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Once stalled, Georgia’s antisemitism bill fast-tracked amid growing war tensions

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Ross Williams, Georgia Recorder
January 25, 2024

A bill defining antisemitism in Georgia law is on the desk of Gov. Brian Kemp after passing through the state House and Senate with wide majorities Thursday. 

The bill calls on state agencies to adopt the definition used by the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance, when considering evidence for discriminatory intent in things like housing or employment discrimination and in criminal cases under the state’s 2020 hate crimes law.

Kemp’s office said a signing date has not been confirmed, but in a statement, the governor said he will “soon be able to sign this important piece of legislation.” 

Marietta Republican Rep. John Carson said the bill, which he has been pushing for several years, is needed now more than ever because of a spate of high-profile antisemitic acts around the state, including the distribution of hateful fliers in Jewish neighborhoods and aggressive demonstrations outside of synagogues.

“We’ve seen an unbelievable increase in antisemitic acts, we’ve seen more leaflets in Dunwoody, Brookhaven, really all over our state,” Carson said. “We’ve seen neo-Nazi demonstrations in my county, Cobb County, also in Macon, and folks, I hope you will stand with me one more time and say this activity has got to stop.”

 Sen. John Kennedy carried the antisemitism bill in the Senate. Ross Williams/Georgia Recorder

All Georgia lawmakers say they want to protect Jewish Georgians, but in past years, efforts have fizzled over parts of the IHRA definition about the state of Israel. Under the definition, certain criticisms of the state, such as claims that it is fundamentally racist, would be considered antisemitic, though there would be no punishment for them unless there was an underlying crime like assault or an allegation of illegal discrimination.

“If you want to go out and say that you hate Israel after this bill is passed, you may absolutely do that, but if you want to commit a crime, you’ve got a problem,” said Senate President Pro Tempore John Kennedy, a Macon Republican. “And if you happen to commit one of those crimes while spewing antisemitic speech, you might just subject yourself to the hate crime statute.”

Most legislators agreed. Six Democrats voted against the bill in the Senate, and in the House, the bill passed with a 129-to-5 vote. In the House, the bill’s final passage was greeted with cheers, applause and hugs among supporters. 

“It’s a recognition and a relief that we’ve been heard by the entire state,” said Sandy Springs Democratic state Rep. Esther Panitch, the only Jewish state lawmaker in Georgia and a cosponsor of the bill. 

Several representatives, though, did not record a vote, prompting House Speaker Jon Burns to remind them that House rules require lawmakers in the chamber to vote unless there is a conflict of interest or they have been excused. 

Afterwards, Burns celebrated the bill’s final passage. Last year, the bill had easily cleared the House but stalled in the Senate. He also signaled that he was open to additional measures, such as a bill in the Senate targeting antisemitic fliers. 

“We have one priority: that hate will not exist and not be tolerated in Georgia to any group but especially with our Jewish friends who have done so much for us and we care so much about,” Burns told reporters. “It’s the right thing to do.” 

The war in Gaza following the Oct. 7 Hamas attacks that left about 1,200 Israelis dead has heightened skepticism about the Middle Eastern U.S. ally. Israeli forces have killed more than 25,000 in Gaza, over 70% of them women and children, according to the United Nations.

Palestinians and their supporters have taken to the streets to protest the bombing campaign responsible for the deaths and what they call decades of occupation and subjugation. 

 From left, Sens. Kim Jackson, Harold Jones and Nabilah Islam-Parkes watch the debate on the antisemitism bill. The three opposed the bill because of its restrictions on criticisms of Israel. Ross Williams/Georgia Recorder

Stone Mountain Democratic Sen. Kim Jackson, an Episcopal priest and the state’s first and only openly LGBTQ senator, said she mourns Oct. 7 victims and rejects antisemitism but opposes the idea that vehemently criticizing Israel should be labeled as antisemitic, referencing Jewish groups that call for change in Israel.

“I will be voting no on HB 30 today because I personally know what it is to be a minority voice within a minority group,” she said. “I know what it is to have people who share my race, my ethnicity, and my religion and they choose to ignore my voice, choose to tell me that I’m not Christian enough or Black enough because of my deeply held convictions that don’t align with the loudest voices.”

In a floor speech supporting the bill, Senate Minority Leader Gloria Butler referenced Georgia’s history of antisemitism and said hatred of Jews has reared its head on the left and the right.

“Let me be clear: the poison of antisemitism affects the political left on our college campuses. This must end,” she said. “As one of Georgia’s political leaders, I’m doing everything I can to find an antidote to this poison, made up of resentment, prejudice and hate, but antisemitism is not exclusive to one coalition or party.”

After the Senate vote, Azka Mahmood, Georgia president of the Council on American-Islamic Relations, said her group will monitor how the law will be implemented, but she has concerns.

“The determination of intent as designed in this bill is problematic, and that’s the fear across a lot of communities, not just the Muslim community or the Palestinian community, but anyone who’s advocating or who’s critical of the state of Israel,” Mahmood said.

“And you know, it is a valid fear,” she added. “We’re not sure how this is going to be applied, if it’s going to be fair. It really depends on the prosecutors on how they want to take this kind of law. But historically we do know that this kind of legislation is used disproportionately against immigrants, minorities and people of color and that’s our fear.”

The American Jewish Committee cheered lawmakers’ decision to adopt the IHRA’s definition of antisemitism. 

“It offers common-sense guidance to help people understand what is antisemitism, so they are better equipped to recognize it when it happens and help fight it,” said Dov Wilker, the committee’s Atlanta director. “It does nothing to inhibit free speech and, in fact, distinguishes between legitimate criticism of Israel and attacks that are antisemitism in disguise.” 

Panitch told the Recorder she is hopeful the bill will discourage those who distribute hateful fliers from bothering Georgia Jews.

“Hopefully this will give a deterrent effect because if any of those people went one step further, if they did anything violent or if they deface property, if they commit any type of crime, then their sentence could be enhanced based on this definition of antisemitism,” she said.

Panitch said she will continue to work with members of her party whose opinions differ on the definition of antisemitism, but she can’t speak for all of their Jewish constituents.

“We’ve been working together the entire time, disagreements notwithstanding,” she said. “But it’s a shame because our Jewish community will see them as somebody who doesn’t support them.”

Georgia Recorder Deputy Editor Jill Nolin contributed to this report.

 A big crowd came to the Georgia Capitol to support the new Georgia definition for antisemitism. Ross Williams/Georgia Recorder.

Georgia Recorder is part of States Newsroom, a network of news bureaus supported by grants and a coalition of donors as a 501c(3) public charity. Georgia Recorder maintains editorial independence. Contact Editor John McCosh for questions: info@georgiarecorder.com. Follow Georgia Recorder on Facebook and Twitter.

This article is republished from Georgia Recorder under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.