Democratic Senate candidate Raphael Warnock’s longtime support for anti-Semitic, America-bashing pastor Rev. Jeremiah Wright is drawing new scrutiny in the Georgia runoff election, as the candidate attempts to walk back his own prior criticism of Israel.
Warnock, the senior pastor at Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta, has for years been one of the most vocal defenders of Wright’s infamous 2003 "God Damn America" sermon, which compared U.S. leaders to al Qaeda and claimed HIV was invented by the government as a way to kill black people.
The Democratic candidate "is expected to face negative ads that target his ties to Jeremiah Wright," Politico reported on Tuesday. Warnock’s opponent, Republican senator Kelly Loeffler, also highlighted his support for Wright in a statement this week.
"[Warnock] has a long history of anti-Israel extremism," Loeffler wrote on Twitter. "He defended Jeremiah Wright’s anti-Semitic comments."
The renewed focus on Wright comes as Warnock faces criticism this week for signing a statement denouncing Israel as an "oppressive regime" and saying in a sermon that Israel shoots unarmed Palestinians like "birds of prey," according to a letter and video unearthed by Jewish Insider. Warnock's views on Israel could become a central issue in the election. Evangelical Christians, who tend to be highly supportive of Israel, make up 38 percent of the population in Georgia, the largest religious denomination in the state, according to the Pew Research Center.
Wright came to national attention in 2008 as the spiritual adviser and pastor to then-presidential candidate Barack Obama. After Wright’s inflammatory sermons went public during the campaign, Obama denounced and cut ties with him.
Warnock has been one of Wright’s most consistent public supporters. In 2014, he praised Wright’s "God Damn America" sermon in a speech at the Auburn Avenue Research Library.
"You ought to go back and see if you can find and read, as I have, the entire sermon. It was a very fine sermon. And Jeremiah Wright was right when he said the attack on him was in a real sense an attack on the black church," Warnock said. "The message of Jeremiah Wright was that public policy has consequences."
In another speech in 2013, Warnock called Wright’s sermon "a very fine homily." In his 2013 book, The Divided Mind of the Black Church, Warnock compared Wright’s insights to those of the biblical prophet Jeremiah.
In a sermon shortly after the Sept. 11 attacks in 2001, Wright accused the United States and Israel of engaging in "state terrorism" against Palestinians and claimed the attacks were the result of "America’s chickens coming home to roost."
In his 2003 sermon, Wright said, "We cannot see how what we are doing is the same al Qaeda is doing under a different color flag."
The pastor also blamed the U.S. government for "inventing the HIV virus as a means of genocide against people of color."
"The government gives [black people] the drugs, builds bigger prisons, passes a three-strike law, and then wants us to sing God Bless America. No, no, no," Wright said. "Not ‘God bless America.’ God damn America. That's in the Bible, for killing innocent people."
Obama rejected Wright’s remarks as a presidential candidate in 2008, saying he was not present in the church during the controversial speeches.
"There are no excuses. They offended me. They rightly offend all Americans and they should be denounced," Obama said.
In 2009, Wright blamed his falling-out with Obama on "them Jews."
"Them Jews ain’t going to let him talk to me," Wright told the Daily Press of Newport News, Va. "I told my baby daughter that he’ll talk to me in five years when he’s a lame duck, or in eight years when he’s out of office."
Warnock’s own comments have also come under scrutiny, particularly his statements on Israel.
In 2019, Warnock signed an open letter denouncing Israel for its treatment of Palestinians, the Jewish Insider reported last week. The letter claimed Israel used tactics that "seem to have been borrowed and perfected from other previous oppressive regimes" and called the situation "reminiscent of the military occupation of Namibia by apartheid South Africa."
A spokesman for Warnock appeared to walk back the statement, telling Jewish Insider that the pastor was primarily concerned about "settlement activity" but holds "strong support for Israel and belief in its security."
In 2018, Warnock claimed in a sermon that "the government of Israel shoot[s] down unarmed Palestinian sisters and brothers like birds of prey." He also criticized the U.S. government for moving its embassy to Jerusalem and blamed the "mealy-mouthed Evangelical preachers, who are responsible for the mess that we found ourselves in both there and here."
In a 2014 speech, Warnock also described Jesus as a "Palestinian peasant," a claim that contradicts biblical and scholarly descriptions of Jesus as a Jewish man from Judea.
Rabbi Abraham Cooper, an official at the Simon Wiesenthal Center, said last year that this allegation is often used to try to deny the Jewish people's historical connection to Israel as a Jewish homeland.
"For people who have no theological or historical rooting, the idea that Jesus was a Palestinian creates a new narrative for Palestinian history, which otherwise does not date back very far," Cooper told the Jerusalem Post. "If one can say that Jesus was Palestinian 2,000 years ago, then that means the Jews are occupying Palestinian land."
Warnock is headed into a runoff election against incumbent senator Loeffler after neither received more than 50 percent of the vote on Nov. 3. National political organizations are expected to pour record-breaking funds and resources into the highly contested race, which is one of two runoff elections in Georgia that will determine which party controls the U.S. Senate in January.