Why an antisemitism measure in Georgia faces an uncertain future

‘We’ve just got to get that bill passed,’ one supporter says
Democratic state Rep. Esther Panitch, the only Jewish member of the state Legislature, is the author of legislation that would make antisemitism a hate crime, Panitch, who was recently targeted by antisemitic flyers that drew national attention to the measure, said antisemitic incidents have spiked since the deadly Hamas attack on Israel on Oct. 7 and the ground invasion of the Gaza Strip that followed. Panitch's bill won passage earlier this year in the state House, but it stalled in the Senate.

Democratic state Rep. Esther Panitch, the only Jewish member of the state Legislature, is the author of legislation that would make antisemitism a hate crime, Panitch, who was recently targeted by antisemitic flyers that drew national attention to the measure, said antisemitic incidents have spiked since the deadly Hamas attack on Israel on Oct. 7 and the ground invasion of the Gaza Strip that followed. Panitch's bill won passage earlier this year in the state House, but it stalled in the Senate.

The Georgia-Israel caucus met in a cramped Capitol conference room to hear from a delegation of Arab Muslims who spoke about the dangers of anti-Israel sentiment in the Middle East.

But the lunch-and-learn session Wednesday morphed into a clash between lawmakers over a stalled effort to make antisemitism a hate crime in Georgia.

The exchange illustrated why the legislation faces an uncertain future despite support by powerful politicians, Jewish leaders and a broad cross section of state lawmakers who voted in the Georgia House to approve the bill earlier this year.

It never reached a vote in the Senate, where it is opposed by state Sen. Ed Setzler and his Republican allies.

While some opponents say the measure would censor criticism of Israel, Setzler’s objection has more to do with the structure of the law and its use of a definition of antisemitism crafted by the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance that he views as too broad.

So heads turned when Setzler, an Acworth Republican, slipped into the caucus meeting on the second floor of the Statehouse and quietly joined the dozens of lawmakers snacking on pita bread meals as they listened to the delegation.

State Sen. Ed Setzler, R-Acworth, has opposed passage of a bill that would make antisemitism a hate crime in Georgia over the legislations use of a definition for the term provided by the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance that he calls "fatally flawed." (Jason Getz/Jason.Getz@ajc.com)

Credit: Jason Getz/AJC

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Credit: Jason Getz/AJC

For much of the caucus meeting, the focus was on the delegation, which features Muslims in support of the Abraham Accords, a diplomatic deal between Israel and four Arab states.

As the program wound down, lawmakers peppered each of the visitors with questions about how they can help fight antisemitism. It wasn’t long before Republican state Rep. Brent Cox, a supporter of the legislation, vented about the Senate’s refusal to bring it for a vote.

“We’ve got to move the needle. This is low-hanging fruit,” said Cox, a first-term lawmaker from Dawsonville unaccustomed to the slow grind of the Legislature.

On a recent trip to Israel, he said, local officials frequently pressed him about the status of the measure. That mirrors the experience of Gov. Brian Kemp, who faced questions during a visit to Israel in May from Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu about why it hadn’t yet become law.

“We need to find way to work together — that’s important,” Cox said. “But we’ve just got to get that bill passed.”

All eyes shifted to Setzler, who said he remained opposed to using a “fatally flawed” definition. An attorney recently warned him the legislation would be meaningless if it’s not substantially overhauled, he added.

“The language has to be exactly right. It’s kind of like taking a piece of metal that’s not good metal that never gets sharp because it’s flawed from the beginning,” said Setzler, who is not an attorney. “We need solid legal language.”

Almost immediately, Democratic state Rep. Esther Panitch spoke up. The only Jewish member of the state Legislature, she’s an author of the legislation — and was recently targeted by antisemitic flyers that drew national attention to the effort.

“With all due respect, we disagree on that,” Panitch said. “As an actual lawyer, and having talked to prosecutors, they agree with the language in the current bill.”

Parent Beth Gann, speaking in March in favor of legislation that would make antisemitism a hate crime legislation, holds a photo of a swastika that was painted on a wall as an act of vandalism. (Arvin Temkar / arvin.temkar@ajc.com)

Credit: arvin.temkar@ajc.com

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Credit: arvin.temkar@ajc.com

The need for the legislation, she said, has only grown amid a spike in antisemitic incidents after the deadly Oct. 7 Hamas attack on Israel and the ground invasion of the Gaza Strip that followed.

“This definition has survived scrutiny throughout the United States,” she said, noting that 30 other states have adopted similar language. “This is the appropriate definition.”

Setzler shrugged. “Humbly, I think you’re starting with the wrong words,” he said.

As the room cleared, Setzler was asked whether he sees a path forward. It still faces fierce pushback from Democratic opponents, but he said he represents a broader group of Republicans who have issues with the measure.

There will be increasing pressure to pass the measure in 2024. Lt. Gov. Burt Jones on Wednesday said it’s one of his priorities next year, and as leader of the Senate he can circumvent Setzler. Kemp could add his voice to the effort, too.

Setzler said he’s willing to compromise.

“This issue all comes down to legislators being able to wrestle with the legal details to get this right,” Setzler said. “We get the details right and everyone is singing ’Kumbaya.’ ”

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