A sharp contrast over Israel in Georgia House exposes political divisions

 Israeli tanks on a field as they prepare to move towards the Gaza Strip, outside Erez, Israel, on Sunday, Oct. 15, 2023. (Sergey Ponomarev/The New York Times)

Credit: NYT

Combined ShapeCaption
Israeli tanks on a field as they prepare to move towards the Gaza Strip, outside Erez, Israel, on Sunday, Oct. 15, 2023. (Sergey Ponomarev/The New York Times)

Credit: NYT

Dueling statements from Georgia House lawmakers over the escalating violence in Israel expose political divisions at the state Capitol over the Hamas terror attack and the retaliatory strikes on Gaza that followed.

The letters released Monday from Georgia House Democrats and Georgia House Republicans both unequivocally condemned the surprise attacks last week by Hamas, which killed more than 1,300 Israelis and put Israel on the brink of invading Gaza.

But the letters diverged sharply from there. The Republican statement detailed the “barbaric slaughter” against civilians and endorsed Israel’s “right to self-defense by fighting back against the Hamas terrorists who seek the eradication of the Jewish people.”

“As legislative leaders, it is our duty to call out hatred when we see it, both from Hamas and from those who misguidedly support them,” read the House GOP letter.

“We cannot stand silent or turn a blind eye to this evil. We must stand united with our Jewish friends, neighbors, and colleagues to reject Hamas and the terror they seek to perpetuate.”

The Democratic statement specifically expressed concern for Palestinians, too, after waves of Israeli airstrikes and a blockade put Gaza into a worsening humanitarian crisis.

It said the party stands “united with Israelis and Palestinians and their right to safety, self-determination and peaceful coexistence” and denounced efforts to “fan the flames of antisemitism and Islamophobia.”

Credit: John Spink

Credit: John Spink

“As state legislators who serve Jewish and Muslim constituencies, we stand together against hatred and violence targeted against any of our diverse communities who have made Georgia their home,” read the Democratic statement. “We are here for anyone impacted in this difficult time.”

Only one lawmaker in the chamber signed onto both statements: State Rep. Esther Panitch, a Sandy Springs Democrat who is the sole Jewish member of the state Legislature. House GOP officials say other House Democrats declined to endorse their letter.

A political divide

The surprise attack took place last week when Hamas militants raided several villages near Gaza, lobbed hundreds of rockets across Israel and overran military bases, taking at least 150 hostages.

President Joe Biden and other Democratic leaders have decried the attacks as an act of terrorism and vouched for Israel’s right to defend itself, and leaders in Georgia from both parties have issued messages of support.

Gov. Brian Kemp has also instructed the state treasurer to buy an additional $10 million in Israel bonds in a show of unity, and Senate GOP leaders say they could seek new restrictions on state contractors with ties to Iran, a sworn enemy of Israel.

Credit: arvin.temkar@ajc.com

Credit: arvin.temkar@ajc.com

There’s a deeper divide among left-leaning activists. Some blame Israel for the attacks, which they say are rooted in the economic and security restrictions imposed on Gaza. And some recent polls indicate that younger, more liberal voters are more likely to sympathize with Palestinians over Israelis.

The House Democratic caucus reflects the tensions within the party. The only Jewish member of the Georgia Legislature is in the caucus. So is the first Palestinian-American elected official in state history, Ruwa Romman, who is one of several Muslim members of the chamber.

Notably, while the House Republican letter focused on condemning terrorism and supporting Israel, the Democratic statement called for the “protection of Palestinian civilians along with Israeli and American hostages” in Gaza.

House Minority Leader James Beverly said the Democratic response tried to reflect the chamber’s diversity — and that the language had to receive the “unanimous agreement of our Jewish and Muslim members, along with our leadership team.”

“Their collaboration is a testament to our belief that diversity is our strength, and inclusive unity is our superpower,” he said. “Together, we are better, as we move forward.”

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