Georgia antisemitism bill wins final approval amid Israel-Hamas war

Bill extends protections to Jewish people under hate crimes law
Members of the Jewish community and supporters hold signs during an antisemitism press conference at the Georgia State Capitol on Wednesday, February 22, 2023. (Natrice Miller/

Credit: Natrice Miller/AJC

Credit: Natrice Miller/AJC

Members of the Jewish community and supporters hold signs during an antisemitism press conference at the Georgia State Capitol on Wednesday, February 22, 2023. (Natrice Miller/

The Georgia General Assembly overwhelmingly passed a bill Thursday that defines antisemitism as part of the state’s hate crimes law, giving its final approval over opposition from those who say it could limit criticism of Israel.

Votes by the state Senate and House sent the bill to Gov. Brian Kemp, who said he plans to sign it into law. The Senate passed the measure 44-6, followed by a quick 129-5 vote in the House.

Lawmakers prioritized the antisemitism bill in the wake of the Israel-Hamas war that began Oct. 7, saying Jewish people need greater protections from crimes motivated by bigotry.

“Antisemitism was already at a record high before Oct. 7, and it just skyrocketed afterward,” said state Rep. Esther Panitch, a Democrat from Sandy Springs and the only Jewish legislator in Georgia. “It’s a recognition and a relief that we’ve been heard by the entire state.”

Even before the Israel-Hamas war, hate groups repeatedly distributed fliers smearing Jewish people in Atlanta-area neighborhoods.

Credit: Natrice Miller/AJC

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Credit: Natrice Miller/AJC

Jewish residents told lawmakers about an increase in antisemitic incidents, including a group that hung a Jew in effigy outside a Macon synagogue last summer.

“It is time: Let the voice of Georgia be heard that antisemitism is condemned and rejected,” said state Senate President Pro Tem John Kennedy, a Republican from Macon.

Opponents of the legislation, House Bill 30, objected to its reliance on a definition of antisemitism from the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance that includes examples of when speech against Israel amounts to attacks against Jewish people, such as claiming that the existence of Israel is a racist endeavor.

“This bill has been dubbed the antisemitism bill, but in reality, it’s the anti-speech bill,” said state Sen. Nikki Merritt, a Democrat from Grayson who voted against the measure. “It does nothing to protect Georgians from antisemitism. It instead imposes sanctions on those who speak out about the actions of the Israeli government.”

Credit: Natrice Miller/AJC

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Credit: Natrice Miller/AJC

The legislation would include antisemitism in the state’s existing hate crimes law, which allows harsher criminal penalties against those convicted of certain crimes, such as assault, if they targeted victims on the basis of race, gender, sexual orientation, sex, national origin, religion, or physical or mental disability. The measure could also apply to discrimination cases in colleges and government agencies.

Under the bill, antisemitic speech would continue to be protected by the First Amendment. But a judge could impose additional penalties under the state’s hate crimes act if an underlying crime is found to be motivated by antisemitism.

Hate crimes come with an additional six to 12 months of incarceration for misdemeanors and at least two years for felonies.

“It’s a huge win for the Jewish community,” Dov Wilker, regional director of the American Jewish Committee Atlanta, said after the vote. “This legislation demonstrates the Jewish community is being seen, is being heard and that we can move forward in helping to guide the state should an incident of antisemitism take place.”

House Speaker Jon Burns urged lawmakers to move quickly to pass the bill after it fell short during last year’s legislative session following disagreements over how to define antisemitism.

The bill rapidly moved through the legislative process this year, reaching final votes on the ninth day of the session.

“We showed the world what we stand for,” said Burns, a Republican from Newington. “Hate will not exist and will not be tolerated in Georgia, to any group, especially our Jewish friends.”

State Rep. Ruwa Romman, one of four Muslims in the General Assembly, said the bill will do more harm than good.

“It’s so important that we do everything we can to protect Jewish Georgians from hate and violence. The reality is, I am all too familiar with death threats and harassment,” said Romman, a Democrat from Duluth. “However, HB 30 simply does not address the current threats to the Jewish community.”

The bill that passed Thursday wouldn’t prohibit the kind of antisemitic fliers distributed in the driveways of Jewish neighborhoods. A separate pending measure, Senate Bill 359, targets littering and harassing communications.

Georgia lacked a hate crimes law until 2020 when the General Assembly passed a bill that included protections for victims targeted for their religion but didn’t specify antisemitism. The legislation that passed Thursday includes examples of antisemitism and defines it, in part, as expressions of hatred toward Jewish people, communities and religious facilities.

Senator Minority Leader Gloria Butler, a Democrat from Stone Mountain, said the bill shows that legislators are committed to fighting against all forms of discrimination.

“Antisemitism, often called the world’s oldest hatred, has plagued human history for centuries. This awful virus of prejudice and hatred has affected nearly every country on earth,” Butler said. “No human being deserves this treatment: not a Jewish person, not a Muslim, not a Christian, not anybody.”

It’s unclear when Kemp will sign HB 30 into law. The Georgia Supreme Court struck down Georgia’s original hate crimes law in 2004 for being “unconstitutionally vague” before legislators passed a new version four years ago.

“Thanks to the General Assembly’s careful deliberation and passage, I will soon be able to sign this important piece of legislation that builds on our commitment to protect Georgians from criminal acts, including those based on hate,” Kemp said.

The International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance’s definition of antisemitism

Part of the debate over legislation that would make antisemitism part of Georgia’s hate crimes law is its reliance on a definition provided by the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance. The definition itself is two sentences, but it’s accompanied by 11 examples of antisemitism, six of which mention Israel. Here’s the definition:

“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.”