First Amendment

After Setbacks, Bill To Define Antisemitism in State Law Is Advancing in Georgia

Georgia State Capitol in Atlanta, Georgia
The Georgia State Capitol, in Atlanta, Georgia. (WikiCommons)

By The Associated Press

ATLANTA (AP) — A bill to define antisemitism in Georgia law stalled in 2023 over how it should be worded. But a revised version won unanimous endorsement from a key Senate committee Monday, backed by Republican support for Israel in its war with Hamas and a surge in reported bias incidents against Jewish people in the state.

“I think the whole world saw what happened on Oct. 7 and the fallout to Jewish communities around the world,” said Democratic state Rep. Esther Panitch of Sandy Springs, the only Jewish member of Georgia’s legislature. She is a co-sponsor of the measure that won the support of the Senate Judiciary Committee.

But fears of opponents who say House Bill 30 would be used as a shield to block criticism of Israeli war crimes against Palestinians are stronger than ever, showing how what was already a fraught topic in early 2023 has become downright raw with the Israel-Hamas war. Some protesters chanting “Free Free Palestine!” were dragged from the committee room by police officers after the vote. Other opposition witnesses told lawmakers they were privileging political support for Israel.

“What it does do is weaponize attacks and hatred against my community and to silence Palestinian and Muslim Georgians, making threats against me somehow more important than threats against my own neighbors and implying that my safety can only come at their expense,” said Marissa Pyle, who said she is Jewish. “Making other people less safe does not help me.”

The bill already passed the House last year and Monday’s vote signals the measure is likely to pass the state Senate and be signed into law by Gov. Brian Kemp. The Republican governor has previously said he supports the measure.

The committee also advanced Senate Bill 359 on a split vote. The measure attempts to target the distribution of antisemitic flyers in residential neighborhoods by adding littering, illegal sign placement, loitering, misdemeanor terroristic threats, disorderly conduct and harassing communications to the list of crimes that draw enhanced sentences under Georgia’s hate crimes law. The law would also make any two crimes subject to Georgia’s hate crimes law eligible for prosecution under the state’s expansive anti-racketeering statute.

In at least eight states nationwide, lawmakers are working on measures to define antisemitism, part of an upsurge of legislation motivated in part by the Israel-Hamas war. Arkansas passed such a law last year, and like in Georgia, a South Carolina measure passed one chamber in 2023. New bills are pending this year in Indiana, Florida, Massachusetts, New Jersey and South Dakota.

Sponsors say a definition would help prosecutors and other officials identify hate crimes and illegal discrimination targeting Jewish people. But some critics warn it would limit free speech, especially in criticizing the actions of Israel. Others don’t oppose a law, but object to the measure defining antisemitism by referring to a definition adopted by the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance.

“When can we anticipate the legislature moving forward on a bill that addresses Islamophobia?” said Asim Javed of the Georgia Muslim Voter Project. Javed added that the bill “stifles our First Amendment rights by censoring any criticisms of Israel.”

But the warnings of free speech harms by the opponents were met by personal stories of harms suffered by the supporters, including Rabbi Elizabeth Baher of Macon’s Temple Beth Israel. She recounted how an antisemitic group hung a Jew in effigy outside the synagogue as worshipers were arriving for services in June.

“We the people of Georgia stand united against bigotry and discrimination. Our diverse tapestry is woven with threads of resilience, understanding and mutual respect,” Baher said.

Also among those who testified was David Lubin. He’s the father of Rose Lubin, who grew up in suburban Atlanta but moved to Israel, becoming a staff sergeant in the Israeli army before she was stabbed to death in Jerusalem on Nov. 6. Lubin said that when her daughter was a student at suburban Atlanta’s Dunwoody High School, she reported a student making antisemitic remarks and making “Heil Hitler” salutes.

“We need laws in place to deter the threat and convict those who commit the actions of hatred,” David Lubin said.