A bill to combat antisemitism faltered in the Georgia Senate this week as Jewish people have recently been targeted by flyers thrown onto metro Atlanta driveways and by shootings elsewhere in the country.
State senators decided against moving forward with the bill because of disagreements over how to define antisemitism and concerns about freedom of speech. Little time is left to revive the proposal before this year’s legislative session ends March 29.
The bill defines 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. House Bill 30 would add antisemitism as evidence of discriminatory intent under the hate crimes law.
“There’s a hole in the Georgia hate crimes statute,” said state Rep. Esther Panitch, a Democrat from Sandy Springs and the only Jewish legislator in the General Assembly. “The Nazis targeted Jews and killed so many of us, but somebody who does a swastika can say, ‘I wasn’t targeting them, I was targeting something political.’ We’re trying to plug this hole by defining antisemitism.”
But a majority of the Senate Judiciary Committee — three Democrats and two Republicans — voted to amend the bill Monday so it would no longer adopt into state law a definition by the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance. The bill passed the state House 136-22 earlier this month.
The alliance’s definition 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 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.”
The amendment by state Rep. Ed Setzler, a Republican from Acworth, removed a reference to the alliance from the bill and changed “a certain perception of Jews” to “a negative perception of Jews.”
The altered language would exclude antisemitic remarks that aren’t necessarily negative, such as saying “Jews are rich,” which can still lead to violence against them, Panitch said. The bill’s sponsor, Republican state Rep. John Carson of Marietta, asked the committee to table the bill after its language deviated from the accepted definition used by several other states and the federal government.
Setzler said his proposed definition of antisemitism would be clearer in Georgia law without mentioning the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance.
Opponents of the bill said they’re worried it would hinder freedom of speech to argue against Israel during its conflicts with Palestinians.
“It works as a tool of censorship that falsely conflates attempts to hold the Israeli government accountable with antisemitism,” said Peyton Hayes of the University of Georgia chapter of Students for Justice in Palestine. “Do not respond to this terrible, terrible rise in antisemitism by victimizing Palestinian advocacy.”
The bill’s defenders say they want to protect Jewish people, not the nation of Israel.
“Anyone can protest and yell and criticize and demonstrate and speak and scream anything they want about Israel or Jews. This bill will not stop them unless they’re planning to commit a hate crime,” said Mark Goldfeder, an attorney for the American Center for Law and Justice. “It protects Jews here from antisemites, including those who would use Israel as an excuse to attack Jews.”
Antisemitic propaganda has been increasing in Georgia, including incidents such as flyers distributed last month in predominantly Jewish neighborhoods in Sandy Springs and Dunwoody, according to the researchers for the Anti-Defamation League.
Jewish people have also faced violence during the February shootings of two Jewish men after they left synagogues in Los Angeles and the 2018 killings of 11 people at the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh.
Several states have identified bills that reflect the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance’s definition of antisemitism, including Arizona, Arkansas, Iowa and Tennessee, Carson said.
While the Georgia antisemitism bill is stalled, Carson and Panitch say they hope it can be reconsidered before this year’s legislative session ends. If not, it could be debated again next year.
The International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance 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.”
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