Breaking bread with Georgia’s only Jewish lawmaker

For freshman Georgia Rep. Esther Panitch, this year’s legislative session began with a little culinary whiplash.

On a Friday night in early January, the Democrat hosted more than 30 of her fellow congressmen for Shabbat services and dinner at her suburban Atlanta synagogue. Most of them had never been to a Shabbat meal, let alone a Jewish prayer service. They ate challah and fried chicken and listened to a sermon from the rabbi.

Two days later, Panitch and her colleagues broke bread together again, but at a decidedly less kosher feast. Each year the Legislature begins with the Wild Hog Supper, a Statehouse tradition that benefits a local food bank.

“I didn’t partake in the pork,” Panitch said, “but there were plenty of vegetarian sides.”

The Sandy Springs attorney was keen to introduce her religion to her new colleagues because she believes state leaders should see and experience Jewish life and rituals so they can better protect the rights of minorities. It’s a duty she sees as crucial to her role as a civil servant, because the driving force behind Panitch’s decision to run for office in 2022 was her realization that Georgia’s 256-seat General Assembly had no other Jewish members that year would have if a former Jewish member retired. (The Republican whom Panitch defeated is also Jewish.)

“I was kind of hoping someone else would put their name down that qualifies,” Panitch, 51, told Jewish Insider on Wednesday. “It wasn’t part of a long-term plan. I just walked with it. But I saw the need and nobody was willing to stand up. So my goal is to help recruit people so we don’t get caught like that again.” (US Senator Jon Ossoff, a Democrat, is also Jewish.)

Her interest in a Jewish voice in the legislature stems from what she sees as a lack of knowledge of minority cultures among some public figures.

“It shocks me how little people know about other minorities. I mean I get it. It is not taught. So someone has to let her know,” Panitch said.

At this Shabbat dinner, she simply focused on getting to know her future colleagues. She hasn’t approached them about legislation or politics yet – only to share the traditions she and her family follow each week.

“We begin each session with prayer, which sometimes troubles me as someone who grew up with the separation of church and state. But you have to meet people where they are,” Panitch said. “We’ve built up a lot of goodwill.” (Another reason Panitch wanted Jewish representation in the General Assembly was to show that Jewish interpretations of “religious freedom” may be different than what non-Jews expect: “I have with Republicans, and most of them claim they have no idea that in some cases, Judaism requires abortion as health care,” she pointed out.)

She had hoped to host the Shabbat meal in her home, but quickly realized that doing so would not serve her goal of reaching as many lawmakers as possible. She’s already thinking about a bigger venue for next year.

“I think in many parts of the country, people on opposite sides of the political aisle have fewer and fewer opportunities to interact with one another and see one another as human beings,” said Rabbi Joshua Heller, the chief rabbi of the B’nai Torah Congregation, a conservative congregation in Sandy Springs. “Breaking bread, breaking challah, with people you disagree with is a powerful thing.”

A month later, Panitch stood on the floor of the House of Representatives, surrounded by a bipartisan mix of lawmakers, including some from the Shabbat dinner. She had gone outside one morning this week to find hateful anti-Semitic leaflets on her doorstep. The pamphlet appeared after Panitch introduced a bill that would create a state definition of antisemitism. (She called this a “strange coincidence” rather than a deliberate incident, noting that the flyers had already been distributed in nearby areas.)

“Unfortunately, this isn’t the first time that a Jew in the United States has felt fear,” Panitch said.

Growing up in a heavily Jewish part of Miami, she first encountered anti-Semitism at a debate camp. Panitch and a friend were talking about something Jewish when another girl approached them and gave them a funny look. She stared at their heads.

“We’re putting our horns away,” Panitch’s friend joked to the other girl – alluding to a myth that Jews have horns. The girl replied, “You did a good job.”

“It wasn’t malicious. She simply had never met a Jew before. It was something she had heard, and she had no reason not to believe it,” Panitch recalled. Driving from Florida to Massachusetts one summer to go to Camp Ramah, she drove through rural areas that still had a few signs that said, “No Blacks. No Jews.” Decades later, when Panitch’s daughter joined a Jewish fraternity at the University of Georgia, swastikas were painted outside her dormitory.

“[Panitch’s] As a Jew, being willing to speak publicly about your own encounters with antisemitism has helped many other lawmakers understand the issue from a very human and relatable perspective,” said Rep. John Carson, a state representative from the Atlanta, JI suburbs in an email on Wednesday.

Carson, a Republican, first introduced a bill last year that would seek to adopt a statewide definition of antisemitism, but it didn’t make it to the governor’s desk.

“He has deep faith and believes part of his job is to protect the Jewish people,” Panitch said. They are now two of the main sponsors of this year’s version of the law, which would adopt the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance’s working definition of antisemitism.

“To tackle the problem of anti-Semitism, we must start by clearly defining it,” Carson said. “This law ensures that the relevant state authorities consider the world’s most accepted definition of anti-Semitism.” It does not carry criminal penalties or amend the law; Instead, it is intended as a guide for government agencies and prosecutors in determining whether a hate crime has been committed.

The bill was rejected by some far-left groups, including the Jewish Voice for Peace and the Council on American-Islamic Relations, who question the IHRA definition’s claim that anti-Zionism can be a form of anti-Semitism. They argue that the law would punish pro-Palestinian activists and critics of Israel.

Panitch called her arguments “misinformation” and noted that the law will not even criminalize anti-Semitic speech. She pointed out that the anti-Semitic leaflets dropped in front of her home did not constitute criminal activity.

“I hope we try to address this misinformation and I hope lawmakers see them for what they are. Nobody should hide actual anti-Semitism under the pretense of anti-Israeli behavior,” she noted. For Panitch, anti-Zionism sometimes rises to the level of anti-Semitism, and she hopes to make that clear in Georgian law: “One has to be able to define anti-Semitism, both ancient with conspiracy theories and contemporary, which sometimes includes ‘ anti-Israel behavior.”

The bill passed the House Judiciary Committee and is currently awaiting consideration by the Rules Committee. If it doesn’t continue by next week, it’s dead this year.

“Right now everything is controlled by the Republicans, and I’m a newly minted Democrat,” Panitch noted. “If the governor wants it, it will be done.”