Hank Johnson holds peace talks with frustrated Atlanta Jewish leaders

U.S. Rep. Hank Johnson, D-Decatur. AJC file/Hyosub Shin, hshin@ajc.com

U.S. Rep. Hank Johnson, D-Decatur. AJC file/Hyosub Shin, hshin@ajc.com

U.S. Rep. Hank Johnson embarked this week on a mini-listening tour with leaders of the Atlanta Jewish community after he was quoted comparing Israeli settlers in the West Bank to “termites,” trying to soothe the nerves of a constituency that helped elect him to office.

The DeKalb Democrat visited The Atlanta Jewish Times, which wrote a scathing editorial condemning the DeKalb Democrat’s comments, and the American Jewish Committee, an influential Jewish advocacy group. And he acknowledged it will take more time to heal the rift he opened last week.

Johnson was criticized for remarks at an event sponsored by the U.S. Campaign to End the Israeli Occupation last week in which he likened Israel’s settlement policy in the West Bank to “a steady [stream], almost like termites can get into a residence and eat before you know that you’ve been eaten up and you fall in on yourself.”

Rep. Hank Johnson meets with members of the Atlanta Jewish Committee, including director Dov Wilker, far right.

Rep. Hank Johnson meets with members of the Atlanta Jewish Committee, including director Dov Wilker, far left.

What’s more frustrating to Jewish leaders is that he was the candidate they championed to succeed Cynthia McKinney, who had a history of controversial and anti-Semitic statements. The test remains whether Jewish leaders seek to find a candidate to challenge the five-term congressman in 2018. (He faces a little-known GOP opponent, Victor Armendariz, in a heavily-Democratic district in November.)

Some leaders said they were satisfied with Johnson’s apology. Dov Wilker, the American Jewish Committee Atlanta office’s regional director, said he appreciated the “honest conversation” with Johnson on Tuesday.

“His apology to the Jewish community in our meeting was sincere. Reaffirming his support for a two-state solution, Rep. Johnson showed understanding of why his remarks were so offensive to the Jewish community,” he said.

Johnson’s spokesman, Andy Phelan, said Wednesday that the congressman is trying to “build, and in some cases, rebuild relationships with the Atlanta Jewish community” and learn more about the settlement activity and Middle East peace process.

“All of the meetings have been cordial and productive and the Congressman intends on continuing to reach out to leaders and members of the community here and in Washington,” he said. “I think it’s fair to say the Congressman feels like he has more work to do to heal the wounds – but he’s doing it one group, one individual and one caller at a time.”

The Georgia GOP, which has repeatedly called for Johnson’s resignation, on Wednesday tried to tie the congressman to the party’s candidate for U.S. Senate. In an email sent to supporters, the party said Democrat Jim Barksdale has refused to rebuke Johnson because he is “hiding his own questionable record on Israel” – a nod to his past association with a group called the Interfaith Peace-Builders.


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