‘Above politics’: Republican, Democrat worked two years to pass antisemitism bill

‘We knew we had to bring in both our communities,’ Panitch said
Rep. John Carson, R-Marietta, and Rep. Esther Panitch, D-Sandy Springs, pose for a portrait in the House chambers at the Georgia State Capitol on Monday, January 29, 2024. (Natrice Miller/Natrice.miller@ajc.com)

Credit: Natrice Miller/AJC

Credit: Natrice Miller/AJC

Rep. John Carson, R-Marietta, and Rep. Esther Panitch, D-Sandy Springs, pose for a portrait in the House chambers at the Georgia State Capitol on Monday, January 29, 2024. (Natrice Miller/Natrice.miller@ajc.com)

She’s a Miami-born Democratic defense attorney who is a pillar of Georgia’s Jewish community. He is an evangelical Cobb County accountant who had hardly stepped foot in a synagogue until a few months ago.

State Reps. Esther Panitch and John Carson forged an extraordinary bipartisan partnership to push through a measure to combat antisemitism that Gov. Brian Kemp signed into law Wednesday at a Capitol ceremony.

Their friendship began shortly after Panitch, a Democrat, was elected to an open Sandy Springs-based seat in 2022. Two days into the legislative session, Carson texted her to introduce himself — and ask whether she would co-sponsor his push to define antisemitism.

It was no simple legislative fight. The effort to make antisemitism part of Georgia’s hate crimes law has been one of the thorniest battles under the Gold Dome, with critics worried it would curtail free speech rights or censor criticism of Israel.

Pushback helped tank the measure in 2022. But Carson had higher hopes last year when Panitch joined the lobbying effort.

As the only Jewish member of the General Assembly, Panitch isn’t afraid to pick fights with Republicans or fellow Democrats. She’s used to being on the airwaves with a legal portfolio that includes a sex abuse case that rocked the Boy Scouts of America.

But she quickly discovered the rough-and-tumble world of politics has a different rhythm than the courtroom. Carson, a no-frills conservative with a tamer presence on social media, has staked a claim as a quietly effective legislator over seven terms in office.

“I’m used to fighting in the courts. But there are rules in law. There aren’t any in politics,” Panitch said. “The skills I learned from watching John are invaluable. And he was willing to listen to me and let me take the lead on certain issues.

(Left to right) Republican state Rep. John Carson of Marietta, from left, Democratic state Rep. Esther Panitch of Sandy Springs and Georgia House Speaker Jon Burns gathered for a photo after the final passage of a bill making antisemitism part of the state's hate crimes law. (Natrice Miller/ Natrice.miller@ajc.com)

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The two helped muscle the measure through the House last year after a tense and emotional debate, but it stalled in the Senate amid entrenched opposition from critics who rallied at the state Capitol each day.

Opponents of the measure had deep-seated concerns that the changes wouldn’t protect Jewish Georgians from violent acts -- and lead to more vilification of pro-Palestinian organizations and organizers. Among them is state Rep. Ruwa Romman, the first Palestinian-American legislator in Georgia history.

“I want to send a clear message that I think the rise of antisemitism is a very real threat to the Jewish community in Georgia,” said Romman, who represents a Duluth-based district. “But I think this will lull people into a false sense of security at the expense of another minority community.”

Carson and Panitch regrouped, embarking on a listening tour at churches and synagogues throughout the state. At each, Carson told audiences that the measure is an issue that “rises above politics” to him.

“Esther and I probably don’t agree on many other issues. Gun rights. Tax rates. But antisemitism isn’t about a preference. It’s existential to Esther’s community,” Carson said. “This is about safety and security.”

Panitch, meanwhile, entered this legislative session with an important takeaway of her own.

“There’s one Jewish member of the Legislature,” Panitch said. “The Jewish community couldn’t do this without the Christian community’s help. We knew we had to bring in both our communities.”

Now or never?

There were plenty of other twists and turns to get to Wednesday’s ceremony.

Carson and Panitch helped secure early support from House Speaker Jon Burns and Majority Leader Chuck Efstration, and then came a final push from Lt. Gov. Burt Jones and Senate President Pro Tem John Kennedy to clear the Senate.

There was behind-the-scenes maneuvering that led Republican state Sen. Ed Setzler, who once declared the proposal “fatally flawed,” to suddenly abandon his opposition. Advocates including Betsy Kramer and Dov Wilker of the American Jewish Committee kept up the drumbeat.

And it required the backing of Kemp, who was directly lobbied on the fate of the bill last year by Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu during a visit to his Jerusalem office. He said the measure would “protect Georgians from criminal acts, including those based on hate.”

Gov. Brian Kemp, left, faced lobbying from Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to support making antisemitism part of Georgia's hate crimes law when they met in May in the Israeli leader's Jerusalem office. (Israel GPO/Kobi Gideon)

Credit: Israel GPO/Kobi Gideon

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Credit: Israel GPO/Kobi Gideon

But both Carson and Panitch said the single most important factor was the Oct. 7 Hamas attack on Israel and the ground invasion of the Gaza Strip that followed, a still-raging conflict that led to a spike in antisemitic incidents.

“That brought it home to me,” Panitch said. “I knew if we can’t pass this now, it will never be passed.”

A day after the measure passed both chambers, drawing only a handful of “no” votes, the two sat in a quiet conference room on the Capitol’s second floor.

Growing emotional, Carson showed one of the last pictures he took of his mother before she died. A Jewish star and a Christian cross hung on the wall behind her. Panitch told him she would have been proud to see the bill signed into law.

That’s when they were asked whether they thought their bipartisan partnership would continue.

“I hope so,” Carson said.

Panitch paused a beat.

“I hope so, too. Whether we agree or not, John will always be my friend. And he’ll always be a hero to my community.”

State Reps. Esther Panitch, D-Sandy Springs, and John Carson, R-Marietta, come from different backgrounds. She's the only Jewish member of the state Legislature, and he's an evangelical Christian. But they came together when he asked her to work with him on a bill to make antisemitism part of the state's hate crimes law. "He’ll always be a hero to my community," Panitch said. Miguel Martinez /miguel.martinezjimenez@ajc.com

Credit: Miguel Martinez

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Credit: Miguel Martinez