The role of the Israel lobby in Jon Ossoff’s ascendance

The role of the Israel lobby in Jon Ossoff’s ascendance

Democratic Majority for Israel Facebook post congratulating “Senator-elect Jon Ossoff on your victory in Georgia! DMFI PAC was proud to support your candidacy, and we’re thrilled that the first Millennial in the Senate will be a strong pro-Israel Democrat.”

The new US Senator from Georgia, a 33-year-old who received the most campaign donations for a Senate candidate in US history, began his political career in 2006 helping to defeat Georgia’s first Black woman to be elected to Congress. She had been targeted for removal by the Israel lobby… 

By Alison Weir

Jon Ossoff, the 33-year-old  Democrat who has just been elected U.S. Senator from Georgia, had relatively few credentials to win a major national position.

He had never held elective office at any level. His resume consists of a relatively low level staff position in Congress, conducting a run for Congress (which he lost), using some of the money he had inherited from his grandfather to become CEO of a London media company and then using this inherited money to finance its work (helped by a $350,000 infusion from Silicon Valley billionaire Pierre Omidyar).

He did, however, have some other attributes.

In an analysis of how Ossof got to where he is, the New York Times reports that Ossof “capitalized on his own well-off upbringing and a series of well-timed introductions and personal endorsements to rise through Democratic politics in Georgia.”

The first of those introductions was to a Black candidate for Congress named Hank Johnson. Ossoff worked in the campaign that won the relatively unknown Johnson his seat in Congress. Ossoff was then rewarded with a staff position, which opened the next door.

Ossoff parlayed this Congressional staff position into a 2017 run for Congress which he almost won despite being only 26 years old. One of the ways he did this was through inflating his Congressional position with Johnson and his alleged expertise and experience.

Ossoff claimed “five years of experience as a national security staffer in the U.S. Congress,” and announced that he “held top-secret security clearance.” Below are some of his ads emphasizing these claims:

In reality, however, two of Ossof’s claimed five years as a Congressional staffer had consisted of part-time work while he was a college student. He had held a security clearance for a total of five months, obtained so that the $10 an hour assistant could accompany his Congress member to some briefings.

In some spheres, however, it appears that Ossoff did indeed have significant influence in this position, and he used it to benefit Israel.

The Jewish Forward reports that Ossoff “was in charge of foreign policy issues in the office of Georgia Rep. Hank Johnson. As such, he worked on legislation improving military funding for Israel and mandating tougher inspections of Iranian nuclear facilities.” (Keep in mind, Israel has received far more US tax money than any other nation, and Iran has long been targeted by Israel and its advocates.)

Partly through emphasizing his pro-Israel credentials, Ossoff was able to raise $33 million for his 2017 campaign, and the race became the most expensive House race in American history up to that time.

On his list of priorities, Ossoff emphasized his support for Israel. Below is a sample (the whole document is here):

Jon is committed to Israel’s security as a homeland for the Jewish people and to strengthening the historic, unbreakable bond between the United States and Israel.

Jon has traveled twice to Israel — once while a graduate student at the London School of Economics and once after his Bar Mitzvah. Jon has deep personal relationships with family who live in Jerusalem and many friends who live in Israel.

As a national security staffer in Congress, Jon worked closely with talented Israeli diplomats to strengthen diplomatic and military ties between the U.S. and Israel.

While working in Congress on military and counterterrorism programs, Jon drafted a Congressional resolution demanding the inspection of Iran’s secret nuclear facilities. He also worked on defense authorization bills that helped fund the Iron Dome and David Sling’s defense systems, which are essential to protecting Israel from missile and rocket attack… read more

Ossof’s statement ignored many significant facts. For example, Palestinian rockets from Gaza had begun only after Israel had invaded and shelled the region extensively. Moreover, in all the years the rockets have been used, they’ve killed a total of about 30 people; Israeli air strikes have killed thousands of Gazans.

In 2020, Ossoff posted a similar, even longer document detailing his support for Israel. (In both races, Ossoff’s Republican opponents also pledged unquestioning support for Israel.)

Ossoff’s position statements indicate that, despite positioning himself as an expert on international relations, Ossoff seems significantly uninformed on Israel-Palestine.

For example, his statements fail to note that Israel was established, in the words of an Israeli historian, by ethnic cleansing. In addition, he seems unaware of the current situation.

Although Ossoff also positions himself as a progressive, he virtually never appears to mention Israel’s long record of human rights violations as documented by Human Rights Watch, Christian Aid, Amnesty International, the International Red Cross, and numerous other respected groups, including a number of Israeli NGOs.

He also seems untroubled by Israel’s systemic discrimination and daily violence against Palestinians.

Palestinian children travel to an UNRWA school to seek shelter after evacuating their homes near the border in Gaza City on July 13, 2014.
Palestinian children travel to an UNRWA school to seek shelter after evacuating their homes near the border in Gaza City on July 13, 2014. (UN/Shareef Sarhan)

The ‘seismic’ impact of 2020 Georgia election

When Ossoff ran for office again in 2020, he was able to capitalize on an extraordinary situation.

Georgia was in a possibly unique position in national politics: both of its Senators were running in an election that had the potential to give the Democrats control of all three branches of law making: the Presidency, House of Representatives, and Senate. News reports pointed out that a Democratic win could lead to a “seismic shift in the US Senate.”

In addition, Ossoff was able to capitalize on an escalating anti-Trump fervor around the country, which had been growing ever since Trump had won the 2016 election.

Even more money began to pour in than in his previous campaign.

With the extremely high stakes involved, Ossoff became the highest-funded Senatorial candidate in U.S. history,  According to federal filings made public on Christmas eve, Ossof had been given $106.7 million between October 15 and December 16, the most money any U.S. candidate has ever raised in a quarter. This far outstripped his Republican opponent.

Almost all the money came from out of state, a substantial amount from California and from tech moguls, who largely prefer Democrats. Some of the billionaire social media heads are also pro-Israel and their platforms sometimes censor Palestinian content. Close to a million dollars to Ossoff came from the parent company of Google.

Ossoff also raised a great deal of money from specifically pro-Israel groups. He was especially endorsed by Israel lobby organizations that target Democrats and progressives, including the Democratic Majority for Israel (which has close ties to AIPAC), J Street, and the Jewish Democratic Council of America. (All have records of raising large amounts of money for candidates who toe the line on Israel; DMFI, for example, raised $2 million in a previous campaign.)

The groups also supported his co-Democratic candidate for the Senate, Raphael Warnock, who had similarly received massive amounts of campaign donations. After being attacked for earlier statements supportive of Palestinians, Warnock, an African-American pastor, had recanted his previous positions and issued a letter entitled “Why I support Israel.”  Warnock’s recantation netted him a powerful ad by the JDCA, in which he lauds the Black-Jewish alliance.

Ossoff helps defeat first black Congress woman from Georgia

Ossoff got his start in politics by aiding in the defeat of a Black Congress member, Cynthia McKinney, who was being targeted for removal by the Israel lobby. First elected to Congress in 1992, Cynthia McKinney was the the first Black woman elected to represent Georgia in Congress.

During her time in Congress, McKinney had raised numerous uncomfortable questions about a variety of issues, opposed the Iraq war, and worked for diverse social justice issues. When these included support for Palestinian human rights, Israel partisans organized a campaign against her.

Another Black woman was found to run against her, McKinney was demonized in a variety of ways, the lobby made common cause with Republicans organizing crossover voting against her, and she was defeated in the 2002 Democratic primary.

Unlike others who had similarly been pushed out by the Israel lobby, however, McKinney managed a remarkable comeback, winning election to Congress again in 2004.

Once again, the Israel lobby targeted McKinney, and once again her opponents found an African American to run against her. This time it was a little-known candidate named Hank Johnson, a local businessman and member of the county commission.

Enter Jon Ossoff.

Ossoff, 19 at the time, obtained a personal introduction to Johnson, and soon began working in Johnson’s campaign to defeat McKinney. Ossoff was the fourth person to be added to Johnson’s campaign staff. Ossoff helped write Johnson’s speeches and media outreach.

The Johnson campaign portrayed McKinney as “controversial,” “confrontational,” and “divisive,” and the largely pro-Israel media echoed the anti-McKinney narrative.

A 2006 article by a McKinney supporter reports that one of the tactics deployed by the Johnson campaign was to showcase support for Israel: “Johnson sent a letter to Jewish voters, declaring his 100 percent support for Israel’s assault on Lebanon.”

Johnson also proclaimed his support for Israel and its ongoing invasion of Lebanon during a candidates’ debate broadcast by C-Span:


In taking this position, the Johnson campaign ignored the fact that Israel’s ongoing assault on Lebanon was killing hundreds of Lebanese citizens. By the time it was over a few days after the debate, Israeli forces had killed approximately 1,300 Lebanese men, women, and children, while Lebanese resistance fighters had killed a total of 165 Israelis. Israeli forces had also destroyed Lebanese infrastructure and displaced a million Lebanese. Israel’s use of cluster bombs caused numerous amputations, especially among children.

Beirut, Lebanon after Israeli assault, 2006 (Ha'aretz)

The Johnson campaign also played on anti-Muslim, anti-Arab prejudices: “[Johnson] insinuated in a radio debate that McKinney had ties to ‘terrorists’ because of Arab and Muslim names on her contributors list.”

Some pro-Israel PACs were among Johnson’s largest funders, and he greatly surpassed McKinney in campaign contributions. All of this combined to win Johnson a seat in the US House of Representatives – and Ossoff a position in Johnson’s Congressional office, where he used his position as described above.

Ossoff’s 2020 messaging

In his recent campaigning, Ossoff, like Warnock, stresses the importance of a “Black-Jewish alliance.” He omits the fact that his claimed alliance seems to be only with African-American politicians willing to support Israel.

Israel’s Jerusalem Post newspaper reports: “Ossoff has acknowledged throughout his rise in Georgia politics that he is indebted to Black voters and the history of progressive Black activism in the state.”

Ossoff Campaign photo of Ossoff marching in 2017 with John Lewis, left, and Hank Johnson. (NYT/Ossoff Campaign)

Ossoff often mentions his friendship with both Hank Johnson and legendary civil rights icon Congressman John Lewis, whose office introduced him to Johnson.

Despite Lewis’s courageous work for racial equality and civil rights, like Warnock and Johnson, Lewis had also taken stands supported by the Israel lobby.

At a time when some Black leaders like Andrew Young and Jesse Jackson were supporting Palestinian human rights, an Israeli newspaper points out: “Lewis did not seem to be reading the book. In 1982, he worked with the American Jewish Committee to found the Atlanta Black-Jewish Coalition. It was an alliance that culminated in 2019 in the founding last year of the Congressional Black-Jewish Caucus.”

Journalist Philip Weiss reports that when Lewis passed away in July, many Israel lobby groups noted that Lewis had been a “steadfast supporter” of Israel, calling him  “one of Israel’s strongest advocates in Congress,” and reporting that Lewis had traveled to Israel “on numerous occasions.” AIPAC extolled Lewis’s support for the Israeli occupation of the Palestinian Territories.

McKinney reveals power of Israel lobby

In the years since she was pushed out of Congress, McKinney has sometimes discussed the power of the Israel lobby, her own experiences with it, and its role in the U.S. political process.

In 2009 and again in 2011, she described the requirement for American politicians to pledge support for Israel:

Over the years since her defeat, McKinney has joined together with others to try to break the control of special interests in the American system. In 2017 McKinney, who had been the Green Party presidential candidate in 2008 and a consistent anti-war activist, toured the U.S. with a conservative.

Their campaign focused on uniting people from the “populist left and populist right” to join together “to empower the people of the United States to take their government back.” Truthdig reported:

Robert David Steele, a former CIA clandestine case officer, and Cynthia McKinney, a former six-term congresswoman from Georgia, are teaming up to fight establishment politics and bring down the “deep state.”

Steele and McKinney have launched #UNRIG, an “educational project” aimed at restoring government integrity and mobilizing Americans to work with their elected officials.

In 2020, McKinney continued this effort, endorsing what she considers President Trump’s right to object to alleged voter fraud, just as a group of Democrats, including California Senator Barbara Boxer, had done previously.

Israel lobby takes credit for an Ossoff win that will benefit Israel

On January 6th the Democratic Majority for Israel issued a statement saying it was “thrilled to congratulate” Ossoff and Warnock.

The statement pointed out DMFI’s role in an “extensive digital ad buy that was viewed in its entirety by key targets just under 7 million times.”

DMFI described the key role these ads seem to have played: “Network exit polls indicate that gains in the segments we targeted added at least a point to the margins of the two Democrats.”

Ossoff had won by half a percentage point.

DMFI’s statement emphasized how Ossoff and Warnock’s win will help Israel in the coming years:

As United States senators, both Senators-elect Ossoff and Warnock have committed to upholding the historic 10-year Memorandum of Understanding negotiated by the Obama-Biden Administration, which secured $38 billion in security aid for Israel, the largest such agreement between our two nations. Both incoming senators have also rightfully condemned the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions (BDS) movement for its refusal to acknowledge Israel’s right to exist and its antisemitic overtones.

We look forward to working with Senators-elect Ossoff and Warnock in their efforts to enact the Biden-Harris Administration’s agenda, including work to strengthen the U.S.-Israel relationship.

Palestinian men, women, and children may not fare so well.

Alison Weir is executive director of If Americans Knew, president of the Council for the National Interest, and author of Against Our Better Judgment: The Hidden History of How the U.S. Was Used to Create Israel

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