Signs are shown on display outside the Chesed Shel Emeth Cemetery on February 22, 2017 in University City, Missouri after vandalism at the cemetery. The Georgia Legislature considered a bill defining antisemitism in state code, but the bill failed over concerns about free speech and the right to criticize Israel. Michael Thomas/Getty Images
It seemed for a time that 2023 could be the year the Georgia Legislature passed a bill defining antisemitism in state law, but familiar fault lines prevented the effort from crossing the finish line.
“This session has ended and this fight continues….into the next one,” the bill’s sponsor, Marietta Republican John Carson, said in a tweet. “We made great progress with this bill this year. Next year, we’ll bring it in for the win!”
Lawmakers united in support of the state’s Jewish population in February after a string of strange and hateful antisemitic flyers showed up in Jewish metro Atlanta neighborhoods. Similar leaflets have since rattled residents in other parts of the state.
An ADL report published in January found antisemitic attitudes in the U.S. are “widespread and likely increasing.”
Researchers found 85% of Americans agree with at least one anti-Jewish trope, up from 61% in 2019. They found 20% believe six or more anti-Jewish tropes, nearly double the 11% found in 2019.
Carson’s House Bill 30, which passed the House but became tangled up in the Senate, would have codified a definition for antisemitism adopted by the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance, and the bill called on state agencies to use that definition as evidence for discriminatory intent in things like housing or employment discrimination, as well as under the state’s 2020 hate crimes law.
Georgia’s hate crime statute covers acts targeting someone because of the victim’s religion, but proponents argued the definition would expand the law’s reach to attacks involving symbols such as a swastika.
But parts of the definition did not sit well with some lawmakers, including Acworth Republican Sen. Ed Setzler. The alliance includes examples of criticism of Israel that it says veer into antisemitism, some of which gave Setzler pause. The nation’s treatment of Palestinians, in particular, has sparked criticism from groups like Amnesty International.
Free speech advocates say policing speech around a matter of international policy amounts to stifling freedom of expression. Those concerns led to some tense exchanges in the just-ended legislative session and ultimately to the bill stalling this year.
“If one believes that the state of Israel is a racist endeavor, if they believe that earnestly and they express that, then they have satisfied the element of antisemitism,” Setzler said at a committee meeting.
Rep. Esther Panitch, a cosponsor and Sandy Springs Democrats, said that point is moot unless the person commits an underlying crime.
“No, because there has to be an unlawful act or unlawful discrimination first before we would even look,” said Panitch, the only currently serving Jewish member of the state Legislature and a recipient of antisemitic flyers.
“But the element or the presence of antisemitism exists,” Setzler said. “Now, the hate crime doesn’t happen unless there’s a crime.”
“So if that gentleman attacked me because I’m Jewish, because he’s mad about what happened to his family back then and takes it out on me because I’m Jewish, that’s a hate crime,” said Panitch.
“Right, but we’re not debating hate crimes,” Setzler said. “What we’re debating today is antisemitism, the element of discrimination which is antisemitism exists. If this gentleman expresses in black and white, ‘The existence of the state of Israel is a racist endeavor,’ if he believes earnestly that the existence of the state of Israel is a racist endeavor, he has satisfied the definition of antisemitism, right? He’s not committed a hate crime because he hasn’t committed a crime. But the definition of antisemitism has been satisfied by him expressing that belief.”
“It wouldn’t come up,” said Panitch.
Setzler expressed unease with a law painting someone as antisemitic for political speech and suggested an amendment removing the alliance’s examples and rewording its definition of antisemitism from “a certain perception of Jews” to “a negative perception of Jews.”
The committee passed Setzler’s amendment, which Carson and Panitch did not support.
Carson said the amendment would put Georgia out of step with other entities, including at least six other states and federal agencies like the U.S. Department of State, that use the alliance’s definition. Panitch said changing the wording ignores that Jews often face hatred based on stereotypes that may not be described as negative, such as beliefs that they are wealthy and powerful.
Stuck in an impasse, the bill appeared doomed until it was grafted without Setzler’s amendment onto House Bill 144, another piece of legislation originally dealing with rights for adults with legal guardians.
That bill made it through a different committee, but never received a vote in the Senate before the clock expired on this year’s session.
Panitch vowed that the battle will continue.
“If you think I won’t keep fighting for the Jewish community, you haven’t met me,” she said in a tweet. “And those who fought against this bill, don’t you dare tell me how sorry you are about antisemitism. You are the problem.”
The bill will be in play when the Legislature resumes next January, and supporters like Aaron Gaan hope it will pass.
Gaan said he faced such extreme antisemitic bullying at his Fulton County school that he considered ending his life. The young man said he was faced with constant hateful harassment and vandalism, but the school administration did nothing to stop it for over a year.
“The graffiti appeared on a near weekly basis, and it got so bad to the point where I contemplated suicide,” Gaan said. “I was only 13 at the time, and ever since I have been in therapy. If there was a definition, there would have been no doubt as to whether or not the graffiti I was finding was antisemitic. It could have ended in one day, not 18 months.”
Detractors say they hope any legislation defining antisemitism leaves out language regarding critique of Israel.
“Let’s be very clear, antisemitism is a very real problem,” said Murtaza Khwaja, director of the Georgia chapter of the Council on American Islamic Relations at a recent press conference. “It deserves our attention, and it deserves to be addressed. However, (House Bill 144) is not the way to do it. What this bill does is conflate antisemitism with critique of the state of Israel.”
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