By Adam Kovac
March 7, 2023
The Georgia House of Representatives has overwhelmingly passed a bill that would define anti-Semitism and make acts against Jews a hate crime.
The statement was supported by a bipartisan group of lawmakers, including Georgia’s only Jewish lawmaker, Democrat Esther Panitch. It was passed by a vote of 136 to 22 on Monday, just before the start of Purim.
“When my parents called me Esther, they didn’t imagine me walking the sandal steps of the first Esther through the hall of the Georgian capital,” she said. “But maybe, like that first Esther, I’m here for this moment.”
Her testimony recalled the famous line from the Book of Esther about Esther’s destiny as the savior of her people, which is often quoted as follows: “And who knows if you came… for a time like this.”
The bill requires the state of Georgia to adopt the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance’s definition of antisemitism, which “a certain perception of Jews, which can be expressed as hatred towards Jews. Rhetorical and physical expressions of antisemitism are directed against Jewish or non-Jewish persons and/or their property, against Jewish community institutions and religious institutions.”
Speaking ahead of the vote, Panitch said she “never thought” the law would be needed in Georgia, but recent events have made its need clear. In February, a month after the bill was introduced, anti-Semitic leaflets were left in the driveways and mailboxes of hundreds of Jewish homes in the Atlanta suburbs, prompting Panitch to file a complaint impassioned speech vom Kammerboden on the losses of her own family in the Holocaust. On Monday, Panitch mentioned the shootings by two Jewish men outside Los Angeles synagogues, saying the alleged attacker was from the same group that distributed the flyers.
In introducing the bill, Republican co-sponsor John Carson mentioned the flyers, noting that dozens of other states have taken similar action, whether through legislative action or executive order.
Carson said the bill does not restrict freedom of speech, citing the language that specifies protection of First Amendment rights.
“Anti-Semitic incidents are increasing and they continue to increase,” he said, adding that while Jews make up less than 2% of Georgia’s population, they are the target of 60% of hate crimes.
In her remarks, Panitch referred to the recent so-called Day of Hate, when some small neo-Nazi groups had vowed to distribute anti-Semitic leaflets and stickers. Few incidents were actually reported.
The bill also included wording that this definition of antisemitism should be considered when determining whether a law or policy has been violated. Georgia’s criminal code already included a provision providing for tougher penalties for crimes motivated by hatred of a protected class, which includes religion.
Cheryl Dorchinsky, founding director of the Atlanta Israel Coalition, was present for the vote. She said the state has seen a significant increase in anti-Semitic incidents in recent years, including Anti-Semitic graffiti in public schools. She said the police response was that a swastika was a sign of peace.
“But next to it was ‘The Jude,'” Dorchinsky said. “When do they step in and offer us the protection we actually need?”
Among opponents of the bill was Democrat Jasmine Clark, who preceded her statement, “In our beautiful, diverse state of Georgia, there is no place for hatred,” adding that there is no excuse for anti-Semitism. However, she pointed out that Georgia’s hate crimes statute does not include similar definitions of anti-Black, anti-Asian, or anti-Latino racism.
“Each of these groups could argue that they have faced an increase in acts of violence over the years. While I certainly don’t believe in participating in the Olympics of oppression, I do believe that a bill like this can inadvertently leave every marginalized group wondering where their definition is in the code.”
Panitch, in her own remarks, responded that the bill “does not adversely affect the rights or interests of any other group. Protecting Jewish people is not at the expense of anyone but anti-Semites.”
She also defended the bill against accusations that it could be used to quash criticism of Israel, saying the IHRA definition of antisemitism specifically states that such speech is not antisemitic. But Panitch added that criticism of Israel often degenerates into anti-Semitic speech and actions. A similar The bill passed the Georgia House in 2022, but did not make it through the Senate before the end of the legislative session.
Panitch did not respond to a request for comment.
Adam Kovac is a reporter at Forward and covers breaking news. He can be reached at email@example.com or on Twitter at @AdamJKovac.