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Georgia lawmakers, in support of Israel, pass a bill that would define antisemitism in state law

In at least eight states nationwide, lawmakers are working on measures to define antisemitism, part of an upsurge of legislation motivated in part by the Israel-Hamas war

State Sen. John F. Kennedy, R-Macon
State Sen. John F. Kennedy, R-Macon speaks in favor of the antisemitism bill during a legislative session, Thursday, Jan. 25, 2024, in Atlanta.Natrice Miller (AP)

Georgia lawmakers passed a bill Thursday that would define antisemitism in state law, with Republicans uniting in support of Israel’s war on Hamas and some Democrats splitting over fears of suppressing support for Palestinians.

“Today we can fight a pervasive and escalating threat in our state and fight it together,” said Senate President Pro Tem John Kennedy, a Macon Republican who guided the bill to Senate passage by a 44-6 vote. The measure had stalled in a Senate committee in 2023.

The House later agreed to changes, passing the measure 129-5 and sending it to Gov. Brian Kemp for his signature or veto.

Sponsors say adopting the definition put forward by the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance would help prosecutors and other officials identify hate crimes and illegal discrimination targeting Jewish people. Georgia has a hate crimes law that allows higher criminal penalties for crimes motivated by some types of bias.

The definition, which is only referred to in the bill, describes antisemitism as “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.”

Some lawmakers opposed the bill, saying they thought it would be used to censor free speech rights.

“The First Amendment guarantees our rights as citizens to criticize any government, foreign and domestic,” said Sen. Nikki Merritt, a Lawrenceville Democrat. “Does our Constitution not mean anything? Do our federal laws not mean anything?

But supporters say the definition will only come into play after someone has committed a crime.

“This legislation is not about stifling free speech,” Kennedy said. “Nor is it about the government stopping someone from simply sharing their views. It is about safeguarding the dignity and the safety of our Jewish friends and neighbors.”

In at least eight states nationwide, lawmakers are working on measures to define antisemitism, part of an upsurge of legislation motivated in part by the Israel-Hamas war. Arkansas passed such a law last year, and like in Georgia, a South Carolina measure passed one chamber in 2023. New bills are pending this year in Indiana, Florida, Massachusetts, New Jersey and South Dakota.

Sponsors say adopting the definition put forward by the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance would help prosecutors and other officials identify hate crimes and illegal discrimination targeting Jewish people. Georgia has a hate crimes law that allows higher criminal penalties for crimes motivated by some types of bias.

What was already a fraught topic in early 2023 has become downright raw with the Israel-Hamas war. Some protesters chanting “Free Free Palestine!” were dragged from the committee room Monday by police officers after the vote and one was arrested. That came after some Jewish residents of Georgia testified they had experienced a surge of bias incidents, including an antisemitic group that hung a Jew in effigy outside a Macon synagogue over the summer.

State Rep. John Carson, a Marietta Republican who sponsored the bill, told the House that the measure shows “Georgia stands with our friends in the Jewish community.” Rep. El-Mahdi Holly, a Stockbridge Democrat and one of a handful of Georgia’s Muslim lawmakers, retorted that “I wish that was true of Palestinians as well.”

Some opponents said Thursday that they didn’t in the Israel-Hamas war. “We can mourn the loss of both Israeli and Palestinian lives,” said Sen. Kim Jackson, a Stone Mountain Democrat. “We can both condemn the unacceptable acts of antisemitism that are plaguing the Jewish community around our state and acknowledge that our citizens have the right to voice their dissent about the tremendous harm being visited upon Palestinian civilians.”

Some Democrats said that if Georgia moves to define antisemitism, then it should also define what prejudice against Muslims, African Americans or LGBTQ+ people looks like.

“If we’re going to define antisemitism in the law, then there a lot of other groups that experience racism, and they should also have definitions and explanations of what racism looks like,” said Sen. Sally Harrell, an Atlanta Democrat who didn’t vote on the bill.

But other Democrats said they wanted to support their Jewish constituents and allies, with some recalling the historic support of Jewish people for Black civil rights. An Atlanta synagogue was bombed in 1958 by racists striking out against a rabbi’s opposition to segregation.

“The Jewish community stood hand-in-hand with us,” said Senate Minority Gloria Butler, a Stone Mountain Democrat. “Today I return their favor and stand with them.”

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