On the last day of its 2023 session — and for the second consecutive year — a bill to define antisemitism failed to clear the Georgia General Assembly.
The legislature adjourned shortly after midnight, Wednesday, without the necessary votes on the Senate and House floors to send the bill to Gov. Brian Kemp.
Incorporating the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance definition in the state’s legal code had been a legislative priority of Jewish Atlanta’s major communal organizations.
The effort began in the House but died in the Senate. The House passed a bill that was amended by a Senate committee. The amended bill needed approval by the full Senate and then, per legislative procedure, by the House.
But that didn’t happen, leaving supporters — who claimed the backing of 90 percent of Georgia’s Jewish population — peeved.
“It was devastating to watch the Georgia Senate, for the second year in a row, ignore the cries of Georgia’s Jewish community for help amid escalating antisemitism,” Jewish Democratic Rep. Esther Panitch, a co-sponsor, told the AJT. “I thank the House, including Speaker [Jon] Burns, Majority Leader [Chuck] Efstration, and lead sponsor John Carson for understanding that a safe Jewish community is a safer Georgia — and I question the leadership of those who can’t or won’t see it.”
The IHRA 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.”
The House bill included the language of the IHRA definition. The Senate’s version included only a reference to the definition, not its text.
Neither version included the IHRA definition’s 11 accompanying examples of antisemitism, which have proven more controversial. The examples 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.”
Throughout the bill’s travels in the House and Senate, supporters were adamant that the IHRA definition would not restrict free speech, as claimed by opponents, including some from the Jewish community.
The legislation would have made the IHRA definition the standard for determining whether antisemitism was the motive for an act of discrimination or a criminal offense. Supporters said that the definition would aid prosecutors as they considered whether to apply Georgia’s hate crimes law, with its enhanced sentencing for bias-related offenses.
As desired by its Jewish backers, House Bill 30 was introduced with only a reference to the IHRA definition, a strategy to prevent future legislatures from changing language that has been adopted or endorsed by 40 nations (including the United States, via an executive order from then-President Donald J. Trump), 30 U.S. states, and some 1,100 institutions worldwide.
House Bill 30 survived a “tortuous” path through the House, in the words of a co-sponsor, Panitch, who represents District 51 in north Fulton County. That bumpy route included the Rules Committee chair kicking the bill back to the Judiciary Committee, which added the definition language to improve its chances of approval.
The full House passed HB 30 on March 6 — by a vote of 136 in favor and 22 against (16 did not vote and six were absent) — and the bill “crossed over” to the Senate.
The bill appeared to have died when the Senate Judiciary Committee “tabled” HB 30 on March 20, in an 8–0 vote apparently swayed by free-speech issues raised by opponents.
On March 23, however, it came back to life — as a so-called “zombie bill” — in the Senate Children and Families Committee. House Bill 144, already on the committee’s docket, was stripped of its original language — dealing with children under the state’s care — and an amended version of HB 30 was substituted.
The “new” HB 144 passed the Children’s and Families Committee on a 6–2 vote and the Rules Committee forwarded the bill to the Senate floor, for a vote that never happened.
Free speech issues were at the center of witness arguments over the bill.
“Anyone can protest and yell and criticize and demonstrate and speak and scream anything they want about Israel or Jews. This bill will not stop them unless they’re planning to commit a hate crime,” Mark Goldfeder, an attorney for the American Center for Law and Justice and also counsel for Hillels of Georgia, told the Senate Judiciary Committee. “It protects Jews here from antisemites, including those who would use Israel as an excuse to attack Jews.”
Conversely, the bill’s opponents warned that the IHRA language could be “weaponized” to stifle debate over Israeli treatment of the Palestinians.
“It works as a tool of censorship that falsely conflates attempts to hold the Israeli government accountable with antisemitism. Do not respond to this terrible, terrible rise in antisemitism by victimizing Palestinian advocacy,” Peyton Hayes, of the University of Georgia chapter of Students for Justice in Palestine, told the committee.
The antisemitism definition legislation received added attention after the distribution of anti-Jewish flyers, linked to a group called the Goyim Defense League, in the driveways of heavily Jewish neighborhoods in Dunwoody and Sandy Springs in the pre-dawn hours of Feb. 5. Panitch, who represents a House district in northern Fulton County, found three baggies containing flyers in her driveway. At the time, attorneys told the AJT that the distribution of the flyers was not a criminal offense, but might have violated local misdemeanor ordinances on littering and disturbing the peace.
Similar legislation passed the House last year but never received a vote on the Senate floor. This being the first year of the General Assembly’s two-year cycle, the bill could re-emerge when the legislature convenes next January.
Panitch signaled that intention, messaging the AJT: “Those who seek to harm Jews always end [up] relegated to history’s dustbin — it’s just how much damage can they cause on their way. HB 144 would have made it easier to identify them, although, more recently, they have outed themselves. The far right tells us to go back to Israel and the far left wants to destroy Israel. Neither will prevail. We will be back. #GAIHRA2024”
Dov Wilker, regional director of the American Jewish Committee, told the AJT: “We are terribly disappointed that HB 144 did not get a Senate floor vote on the final day of the legislative session. This bill is an important addition to the Georgia code, to help better understand when antisemitic attacks occur. We look forward to continuing the conversation with members of the Georgia House and Senate, so that they can understand the needs of the Jewish community in Georgia. A huge thanks to John Carson and Rep. Esther Panitch for their incredible effort on this important legislation.”