Georgia bill to define antisemitism stalls in wording fight
A bill that would formally define antisemitism in Georgia law has stalled after an unfriendly amendment in a Senate committee altered the measure in ways its sponsors disagree with, possibly ending the legislation's prospects in the 2023 legislative session.
The sponsors of House Bill 30 say a definition would help prosecutors and other officials identify hate crimes and illegal discrimination targeting Jewish people. But they asked to have the bill set aside after the Senate Judiciary Committee adopted the amendment Monday. The legislative session ends March 29.
Republican Rep. John Carson of Marietta, the bill's sponsor, said Tuesday he didn't know if the bill is dead for the year.
"We're looking for various opportunities to pass it," Carson said.
The House voted 136-22 to approve the measure 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, 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.
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 hurt the ability of public university students to argue against Israeli policies.
"Is the bill to fight bigotry or to make an argument for censorship?" Hayes asked.
Proponents deny the bill would censor speech, saying it only comes into play to prove that someone is motivated by anti-Jewish feeling 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 the strain of opposition to the bill that proved poisonous Monday was concern over its unusual structure.
The measure would adopt into state law 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.
This includes "targeting of the state of Israel," although the alliance says on its website that "criticism of Israel similar to that leveled against any other country cannot be regarded as antisemitic."
But the bill doesn't directly write the definition into state law, instead just referring to the alliance's definition, in part because proponents fear the definition could get altered. That fear proved prescient Monday when Sen. Ed Setzler, an Acworth Republican who says he supports the aims of the bill, amended the measure to write the definition directly into law, and changed the definition to define antisemitism as a "negative" perception of Jews instead of a "certain" perception.
Carson and Panitch opposed that change.
"Sen. Setzler redefined antisemitism without consulting the only Jew in the chamber," Panitch said Tuesday.
She and Carson emphasized that it's important that Georgia have the same definition as other government bodies. "We don't want to be an outlier between Georgia and other states, between Georgia and the federal government," Carson said.
Carson has said similar proposals have become law in states including Arizona, Arkansas, Iowa and Tennessee.