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The Jewish South is Black, too – Scalawag







Editorial Note: This interview was conducted prior to Georgia Governor Brian Kemp’s March 25 signing of a Republican-backed overhaul to state elections into law, which includes sweeping voter and electoral restrictions, limits voting by mail, and criminalizes the act of giving water to voters waiting in lines at the poll. This law will harm Black and brown communities. We see the easy parallel to Jim Crow-era governance: Kemp signed the bill surrounded by a group of white men behind a closed door while, on the other side of the door, state Representative Park Cannon, a Black woman and Democrat representing the 58th district, knocked in protest. Cannon was arrested and is facing eight years in prison. 

In January, Jon Ossoff made history as Georgia’s first Jewish member of the Senate, and the first Jewish senator elected in a Southern state since 1879. Thanks to Black organizers—mostly Black women, who’ve long mobilized voters on the ground in the Deep South—the victories of Ossoff and jointly-elected Raphael Warnock, a Black pastor, secured Democratic control of the Senate for the first time in a decade. But the Ossoff-Warnock collaboration goes deeper than congressional power. 

Their campaigns ushered in a new chapter in Black-Jewish coalitions in the South, a powerful, yet sometimes romanticized tradition that dates back to the civil rights era when progressive, Black Christian leaders like Martin Luther King, Jr. and John Lewis marched alongside Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel. Georgia’s new senators frequently invoked this legacy during their campaigns. Meanwhile, their Republican opponents carried on white supremacist traditions with thinly veiled racist and anti-Semitic attacks, including ads that darkened Warnock’s skin and enlarged Ossoff’s nose

The positionality of Jews in the South has always been implicated in a fraught relationship to whiteness and to Blackness. Historically, many Atlanta Jews in the early 20th century tried to steer clear of nativist, anti-Jewish attacks by effectively assimilating as white Americans into a Jim Crow city. By the 1960s, solidarity to Black-led movements shown by prominent Jewish activists wasn’t indicative that all, or even most, Jews in Georgia were in support of the civil rights movement.

Today, grassroots organizers point to a difference in class between affluent white Jews in Atlanta who work closely with middle-class Black groups but are out of touch and lack solidarity with working-class, Black-led movements in the city. More than Warnock-Ossoff, it’s the on-the-ground collaborations between progressive Jewish organizations like Jewish Voice for Peace and Black Lives Matter that are historic and radical.

See also: The Last, the Least, and the Lost

The old version of this story is that there are two communities—Black Southerners and Jewish Southerners—and these two groups align as needed but are at odds with one another, too. But the reality is Black Jews have always made up an oft-forgotten community in the fabric of the South. A report last year found that Jews of color make up at least 12 to 15 percent of the American Jewish population, and that number is probably undercounted because so few American Jewish population surveys systematically and consistently ask questions about racial and ethnic identities. 





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Thank you so much for supporting Jon Ossoff’s Senate campaign.

                                       

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