Georgia senators rescued a bill Thursday that would include antisemitism as part of the state’s hate crimes law, passing the measure through a different committee with a new bill number after it previously stalled.
The Senate Children and Families Committee approved House Bill 144 on a 6-2 vote, putting it on track for final votes in the House and Senate before this year’s legislative session ends Wednesday.
Lt. Gov. Burt Jones and Republican Senate leaders orchestrated the bill’s comeback after other senators tabled it earlier this week following disputes about how to define antisemitism.
Senators prioritized the bill because Jones believed it was “an issue of public importance,” said state Sen. Kay Kirkpatrick, a Republican from Marietta and the committee’s chairwoman.
“Threats and attacks against Jewish children and families in all of our districts can’t be tolerated in Georgia,” Kirkpatrick said.
The bill would define antisemitism so that it would be included under Georgia’s hate crimes law, which allows harsher criminal penalties against those who target victims on the basis of race, gender, sexual orientation, sex, national origin, religion, or physical or mental disability.
HB 144 is similar to the previous antisemitism legislation, House Bill 30, which would adopt into state law the definition from the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance. The new bill makes reference to an executive order then-President Donald Trump issued in 2019 that incorporated the alliance’s definition.
Opponents of the legislation, especially university students sympathetic to Palestinians, said using the alliance’s definition of antisemitism in state law could be used to curtail freedom of speech against Israel on campuses.
“The claim is made that the purpose of the bill is to protect the Jewish people from hate crimes, but it will only increase hostility and violence toward those who advocate for Palestinians,” said Fatima Chaudhry, president of Georgia Tech’s Muslim Student Association. “If you were to equate criticism of a state to the racist persecution of a people, that is a dangerous boundary that you are crossing.”
But supporters of the bill said antisemitic actions would be considered as evidence of intent under the state’s hate crimes law, and speech against Israel or Jewish people wouldn’t be limited.
The definition that would be adopted into state law calls antisemitism “a certain perception of Jews, which may be expressed as hatred toward Jews” that is directed at individuals, institutions or religious facilities.
The International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance’s website says antisemitism can include targeting of the state of Israel as a Jewish collectivity, but “criticism of Israel similar to that leveled against any other country cannot be regarded as antisemitic.”
Lawmakers can rewrite bills at a moment’s notice, and especially do so in the last days of the annual legislative session as a way to advance proposals that had previously been blocked. Before senators amended HB 144 to cover protections against antisemitism, the bill would have strengthened the rights of people under the guardianship of an adult.
Jewish advocates for the bill say it has taken on greater importance after antisemitic flyers were thrown onto their driveways in Dunwoody and Sandy Springs last month. Jewish people have faced violence across the country, including shootings in Los Angeles last month and at the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh in 2018, when 11 people were killed.
Antisemitic incidents increased 36% across the country and 63% in Georgia last year, according to an annual report released Thursday by the Anti-Defamation League.
Beth Gann testified that her 13-year-old son was victimized at a Fulton County school several years ago by other students who drew swastikas and wrote “kill the Jews” in a bathroom. School administrators told her the swastika was actually a peace symbol, she said.
“The school was afraid to act. The police could not act. And if there was a definition of antisemitism, there would not have been a question of what this was and how to act,” Gann said.
The committee vote to approve the bill was supported by five Republicans and one Democrat, while two Democrats opposed the legislation.
The bill could come to a vote in the full state Senate next week. The state House approved the earlier version of the legislation on a 136-22 vote.
The International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance’s definition of antisemitism:
“Antisemitism is a certain perception of Jews, which may be expressed as hatred toward Jews. Rhetorical and physical manifestations of antisemitism are directed toward Jewish or non-Jewish individuals and/or their property, toward Jewish community institutions and religious facilities.”