts.  Republicans are wealthier as a whole and thus in-district Republicans can presumably contribute more to a Republican campaign.  Less-wealthy Democrats have to rely on out-of-district support.  And come on–of course there is out-of-district support to flip Congress, because every vote in Congress affects all Americans.  Just this week, a poll demonstrated that most Americans want to see a Democratic House of Representatives (see question 11 here).

Though nitpicky, I frankly agree with the “polished politician” comment AJT editor Michael Jacobs made in his column–but I also think this is a smart move on Ossoff’s part.  I tend to roll my eyes at platitudes and stump speeches like the ones I hear from Ossoff all the time.  But Ossoff has a giant target on his back.  He is trying to accomplish the impossible here–swinging a longstanding and reliable Republican district, whose “reign” hasn’t been challenged in ages (the Republican sound byte on this election is that Ossoff is trying to “steal” a seat–unsettling antidemocratic rhetoric suggesting that Republicans have some sort of heritable claim to reign over this district).  Ossoff also has to overcome the narrative that he’s young an inexperienced, which means never stepping out of line–he must be mature and sophisticated at all times.  One opportunity to catch a glimpse of Ossoff’s true personality is in his responses to the above-board smears against him, which have struck me as both classy and heartfelt–as well as in his treatment of other Democratic candidates in the primary.

I take exception, though, to Mr. Jacobs’s admonishment that he hopes “those voting for Ossoff do so because they think he’s the best candidate, not because they want to send a message to Trump or the GOP.”  Of course I personally think Ossoff is the best candidate, and the decision is much simpler now that there are two.  Still, I stand by my previous message that sending a message to Trump is mission critical.  Even if you agree with their policies, Trump and the GOP have too much power, and have shown that they will wield it recklessly.  This is our biggest opportunity to do something about it.

Handel–whose entire pitch is “defeat Ossoff by any means necessary” and won’t debate him–has not shown that she deserves anyone’s support, let alone Jewish support. So please get your Israel-supporting, proudly Jewish tuchus (or “OSS,” a tongue-in-cheek pun on his name, now commonplace among his supporter ranks) to the polls and vote for Jon Ossoff. If you are a Republican and have to hold your nose to do it, I understand.

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.