Raphael Warnock Tests the Political Viability of Liberal Zionism


In his new memoir, Barack Obama laments the “whisper campaign” that sought to portray him as “insufficiently supportive — or even hostile toward — Israel” during the 2008 presidential race. Politicians who “criticized Israel policy too loudly,” he writes, “risked being tagged as ‘anti-Israel’ (and possibly anti-Semitic) and [were] confronted with a well-funded opponent in the next election.”

Twelve years later the dynamic – much like Israel’s government — hasn’t changed much. Raphael Warnock, the Democrat trying to unseat Republican Sen. Kelly Loeffler in a Georgia special election in January, is already on the hot seat for comments he’s made about Israel.

Exhibit A is a letter Warnock signed after he and fellow clergy — Warnock is pastor of Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta, Martin Luther King, Jr.s’ old pulpit — visited Israel and the territories in 2019. The letter is a long and varied list that includes sympathy for the Palestinians, criticism of the occupation, support for Jewish-Arab co-existence and prayers for “a Palestinian and an Israeli State at peace with one another.” The church leaders also criticized the Palestinian leadership for failing to embrace “a common position and vision of the way to justice, peace and security for all.”

Warner’s critics have focused on a sentence in the letter that says the “heavy militarization of the West Bank [is] reminiscent of the military occupation of Namibia by apartheid South Africa.” Even though this is a fairly nuanced application of the “a-word” – Namibia was a colony of South Africa, while apartheid described the discriminatory racist regime within South Africa – any use of the term is toxic in pro-Israel circles.

Exhibit B is a sermon Warnock gave in May 2018, the week that Trump moved the U.S. Embassy in Israel to Jerusalem. Decrying the move, Warnock also condemned Israel’s violent response that month to what he described as mostly non-violent Palestinian protests, presumably the clashes at the Gaza border. As in the clergy letter, Warnock coupled his criticism of Israel with a call for a two-state solution so that “all God’s children” can live together.

Warnock’s sermon would not sound out of place in many liberal synagogues in America, where many, if not most, Jews say they support a two-state solution. Liberal Jewish groups were wary of the embassy move. That same May, Rabbi Rick Jacobs, president of the Union for Reform Judaism, said he was “alarmed, concerned and profoundly saddened” by the deaths of more than 50 Palestinian protesters on the Gaza border. At least three former Israeli prime ministers – Rabin, Olmert and Barak – have warned that without a two-state solution Israel will one day resemble apartheid South Africa; that is, a regime with separate treatment and justice systems for people living under its sovereignty.

Criticism of the expanding settlement movement and persistent Israeli military control of the lives of millions of non-citizens, with support for a two-state solution that brings security to Israel and autonomy for the Palestinians, are hallmarks of what used to be called “liberal Zionism.”

I say “used to” because its ideas have lately been in retreat. The majority of Israeli voters has long rejected the tenets of liberal Zionism, and the left there makes barely a dent in electoral politics. The Palestinian leadership is either unwilling or unable to meet the Israeli left halfway, preferring recalcitrance — and calcification — to the dreaded “normalization.”

Liberal Zionism lives on here in groups like Ameinu, T’ruah and Peace Now, who are fighting a rearguard action against groups to their left who are either neutral or opposed to the very idea of a Jewish state. Its political expression is found at J Street PAC, which supports candidates who “demonstrate that they support a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, active US leadership to help end the conflict, the special relationship between the US and Israel, continued aid to the Palestinian Authority and opposition to the Boycott/Divestment/Sanction movement,” or BDS.

Warnock checks all these boxes, insisting that he is a staunch supporter of Israel who neither believes that Israel is an apartheid state nor supports BDS.

Warnock’s mistake, perhaps, was in speaking like a member of the clergy, as opposed to a politician. Compare his comments on Israel to those of Ritchie Torres, the newly elected House Democrat from the Bronx. In an interview with Eli Lake of Bloomberg News, Torres appeared to distance himself from the far-left members of his party – like Minnesota’s Ilhan Omar – who have embraced the boycott movement, and from fellow progressives who question Israel’s right to exist.

Warnock’s mistake, perhaps, was in speaking like a member of the clergy, as opposed to a politician.

“The progressive position is to promote a Jewish state and a Palestinian state, not to end the existence of Israel as a Jewish state,” Torres told Lake. He went on to describe his visit to Israel in 2015 with the Jewish Community Relations Council of New York. Torres, who is gay, came away shaken by the demonization of Israel, including by those who say Israel promotes its progressive stance on LGBT issues in order to deflect attention from the Palestinian conflict.

Lake, who tends to lean right of center, praises Torres for resisting the left’s “anti-Israel purity test,” and says his victory was a “a gain for pro-Israel Democrats.”

As Obama discovered, there is also a pro-Israel purity test. For some pro-Israel activists and donors, criticism of Israel, of any kind, cannot be tolerated or rewarded. Warnock’s candidacy — upon which hangs the balance of power in the Senate — will demonstrate whether Jewish voters and contributors will embrace a sometime critic who embraces two states for two peoples.

Andrew Silow-Carroll (@SilowCarroll) is the editor in chief of The Jewish Week.