Antisemitism bill falls short at Georgia General Assembly

Protections for Jewish people never called for a vote before Legislature adjourns

Credit: Natrice Miller/AJC

Credit: Natrice Miller/AJC

A bill that would have made antisemitism part of Georgia’s hate crimes law failed early Thursday morning without receiving final votes before the General Assembly adjourned for the year.

Opponents of the legislation said it could have limited speech against Israel, though backers of the proposal said it would have only applied when Jewish people were targeted by crimes or discrimination.

The bill didn’t pass because state Senate leaders never called for a vote on the last day of the annual legislative session.

The measure, House Bill 144, would have defined antisemitism and made it a part of Georgia’s hate crimes law, allowing 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.

Credit: TNS

Credit: TNS

Members of Muslim, Jewish and civil rights organizations who were critical of the bill said it could have been used to curtail freedom of speech on university campuses.

The bill would have adopted into state law the definition of antisemitism used by the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance, which says antisemitism includes “claiming that the existence of the state of Israel is a racist endeavor.”

“Let’s be very clear: Antisemitism is a very real problem,” said Murtaza Khwaja, executive director for the Georgia chapter of the Council on American-Islamic Relations. “However, HB 144 is not the way to do it. What this bill does is conflate antisemitism with critiques of the state of Israel.”

Supporters of the measure say free speech concerns are misplaced.

Under the legislation, antisemitic actions would have been considered as evidence of intent after a crime or illegal act of discrimination has occurred, and speech against Israel or Jewish people wouldn’t be limited otherwise, they said.

“I’m disappointed that Jews under assault weren’t a priority,” said state Rep. Esther Panitch, a Democrat from Sandy Springs and Georgia’s only Jewish legislator. “But I’m not going anywhere and am more determined than ever.”

The definition that would have been 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.

Credit: Natrice Miller/AJC

Credit: Natrice Miller/AJC

Renee Alnoubani, incoming president for the Georgia Tech Muslim Students Association, said the group is already being labeled as antisemitic for holding events about human rights violations against the Palestinian people.

“It just shows how much pushback we’re getting. We didn’t commit any hate crimes. We didn’t act violently in any way,” Alnoubani said. “If this is the reaction that we’re gonna get from people at Georgia Tech, it’s unfair to us and it makes it increasingly more difficult for us to continue our advocacy.”

Though Georgia’s existing hate crimes law includes crimes arising from racial and religious bias, it doesn’t necessarily cover nonreligious attacks against Jewish people, including the usage of symbols such as swastikas.

Jewish advocates for the bill say it took on greater importance after antisemitic flyers were thrown onto their driveways last month in Dunwoody and Sandy Springs, and a new report by the Anti-Defamation League found that antisemitic incidents increased 63% in Georgia last year.

The legislation wouldn’t have made antisemitic flyers or swastikas illegal, but actions that target Jewish people could have been used in court as evidence of a motive when prosecuting crimes.

The bill could be debated again when the General Assembly convenes again in January.

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.”