Georgia House of Representatives votes to define anti-Semitism in state law

The Georgia House of Representatives voted Monday to define anti-Semitism in state law. Advocates say the move would help prosecutors and other officials identify hate crimes and illegal discrimination against Jewish people.

Lawmakers voted 136-22 to approve the measure, just weeks after some residents in suburban Atlanta noted it Anti-Jewish leaflets left in plastic bags in their driveways. Among them was Democratic Rep. Esther Panitch, one of the bill's sponsors and Georgia's only Jewish lawmaker.

“Kids going out to play in their driveway picked up hateful bags and asked their parents, 'What is that?'” Panitch said, adding, “A bill of this nature should be uncontested. It gives our legal system a clear definition of anti-Semitism.”

In 2020, Georgia passed a hate crimes law that imposes additional penalties for crimes motivated by race, color, religion, national origin, sex, sexual orientation, gender or disability.

Panitch and other supporters of House Law 30 said his legal definition of anti-Semitism was necessary because officials don't always recognize it. The bill will move to the Georgia Senate for further debate.

The measure would adopt into state law a definition from the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance that defines anti-Semitism as a “perception of Jews that can be expressed as hatred of Jews” and can have both “rhetorical and physical manifestations.”

This includes “attacking the state of Israel,” although the alliance states on its website that “criticism of Israel that is comparable to criticism of other countries cannot be viewed as anti-Semitic.”

Some lawmakers who voted against the measure said they feared it would violate freedom of expression, including the right to criticize the Israeli government.

“How far will you go to police our words?” said Rep. El-Mahdi Holly, D-Stockbridge, adding: “We must preserve our American values ​​and vote no on this definition.”

Panitch said her bill would not create new crimes but rather provide prosecutors with guidance in deciding whether there is enough evidence in criminal cases to trigger increased penalties for hate crimes. A legal definition of anti-Semitism would also help with unlawful discrimination, she said.

“You need a definition to say that a swastika is anti-Semitic,” Panitch said. “It's that simple. Things you think would be obvious aren't obvious.”

Rep. John Carson, R-Marietta, said similar proposals have become law in states including Arizona, Arkansas, Iowa and Tennessee. Other supporters of the Georgia measure said they were concerned that anti-Semitism appears to be on the rise in the United States.

A poll conducted last fall by the American Jewish Committee found that four out of five American Jews said this Anti-Semitism in the USA has increased in the last five years. A quarter of respondents said they had been a direct victim of anti-Semitic comments, either in person or on social media.