Breaking bread with Georgia’s only Jewish state legislator
From Shabbat dinner to ‘wild hog supper,’ Esther Panitch has sought to build bipartisan ties to make progress on antisemitism legislation
"Esther for Georgia"
For freshman Georgia Rep. Esther Panitch, this year’s legislative session started with a bit of culinary whiplash.
On a Friday evening in early January, the Democrat hosted more than 30 of her fellow legislators for Shabbat services and dinner at her suburban Atlanta synagogue. Most of them had never been to a Shabbat dinner, let alone a Jewish prayer service. They noshed on challah and roast chicken and heard a sermon from the rabbi.
Two days later, Panitch and her colleagues broke bread together again, but over a decidedly less kosher feast. Each year, the legislative session commences with the “Wild Hog Supper,” a Statehouse tradition that benefits a local food bank.
“I didn’t partake in the hog part,” Panitch said, “but there were plenty of vegetarian side dishes.”
The Sandy Springs attorney was eager to showcase her religion to her new colleagues because she thinks the top policymakers in the state should see and experience Jewish life and ritual so that they can better protect minority rights. It’s a duty she views as crucial to her role as a public servant, because the driving force in Panitch’s decision to run for office in 2022 was her realization that the 256-person Georgia General Assembly would not otherwise have any Jewish members this year when a previous Jewish member retired. (The Republican whom Panitch defeated is also Jewish.)
“I was kind of hoping somebody else would put their name in that was qualified,” Panitch, 51, told Jewish Insider on Wednesday. “It wasn’t a part of a long-term plan. I kind of just ran with it. But I saw the need, and nobody was willing to step up. So my goal is to help recruit people moving forward, so we don’t get caught like this again.” (U.S. Sen. Jon Ossoff, a Democrat, is also Jewish.)
Her interest in having a Jewish voice in the legislature comes from what she views as a lack of knowledge about minority cultures among some public figures.
“It’s shocking to me how little people know of other minorities. I mean, I understand it. It’s not taught. So someone has to let them know,” Panitch said.
At that Shabbat dinner, she was focused simply on getting to know her soon-to-be colleagues. She wasn’t yet pitching them on any legislation or policy asks — only on sharing the traditions that she and her family follow every week.
“We start every session in prayer, which, as someone who grew up with separation of church and state, it sometimes gets to me. But you’ve got to meet people where they are,” Panitch said. “We built a lot of goodwill.” (Another reason Panitch wanted Jewish representation in the General Assembly was to show that Jewish interpretations of “religious liberty” might be different than what non-Jews expect: “I’ve been talking to Republicans, and most of them claim they had no idea that Judaism in some cases requires abortion as healthcare,” she pointed out.)
She had hoped to host the Shabbat meal at her home but quickly realized it wouldn’t serve her goal of reaching as many legislators as possible. She’s already thinking about a larger venue for next year.
“I think in a lot of parts of the country, people on opposite sides of the political aisle have fewer and fewer opportunities to interact with each other and to see each other as people,” said Rabbi Joshua Heller, the senior rabbi at Congregation B’nai Torah, a Conservative congregation in Sandy Springs. “So to break bread, break challah, with people with whom you disagree is a powerful thing.”
A month later, Panitch stood on the House floor, surrounded by a bipartisan mix of legislators, including some from the Shabbat dinner. She had walked outside one morning that week to see hateful antisemitic flyers left on her doorstep. The pamphlet appeared after Panitch had introduced a bill seeking to create a state definition of antisemitism. (She called this an “odd coincidence,” rather than a targeted incident, noting that the flyers had already been distributed in nearby areas.)
“Unfortunately it’s not the first time to be afraid as a Jew in the United States,” Panitch said.
She grew up in a heavily Jewish part of Miami and had her first brush with antisemitism at a debate camp. Panitch and a friend were discussing something Jewish when another girl walked to them and gave them a funny look. She stared at their heads.
“We put our horns away,” Panitch’s friend joked to the other girl — in reference to a myth that Jews have horns. The girl responded: “You did a good job.”
“It wasn’t malicious. She had just never met a Jewish person before. It was something she had heard and she had no reason to disbelieve,” Panitch recalled. One summer, when road-tripping from Florida to Massachusetts to go to Camp Ramah, she drove through rural areas that still had some signs that read: “No Blacks. No Jews.” Decades later, when Panitch’s daughter joined a Jewish sorority at the University of Georgia, swastikas were drawn outside her dorm room.
“[Panitch’s] willingness to speak out publicly as a Jewish person about her own encounters with antisemitism has helped many fellow lawmakers understand the issue from a very human and relatable perspective,” Rep. John Carson, a state representative from the Atlanta suburbs, told JI in an email on Wednesday.
Carson, a Republican, first introduced a bill seeking to adopt a statewide definition of antisemitism last year, but it did not make it to the governor’s desk.
“He has a deep faith and believes it’s part of his job to protect the Jewish people,” Panitch said. They are now two of the lead sponsors on this year’s version of the legislation, which would adopt the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance’s working definition of antisemitism.
“In order to combat the problem of antisemitism, we have to start by clearly defining it,” Carson said. “This bill makes sure the relevant state authorities take into account the world’s most well-accepted definition of antisemitism.” It does not come with criminal penalties or change the law; instead, it is meant as a guiding tool for state agencies and prosecutors who are determining whether a hate crime has been committed.
The bill has faced pushback from some far-left groups including Jewish Voice for Peace and the Council on American-Islamic Relations, who take issue with the IHRA definition’s assertion that anti-Zionism can be a form of antisemitism. They argue that the bill would penalize pro-Palestinian activists and critics of Israel.
Panitch called their arguments “misinformation,” noting that the bill will not criminalize even antisemitic speech. She pointed out that the antisemitic flyers dropped outside her home do not rise to the level of criminal activity.
“I hope we’re trying to counter that misinformation, and I hope that the legislators see it for what it is. No one should give cover to actual antisemitism with a pretext of anti-Israel conduct,” she noted. For Panitch, anti-Zionism does sometimes rise to the level of antisemitism, and she hopes to make that clear in Georgia law: “You need to be able to define antisemitism, both ancient, with conspiracy theories, and contemporary, which includes, sometimes, anti-Israel behavior.”
The bill passed the House Judiciary Committee, and is currently waiting to be considered by the Rules Committee. If it doesn’t move forward by next week, it’s dead this year.
“Everything at this moment is controlled by Republicans and I’m a freshman Democrat,” Panitch noted. “If the governor wants it done, it’ll get done.”