What Raphael Warnock Believes About Israel

The Atlanta clergyman often sounds more like a transnational leftist than an American politician

By Barton Swaim | Wall Street Journal

The Middle East poses a problem for the Democrats. Theirs was traditionally the pro-Israel party and still commands the support of a substantial majority of Jewish voters. But left-liberal orthodoxy demands that all right-thinking people take the side of the Palestinians against the Israeli government and hold Jerusalem to a double standard: If any other nation takes an aggressive stance against terrorist insurrectionists or other internal threats, the results may be tragic but are kept in perspective. If Israel does so, it has committed a moral outrage and broken international law.

If you aspire to higher office as a Democrat, you’re expected to sympathize with that view of things but not to adopt it too stridently. You can condemn Israel for measures it has adopted to counter the indiscriminate killing of its civilians by terrorists, but you have to couch it all in pro-Israel rhetoric, always emphasizing Israel’s “right to defend itself,” as if any country could reasonably be said to lack that right.

Most Democratic candidates have negotiated the problem reasonably well, although extreme anti-Israel outliers from safe districts, such as Reps. Ilhan Omar and Rashida Tlaib, can occasion some awkwardness for their congressional colleagues. The problem for Raphael Warnock, the Democratic Senate candidate in Georgia’s special-election runoff Jan. 5, is that he didn’t start trying to negotiate it until very recently. He is a pastor whose weekly sermons at the Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta are recorded and available online, and he is the sort of left-wing clergyman who likes to make political pronouncements and to sign high-minded political statements.

He signed one such statement, composed in 2019 under the auspices of the National Council of Churches, after visiting Israel and the Palestinian territories with a group of black American and South African clergymen. The statement compared Israel’s border wall to the Berlin Wall and drew indirect but invidious analogies to apartheid, slavery and Nazism. The statement also included melodramatic language about the plight of Palestinians (“we are cut up by the misery in which poor families in Palestine have to survive”) and showed no awareness that these conditions are a consequence of Palestinians’ refusal to reject, and indeed insistence on using, murder as a political tool.

Sen. Kelly Loeffler’s campaign has underscored this and similar statements as evidence of Mr. Warnock’s radicalism. His response, in a written statement last month: “Claims that I believe Israel is an apartheid state are patently false—I do not believe that.”

It’s a common rhetorical device: Restate your opponent’s allegation in an extreme and inaccurate way, and then call that version of it false. The question wasn’t whether Mr. Warnock believed Israel is “an apartheid state” but whether he believed, in common with the international left for generations, that Israel systematically brutalizes innocent Palestinians.

He does believe that. In a 2018 sermon, for example, after a different trip to Israel, Mr. Warnock remarked: “I saw nonviolent Palestinian protesters shot down and killed this week as birds of prey by the state of Israel while we were giving lip service to ‘Peace, peace’ when there is no peace.” He went on: “What we saw in Israel this week was wrong. . . . When I see nonviolent Palestinian young folk fighting for their basic dignity and humanity and they’re told to be silent and just die quietly—for me to stand up for them, makes me no more anti-Semitic than it makes me anti-white to say ‘black lives matter.’ ”

There are three problems with this kind of talk. The first is that it’s logically fallacious and empirically false. Young Palestinian men brandishing weapons and lunging at Israeli soldiers and civilians are not “nonviolent . . . protesters,” and Mr. Warnock didn’t see any nonviolent protesters “shot down” as “birds of prey,” whatever that means.

The second problem, which Mr. Warnock now recognizes and attempts to pre-empt, is that the claim lends itself to charges of anti-Semitism. There are poor and downtrodden peoples all over the world, but proponents of progressive transnationalism mainly talk about one group, namely Palestinian Arabs, whom they tendentiously portray as passive victims and whose violent aggressions they systematically ignore or de-emphasize. Why are radicals like Mr. Warnock so determined, in defiance of reason and evidence, to represent Israeli Jews as persecutors?

A third and more practical problem with Mr. Warnock’s homiletical denunciations of Israel is that most Americans, and almost certainly most Democrats, don’t accept the premise that the Jewish state’s security policies are racist in origin and immoral in practice. Most American voters are grown-ups who can appreciate the gravity of the challenge posed to Israel by a Palestinian minority in the grip of Jew-hatred. Mr. Warnock sounds as though he can’t. Thanks mostly to statements he made before he joined the Senate race—and thanks also, perhaps, to the radical ecclesiastics with whom he consorts—he sounds like a member of the international left and not a mainstream American politician from a purple state.

Mr. Warnock seems to believe that saying Israel has a right to exist somehow counterbalances his defamations. He is fond of quoting Martin Luther King’s statement that “Israel’s right to exist as a state in security is incontestable.” That statement is true, but it underscores rather than obviates the problem. What country other than Israel needs its “right to exist” asserted?

A group called the Jewish Democratic Council of America has managed to get 200 “rabbis, cantors, and other Jewish faith leaders” to sign a letter supporting Mr. Warnock’s candidacy. There are no doubt a significant number of Jewish faith leaders who would prefer to see a Democratic Senate and would consider the elevation of Mr. Warnock a price worth paying. But I suspect Georgia voters know a leftist when they see one.

Mr. Swaim is a Journal editorial page writer.

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