Georgia’s only Jewish state lawmaker pledged to press on after a bill that supporters said would protect Jewish Georgians from hate crimes failed to win approval this legislative session.
“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 amongst escalating antisemitism,” state Rep. Esther Panitch, a Sandy Springs Democrat, said.
After passing in the House by a vote of 136-22 in March, the hate crimes measure failed to reach a vote in the Senate amid concerns about how to define antisemitism and free speech.
The legislation stalled despite signs of growing antisemitism in the state, including at least two instances where flyers were dispersed around Athens and the Dunwoody-Sandy Springs area.
One of those targeted was Valerie Chambers, who stepped outside her Dunwoody home one brisk Sunday morning in February to see a mysterious plastic baggie sitting on her driveway.
Chambers walked closer to inspect the bag, only to find its contents full of dried corn kernels and a single paper flyer.
“Every single aspect of the Jewish Talmud is satanic,” it read.
She grew alarmed, and then thought of her two kids, who were still inside.
“Yes, I was upset,” Chambers said. “But my first concern was to pick these up before my kids saw them.”
The campus sponsor for Kennesaw State University’s Hillel organization, Chambers was one of dozens of Jewish residents in the Dunwoody area who received the flyer that Feb. 5.
Nearby, in Sandy Springs, Panitch also received one. Already a sponsor of House Bill 30, she redoubled her efforts to push the legislation through.
The legislation would define antisemitism, which supporters said would give authorities power to prosecute people who commit acts against Jewish people under the state’s hate crime law.
Panitch said the change is needed.
“It provides a definition so that the authorities can figure out what the intention was of a crime or an act,” she said.
Panitch said Georgia’s hate crime law currently does not cover antisemitism, even though it applies to crimes based on actual or perceived race, color, religion, national origin, sex, sexual orientation, gender, mental disability, or physical disability.
She explained that Jews do not strictly qualify as just a race, national origin, or religion and that typically, antisemitic acts are classified as strictly religious hate. A defendant could then say he acted not because of religion but due to something else, like politics. This is a common defense used to get around Georgia’s hate crimes law.
Panitch stated, “Without a definition of antisemitism nobody knows.”
HB 30 would have provided the state’s prosecutors with a new tool as antisemitic occurrences have increased across the nation, according to the Anti-Defamation League. In 2022, the league recorded the highest number of antisemitism incidents since 1979.
In 2018, a gunman killed 11 Jewish worshippers at a Pittsburgh synagogue. In Colleyville, Texas last year a gunmen took four Jews hostage at a synagogue, believing they could somehow free a convicted terrorist from a nearby prison.
“He thought that if he held the four Jews hostage, then he could get to the influencers who could help release this terrorist from prison.” Julie Katz, associate director of the Atlanta chapter of the American Jewish Committee, said.
In June of 2021, a swastika and Jewish slur were found on a door at Jewish synagogue in Tucson, according to news reports. NPR chronicled siblings in Kenosha who had experienced verbal antisemitism after being followed. Simultaneously, a slew of antisemitism fliers was being spread around the city.
The American Jewish Committee said that in 2022, 43% of American Jews reported feeling that antisemitism is “a very serious problem”.
A map from the Southern Poverty Law Center also showed 16 hate groups in Georgia are antisemitic as a part of their ideology.
One of the biggest arguments against the hate crime bill was that it impedes free speech.
Panitch and lawyer Marc Goldfeder, who wrote the two law review articles that HB 30 was based on, said that anyone who stays within lawful confines of free speech had nothing to worry about.
Goldfeder has tried many cases involving antisemitism and taught classes at the United Nations for hundreds of lawyers on how to fight it using the law. He also acts as special counsel on antisemitism cases to for a number of law firms.
Goldfeder explained how the new law would protect Jewish Georgians.
“If a person were to commit a hate crime against a Jewish person, and there was an allegation that they selected or targeted their victim because they’re Jewish, then the bill would say that the relevant authorities can use their antisemitic actions and statements as evidence of their intent behind their act,” he said.
Georgia has long struggled to pass such protections. In 2020, Governor Brian Kemp signed House Bill 426, Georgia’s hate crime law. It was adopted in 2020 after Ahmaud Arbery was shot and killed by two white men during a run in a coastal Georgia community. Arbery was black.
State rep. Jasmine Clark, a Lilburn Democrat, voted in favor of the 2020 law but opposed HB30 this year.
“I do believe that antisemitic acts are covered under the hate crime statute,” Clark said.
“It begs the question as to why the Georgia code does not define anti-Black racism or anti-Latino racism or anti-Asian racism,” Clark said.
Georgia’s 2023 legislative session ended March 29 without a Senate vote. Still, Panitch said that she is not done.
“If you think we are done, you are wrong,” she said. “We will be back next session.”