“Well I hope you know what we do to Jewish folks down here in Georgia…,” said comedian Beck Bennett amid suspenseful music, “We elect them!”
Though the recent Saturday Night Live skit ‘Blue Georgia’ pokes at Georgia’s shifting culture as a blue state, the light joke about Georgia’s new Jewish senator, Jon Ossoff, carries immense historical significance, especially for the Jewish community.
Over 100 years ago, Leo Frank, a Jewish man living in Atlanta, Georgia, was falsely accused of murdering and sexually assaulting Mary Phagan, an employee at the pencil factory he managed. In early August of 1915, a Georgia court found Frank to be guilty and he was sentenced to life in prison. On August 17, a group of men stormed the prison hospital where he was recovering from an injury caused by a fellow inmate and drove him to Marietta, Georgia where he was hanged from a tree as the crowd cheered and photographed the violent scene. Southern Jews trembled from this horrendous act, which inspired the formation of the Anti-Defamation League.
According to the Jewish Virtual Library, “Atlanta Jewry still has not fully recovered from the trauma of the Leo Frank case.” In fact, the Atlanta Jewish community faced even more cruelty in 1958 when the Hebrew Benevolent Congregation was bombed. The rabbi of the synagogue at the time, Jacob Rothschild, had spoken publicly of his support for integration and galvanized his congregants to likewise work for the cause. Segregationists bombed the building, leaving $200,000 in damage. Although no one died from the bombing, the Jewish community was reminded of the fervent anti-Semitism (and racism) surrounding them.
Despite these historically anti-Semitic conditions in the south, the Jewish community remained hopeful as Ossoff announced his campaign for United States Senate in 2019. Ossoff was again reminded of southern anti-Semitism when the campaign of his challenger, incumbent David Perdue, ran a campaign ad that doctored Ossoff’s nose so that it looked bigger than it actually is, a classic anti-Semitic trope. Yet, Ossoff ended up beating Perdue, garnering 54,944 more votes and tipping the Senate to a Democratic majority.
On Jan. 20, 2021, Ossoff, who became a bar mitzvah at the Hebrew Benevolent Congregation, was sworn in on Hebrew Bible that had belonged to Rabbi Rothschild. Sen. Ossoff, Georgia’s first Jewish senator, is serving alongside Raphael Warnock, an African-American minister. Warnock and Ossoff’s partnership marks a new era for Black-Jewish solidarity, especially in the face of white supremacy. Warnock spoke of the historic Black-Jewish alliance during the Civil Rights era and of the two communities’ “shared values, shared commitment to standing up on behalf of justice.” Ossoff promised to fight for social justice and “build alliances to pass landmark civil rights legislation,” he said in a recent Business Insider article.
In the wake of the horrific attack on the United States Capitol, it is important to be hopeful about the decades to come while reflecting on how far we have come. With new faces in government, there is so much potential for positive change. It is up to us to have faith and continue to elect and support competent leaders to ensure this change will last.