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.
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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.
When the prevailing narratives, especially around politics, exclude Black Jews, the collective understanding of the issues facing these communities suffers. Hate groups in the South have long targeted both Black people and Jews. Failing to look to these intersections means Black Jews are left behind, and liberatory movements in the South have a blind spot.
Victoria Raggs, co-founder and executive director of the Atlanta Jews of Color Council, has made fighting for Black Jews central to her work. During an interview last month, Raggs told me about how energized she is by the Ossoff and Warnock wins.
See also: Georgia’s grassroots organizing lessons will be valuable in the South for a long time coming
The AJOCC approach is to encourage existing mainstream advocacy organizations to keep working together and to build within and inform mainstream advocacy rather than to ignite radical change from the ground up. But she also emphasized what’s missing from existing coalitions in Atlanta: how exactly anti-Semitism and racism are connected; why intersectionality is so valuable; and how she sees the diversity of the global Jewish community.
Nic Yeager: Tell me about your position and how you began this line of work.
Victoria Raggs: I am the executive director and co-founder of Atlanta Jews of Color Council, [which] grew out of an absence in the Southeast, and mostly in Georgia, of any representation for Jews of color.
When I say “representation,” I mean having Jews of color on boards in our communal spaces, like our federations, our Jewish community centers, on committees, and having youth attend summer camps and having young Jews of color in our Jewish day schools.
Atlanta is a major metropolitan area and a very diverse community, but a lot of the Jews of color have a mistrust for the dominant mainstream Jewish community because of mistreatment and disparities in the past. So, a lot of them don’t attend synagogue or shul, and there’s no real entry path for them to get into the mainstream community and have a voice. So [this organization] was dearly needed.
I’m also on the American Jewish Committee (AJC) Black and Jewish Coalition, which is a different organization and they seek to bring the African American community and the Jewish community together to combat racism and anti-Semitism.
NY: What does it mean to fight anti-Semitism and racism together?
VR: Anti-Semitism and anti-Blackness or racism are really two sides of the same coin, two sides of hate. Racism makes people of color seem as though they are inferior to white people. With anti-Semitism, it is a type of hate that goes in the opposite direction and makes Jews seem as though they are all-encompassing, all-powerful, anything bad going on is because of something the Jews have done.
We heard [from Representative Marjorie Taylor Greene] that there were space lasers, that the Jews had somehow gotten up in space, just so extremely powerful, so Jews should be feared.
White nationalists or white supremacists often say that Jews are behind stirring up people of color to not know to stay in their place. It is an age-old tactic to keep Jews or African Americans and different marginalized people pitted against each other. We saw Raphael Warnock being accused of being a horrible anti-Semite, and it was because he had a lot of Jewish support. But it was in fact the complete opposite. He has always stood with the Jewish people and behind Israel, and he had a huge Jewish following here in Atlanta. So it just didn’t work, but so often, historically and currently, anti-Semitism is used against different minorities or marginalized people to promote white nationalism.
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NY: What do you see as the significance of Jon Ossoff and Raphael Warnock’s wins? What do Black-Jewish coalitions, historically and now, mean?
VR: For us, seeing them win was just an amazing moment here in Georgia. It was a beautiful combination of the two communities coming together because in the South, we have a huge conservative population. There’s a high population of Jews who are Republican as well. So to get them on board to support two Democrats, it was a huge victory. It was only because the two campaigned together, and the two communities came together, that we won. So building coalitions is essential for Jews and African Americans to be able to have power here in the South.
We were very proud of ourselves, and joyous, because you saw two communities come together, who, in the [recent] past, really have not worked a lot together. Since the civil rights movement of the ’60s, the Jewish community gained a lot of upward mobility through proximity to whiteness. They did not have to fight as hard for their rights as they had in the past, so they kind of became complacent in that work. But trying to assimilate into the dominant cultures of any of the [cultures] we have been in, it has helped, but it has never really stopped anti-Semitism.
As much as Jews have tried to assimilate into whiteness here in America, anti-Semitism keeps flaring its head. It’s really best if we promote that we are a dynamic, rich, multicultural people, and that we have different ethnicities. We have different cultures. We are a people who have Diasporas all over the world, have different languages, we are now of different colors.
And we need to acknowledge ourselves as a marginalized group instead of trying to blend in to white proximity, and we need to acknowledge that we are a beautiful, multicultural, diverse people.
NY: Tell me more about why this should be an intersectional conversation.
VR: I think we all have intersectional identities. As a Jew of color, both of my identities are very important to me. I cannot be one without the other. That would be like saying, am I African American or a woman? I’m both, I can’t separate them. So it’s important that in the Jewish community we see that Ashkenazi Judaism is not the norm. There are many types of Judaism, there’s Sephardi Judaism, Mizrahi, there’s Yemenite Jews, there’s Jews from the Caribbean. And we all practice differently, we all have different levels of observance, and all of them are accurate, they’re all beautiful, and they should all be validated. There is not just one form of Judaism that should be held above others.
After the George Floyd murder, there was a huge racial reckoning in this country, and as Jews it’s important for us to take a stand. We can’t be complacent and say, “Well, that’s not our fight.” Because it is, because some of us, as Jewish people, are of color. Some of us are Black Jews as well. And I know my family, I have a son and he could be walking down the street and nobody knows he’s Jewish. He could be arrested, he could be shot at, and my husband driving down the street could be stopped by a police officer at any time. So it is our battle, because it is our people. We look the same as other communities. To protect our people we have to protect other communities as well.
NY: That is something that Jewish communities don’t talk about: that Jews of color aren’t welcomed into Jewish spaces.
VR: We have to believe that in any Jewish space, Jews of color belong there. When I walk into a space, if it’s a Jewish communal space, I belong there, and I should not be made to feel like I have to be interrogated. I’ve heard stories from a lot of Jews of color that they immediately are asked, “Well, why are you here?” Or the police officer that is the security at a synagogue will say, “Are you in the right place?” or “The church is down the street.” And [they do] not know that, “OK, yes, we do belong here, this is my space as well.”
NY: What sorts of things do you think we need to do to address that?
I think there’s a lot of education that has to be done in our community, but education and diversity training are not enough.
Right now in Atlanta, everybody is big on, “Let’s do diversity work and educate our community.” But that’s not a solution to systemic inequality. Racism is a systemic issue, so you need change on a systemic level. You need to have actual legislation. You need to have actual policy change. That is what prevents systemic oppression: policy and legislative change.
And that means not just making statements. Back in the summer, 600 Jewish organizations said we stand with Black Lives Matter. But then there wasn’t a lot of action that happened behind those statements. So now we have to say, if we really believe what we said, if we really follow our Jewish values of Teshuvah, of Tikkun Olam, what type of actions do we do to back our statements?
I’ve asked Jewish organizations, “Why don’t you have any Jews of color on your boards?” And the first thing they’ll say is we just can’t find any. And then they’re done. And I’m like, well, if you can’t find any, then you need to actively do some engagement work. Create a pipeline, create mentorships, internships, so when something does open, you’ve got people who are waiting in the wings that you’ve trained and work with, who are ready to fill those positions.
NY: On a personal level, being on the AJC Board now, do you have advice for people who are interested in going into these spaces and having these uncomfortable conversations?
VR: Well, it’s very difficult, because, first of all, you don’t want to be considered a token.
Does the person have any real input? Do they have any real power? Do they have any real say?
NY: Do you have any thoughts about navigating the difficult terrain of Israel/Palestine here? Both conservative groups and several establishment Jewish Democratic groups disapproved of Warnock’s statements. There were attacks from the right to paint Raphael Warnock as anti-Semitic. But there were also establishment Jewish groups who put pressure on him to roll back his criticisms of Israel before granting him support. What would you say to folks who feel that the role of those Jewish groups was harmful, and were disappointed that Warnock had to come out and say “no, I am not going to make these criticisms of Israel?”
Author’s note: Understanding perspectives on race and place within Jewish communities, particularly on Israel/Palestine, requires history, context, and nuance. While traditional Jewish teachings instruct that Israel is the Jewish homeland, not all Jews identify as Zionists, or interpret the teachings in a Zionist way. In light of negative reactions to Warnock making statements that compared conditions in the West Bank to apartheid South Africa, it is important to note that Black politicians expressing solidarity with Palestine have historically been scrutinized harshly for doing so, and that there has been an increasingly institutionalized push from the left and the right to censor speech that may bring up legitimate discussions of whether the state of Israel is a settler colonial project. As a white, American Jew, I have complicated feelings about the issue. We have published this section in full to capture the wide spectrum of stances on this issue.
VR: It’s hard. I am a Zionist, and I believe that Israel is the Jewish homeland and that we have a right to be there. And once again, I think the more that we identify that we are a multiracial people, that we are not colonists in Israel, because if we are identifying ourselves as only European, as Polish and German, then the question comes to: “Why do you have a right to be in the Middle East?”
But if we identify ourselves as, we are Indigenous to North Africa and the Middle East, and that is our homeland, and as people in the diaspora we are multicultural and multiethnic, then that gives us credibility to be there in Israel.
Because we’re just not colonizers. We’re just not European people that are taking a land that does not belong to us. As an Indigenous people to the Middle East, that is our homeland, and we have every right to be there. But if we’re going to do that, it is the responsibility of us to commit resources to promoting racial and social justice.
NY: Any final thoughts that you want people to take away in terms of Jewish issues in the South, the intersectionality of our community, and what you think people don’t see?
VR: The election of Raphael Warnock and Jon Ossoff was a huge confirmation that when two communities can come together, when we can mobilize on the ground grassroots level, we are capable of doing anything—especially in a state that was historically red. We turned the state blue and elected two Democratic senators. Now, what we need to do is continue, as Jews, working on issues of racial justice. And the more we are in partnership with people from different communities, the more we’re able to educate people and have people come on board to fight anti-Semitism. We work with other communities, then they’ll see that, and then they will help us combat anti-Semitism.
Thank you so much for supporting Jon Ossoff’s Senate campaign.
Thank you so much for supporting Joe Biden’s Presidential campaign.