Antisemitism Bill Abstention Draws Questions, Rebuke

Dave Schechter
4 min readFeb 28, 2024

State Sen. Sally Harrell had reason to expect a difficult conversation when she joined a Feb. 13 Zoom call hosted by the Jewish Community Relations Council of Atlanta.

And that’s what she got.

Harrell was invited to explain why she did not cast a vote when legislation defining antisemitism reached the Senate floor. The Democrat represents District 40, which includes Dunwoody, home to one of the larger Jewish communities in metro Atlanta. Jewish communal organizations had anticipated that she would vote for the bill, which ultimately passed the Senate and House and was signed into law Jan. 31 by Gov. Brian Kemp.

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Several of the dozen or so people on the JCRC call voiced displeasure with Harrell. One called her reasoning “disingenuous.” Another said that Harrell was “not looking out for the safety of your constituents in the Dunwoody area.”

Elsewhere in the Jewish community, Harrell’s decision has been spoken of as a betrayal.

“I recognize that I probably shocked a lot of you with my hesitations about House Bill 30. I actually shocked myself a little bit, too,” Harrell told the JCRC call. The decision not to vote was made about an hour beforehand and Harrell admitted that her “off the cuff” floor speech was “not one of my best . . . I don’t think I got across fully what I hoped to get across.”

Legislation defining antisemitism was first introduced in the 2022 session.

A year ago, anti-Jewish leaflets were thrown onto property in neighborhoods with Jewish populations. Several months ago, neo-Nazis paraded outside a local synagogue.

Current events played a role in Harrell’s decision.

“Oct. 7 had happened and there was a lot of trauma associated with that,” which “I was processing with Jewish friends,” she told the call.

She began hearing “different voices from what I traditionally heard about on this [bill] in my district.” Some came from the Muslim and Arab communities, including a woman with family in Gaza, whose words “were so impactful to me,” Harrell acknowledged.

That brought a rebuke from Libby Gozansky, who told Harrell, “What’s happening in Gaza is irrelevant to this piece of legislation,” then added, “What are you going to do when the next hard thing comes up?”

Georgia’s legal code now includes a reference to the definition of antisemitism crafted by the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance, which has been adopted — by law, by resolution, or by proclamation — by 35 states and the federal government (through a 2019 executive order by then-president Donald Trump).

The definition reads: “Antisemitism is a certain perception of Jews, which may be expressed as hatred toward Jews. Rhetorical and physical manifestations of antisemitism are directed toward Jewish or non-Jewish individuals and/or their property, toward Jewish community institutions and religious facilities.”

Harrell’s concern was with the IHRA definition’s accompanying examples of antisemitism, which include accusing Jews outside of Israel of dual loyalty, comparing Israel to Nazis, calling Israel “racist,” “denying the Jewish people their right to self-determination,” and applying standards to Israel “not expected or demanded of any other democratic nation.”

In an exchange of emails, Harrell told the AJT: “I have read and studied several different definitions of antisemitism and accompanying examples. Some of these were much easier for me to interpret and understand than the IHRA examples, therefore I think they are perhaps more useful tools for law enforcement and the general public. A couple of them, in addition to pointing out when criticism of the Israeli government is antisemitic, also point out when criticism is NOT antisemitic. This is very helpful.”

Opponents of the legislation expressed fears that the examples could be used to stifle debate about Israel. Supporters maintained that the bill protected free speech and would aid prosecutors investigating whether anti-Jewish sentiment contributed to a crime and state agencies probing acts of discrimination.

“There’s a perception that HB 30 protects free speech, yet there’s also a perception that it does not. I had constituents come to me who shared that they were afraid to speak out against the actions of Israel because of their interpretation of some of the IHRA examples,” Harrell wrote.

She also noted that, even within mainstream of Jewish American organizations, there has been disagreement over whether the IHRA definition should be codified.

There’s a perception that HB 30 protects free speech, yet there’s also a perception that it does not. I had constituents come to me who shared that they were afraid to speak out against the actions of Israel because of their interpretation of some of the IHRA examples

Harrell met with the American Jewish Committee before the General Assembly convened and “discussed my many concerns about codifying the IHRA examples into Georgia’s discrimination and hate laws. I have no problem with the IHRA definition itself, without the examples, and I had no problem with HB 30 as it initially passed the House [in 2023], since it contained the definition without the examples. Had the Senate not added the examples at the last minute, I would have voted yes.”

At the end of the JCRC call, Robert Wittenstein told her, “Thank you for taking the time. I know you knew this was not going to be an easy conversation. There are still a lot of people who are deeply disappointed.”

Harrell told the AJT: “Challenging conversations bring about progress toward understanding. I look forward to working with the JCRC on the many issues we have in common, including antisemitism.”

Originally published at on February 28, 2024.