Georgia bill on antisemitism lives again after new vote

Rep. Esther Panitch, a Sandy Springs Democrat, argues in favor of a bill that would add antisemitism to the state’s hate crimes law. Panitch is the only Jewish state lawmaker in Georgia.(AP Photo/Alex Slitz)

A new Senate committee has given new life to a bill that would formally define antisemitism in Georgia law.

The Senate Children and Families Committee voted 6-2 on Thursday to insert language that had previously been in a different bill into House Bill 144. The effort had faltered Monday after the previous bill was amended in a way that sponsors opposed, after running disputes over whether it would be used to censor criticism of Israel.

The bill would adopt a definition by the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance, which defines antisemitism as a “perception of Jews, which may be expressed as hatred toward Jews” and can have both “rhetorical and physical manifestations.”

Supporters say a legal definition is necessary because officials don’t always recognize antisemitism. Beth Gaan and her son Aaron Gaan testified that Fulton County schools failed to act for 18 months as students taunted Aaron Gaan and his brother with swastikas and “Kill the Jew” posters.

“Why? Because there was no definition,” Beth Gaan said. “The school was afraid to act, and the police could not act. And if there was a definition of antisemitism, there would not have been a question of what this was and how to act.”

Supporters say it would be used to prove that someone is motivated by anti-Jewish feelings if they commit a crime or an illegal act of discrimination. That could help prove a hate crime under a 2020 Georgia state law that allows additional penalties for crimes motivated by race, color, religion, national origin, sex, sexual orientation, gender or disability.

But opponents say they fear the definition will be used to police speech on college campuses and elsewhere, pointing to a 2019 dispute at Georgia Tech over whether student group programming claiming Israel is a racist and apartheid state. The bill directs state agencies to consider antisemitism as evidence of discriminatory intent for noncriminal law and policy prohibiting discrimination.

“This bill is not about combating antisemitism,” said Fatima Chaudhry, the president of the Georgia Tech Muslim Students Association. “It is a bill that will be used to silence those advocating for Palestinians and against human rights violations in Israel, infringing upon freedom of speech.”

This bill includes “targeting of the state of Israel,” as one manifestation of antisemitism, although the alliance says on its website that “criticism of Israel similar to that leveled against any other country cannot be regarded as antisemitic.”

The House voted 136-22 to approve the previous measure, House Bill 30, just a few weeks after some residents in suburban Atlanta found anti-Jewish flyers left in their driveways inside plastic bags. Among them was Democratic Rep. Esther Panitch of Sandy Springs, one of the bill’s sponsors and Georgia’s only Jewish legislator.

A survey conducted last fall by the American Jewish Committee found that four in five American Jews said antisemitism in the U.S. has grown in the past five years. A quarter of respondents said they were directly targeted by antisemitic expressions, either in person or on social media. But there has been persistent opposition the Georgia measure. Some critics warn it would limit free speech, especially in criticizing the actions of the state of Israel.

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