State, local leaders react to antisemitic flyers

Credit: Natrice Miller / Natrice.Miller@ajc.com

Credit: Natrice Miller / Natrice.Miller@ajc.com

Politicians, police, watchdogs wrestle with how best to counter hate speech

When Esther Panitch found a plastic bag containing an antisemitic flyer in her Sandy Springs driveway Feb. 5, the freshman state representative took to Twitter, venting her anger and making a promise.

“I’m coming for you with the weight of the State behind me,” she wrote.

Similar flyers have been tossed in yards or placed under windshield wipers across metro Atlanta for more than year, a result of a sustained campaign by an antisemitic hate group called the Goyim Defense League (GDL), which sells the preprinted flyers via its website alongside Hitler-themed t-shirts. The difference between those earlier distributions and the one last weekend is that it hit suburban neighborhoods in Sandy Springs and Dunwoody with a large Jewish population.

Panitch is a Democrat, but the response to her tweet was quick and bipartisan. Democratic Sen. Jon Ossoff and Republican Gov. Brian Kemp and condemned the flyers as cowardly and out of step with Georgia’s values.

“Georgians are united in our rejection of bigotry,” said Ossoff, who is Jewish.

Kemp tweeted on Sunday: “This kind of hate has no place in our state.”

House Speaker Jon Burns, a Republican, began the legislative day Monday calling the incident “repulsive.”

“I know all of you join with me in taking such actions seriously,” he said. “We pause this morning to reiterate that hate has no place in Georgia.”

Panitch was joined by dozens of lawmakers in the well of the House, where she referenced an incident in October where an antisemitic message was projected on the stadium outside the Georgia-Florida college football game in Jacksonville, Fla., and thanked her colleagues for their support.

“We all know it might be the Jews today, but the same people will come after you tomorrow,” she said.

Beyond the condemnations, the next steps are less clear.

Officials were quick to announce that police were investigating, but in Sandy Springs, the case is already closed. Sandy Springs Police spokesman Sgt. Matthew McGinnis said the flyers were “grotesque” but not illegal because they did not contain an explicit threat.

“There was nothing in there that was direct threat to the people. It was just somebody’s ignorant thoughts,” he said.

Credit: State Rep. Esther Panitch

Credit: State Rep. Esther Panitch

He said those behind the flyers appear to understand how to walk the line of protected speech.

“They know what the First Amendment is and what they are allowed to do,” he said. “You can tell they are walking down that edge.”

Jim Fleissner, a professor at Mercer University School of Law and a constitutional law expert, said there’s not much police can do to address complaints about flyers, no matter how hateful.

“If they are just putting leaflets in plastic bags on lawns … the reality is that under the First Amendment people have a right to say things that are offensive to other people,” he said.

The group could run into trouble if a judge found they were intimidating people or provoking them with “fighting words,” but Fleissner said the flyers themselves don’t contain overt threats.

Panitch is a co-sponsor of House Bill 30, which would legally define antisemitism in Georgia law. Such a definition would be useful in cases where a criminal act could be tied to antisemitic motives. But could that work against a flyer tossed from a car window?

Panitch said the Jewish recipients of the flyers don’t see it as a speech issue.

“It’s intentional infliction of emotional distress. The goal is to intimidate and terrorize somebody. They know what they are doing. Their stated goal is to get the world rid of Jews,” she said. “It’s not a stretch between these flyers or somebody saying Jews are the enemy and attacking a synagogue. We see the straignt lines.”

The flyers are part of a broader rise in antisemitic acts across the metro area in recent years. The number of reported incidents doubled last year in metro Atlanta, according to researchers with the Anti-Defamation League (ADL). And the problem isn’t limited to Atlanta, or even Georgia. Communities from Miami to San Francisco have reported dumps of GDL flyers over the past year identical to the ones found here. In July, U.S. Rep. Charlie Crist, D-Fla., asked the FBI to open an investigation into the acts.

The propaganda itself is largely recycled antisemitic conspiracy theories claiming Jews are in control of banks, entire industries and politics. The flyers direct recipients to the GDL website where the group’s leaders post videos and raise money to fund their activities, including multi-state tours where they livestream antisemitic stunts.

Stephen Piggott, an analyst with hate group watchdog Western States Center, said antisemitism has been increasing in recent years, with the GDL as one of the main culprits.

“These groups are feeling more emboldened than they were even three or four years ago. Part of that is the mainstreaming of antisemitism. We’re seeing antisemitic conspiracy theories in the halls of Congress,” he said.

Arthur Maserjian, chief of staff and director of international affairs for the Combat Antisemitism Movement, said the GDL and its associates have gotten “more provocative” as the campaign has continued. The leader of the group was arrested last year in Poland after holding up an obscene sign targeting the CEO of the Antidefamation League in front of the entrance to Auschwitz.

American leaders are not powerless to address the problem, Maserjian said.

“The first step is for the leaders to call it out. Georgia did that,” he said. Next, he said the Georgia General Assembly should pass HB 30 and join 30 other states in legally defining antisemitism.

House Bill 30 offers a definition of antisemitism to be used “as evidence of discriminatory intent for any law or policy in this State” while also stating the definition is not “construed to diminish or infringe upon any right protected under the First Amendment.”

Lawmakers in some states are taking stronger actions. In Florida, a bill introduced last month in the state House would make distribution of antisemitic flyers and other acts of religious or ethnic harassment, including projecting antisemitic messages on buildings, a felony punishable by up to five years in prison.

Fleissner called the bill, which ties the such harassment to the crime of littering, “creative.” He said if the measure becomes law in Florida it is almost sure to face legal challenges and the courts have taken a dim view when government goes after citizens for ideological reasons.

“The First Amendment is pretty strict about the government making choices about points of view,” he said.