A bill that would formally define antisemitism in Georgian law has stalled after an unfriendly amendment in a Senate committee altered the measure in a way its sponsors disagreed with, potentially jeopardizing the prospects of legislation in the 2023 legislative session finished.
House Bill 30 sponsors say a definition would help prosecutors and other officials identify hate crimes and illegal discrimination against Jews. But they asked to have the bill overturned after the Senate Judiciary Committee approved the amendment on Monday. The legislative period ends on March 29th.
Republican Rep. John Carson of Marietta, the bill’s sponsor, said Tuesday he didn’t know if the bill was dead for the year.
“We’re looking at different ways to make it through,” Carson said.
The House of Representatives voted 136 to 22 to approve the measure, just weeks after some residents in a suburb of Atlanta found anti-Jewish leaflets wrapped in plastic bags in their driveways. Among them was Democrat Esther Panitch, one of the bill’s backers and Georgia’s only Jewish lawmaker.
A poll conducted last fall by the American Jewish Committee found that four out of five American Jews said anti-Semitism in the United States has increased over the past five years. A quarter of respondents said they were directly affected by anti-Semitic speech, either in person or on social media. But there was persistent opposition to the Georgia measure. Some critics warn that doing so would limit freedom of expression, particularly when criticizing the actions of the State of Israel.
Peyton Hayes of the University of Georgia Chapter of Students for Justice in Palestine told committee members Monday that similar bills in other states have hampered the ability of public university students to argue against Israeli policies.
“Is the bill intended to combat bigotry or make an argument for censorship?” Hayes asked.
Proponents dispute that the law would censor speech, saying it only comes into play to prove someone is motivated by anti-Jewish feelings when committing a crime or illegal discrimination. This could help prove a hate crime under a 2020 Georgia state law that allows for additional penalties for crimes motivated by race, color, religion, national origin, sex, sexual orientation, gender or disability.
But the strain on opposition to the bill, which proved toxic on Monday, was concern over its unusual structure.
The measure would incorporate into state law a definition by the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance, which defines antisemitism as a “perception of Jews that can be expressed as hatred toward Jews” and can have both “rhetorical and physical manifestations.” Proponents say a legal definition is needed because officials don’t always recognize antisemitism.
This includes “alignment with the State of Israel,” although the coalition says on its website that “criticism of Israel as leveled at any other country cannot be considered anti-Semitic.”
But the bill doesn’t write the definition directly into state law, only referring to the coalition’s definition, partly because proponents fear the definition could be changed. That fear proved prescient Monday when Sen. Ed Setzler, an Acworth Republican who says he supports the bill’s goals, amended the measure to include the definition directly in the law and changed the definition to To define antisemitism as a “negative” perception of Jews rather than a “safe” perception.
Carson and Panitch opposed this change.
“Senator Setzler redefined antisemitism without consulting the only Jew in the Chamber,” Panitch said Tuesday.
She and Carson stressed the importance of Georgia having the same definition as other government entities. “We don’t want to be an outlier between Georgia and other states, between Georgia and the federal government,” Carson said.
Carson said similar proposals have become law in states including Arizona, Arkansas, Iowa and Tennessee.