Peach State Priorities

Ga. antisemitism bill in spotlight after neo-Nazi demonstrations

Legislation that would adopt the widely used IHRA definition stalled in the state Senate in March

Nathan Posner/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images

Governor Brian Kemp gives a speech celebrating his re-election victory at the Coca Cola Roxy in Atlanta, Georgia on November 8th, 2022.

After a week that saw neo-Nazis threaten two Georgia synagogues, draft legislation seeking to help law enforcement combat antisemitism has again come to the forefront in the Peach State.

A measure that would formally adopt the widely used International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance’s working definition of antisemitism in the state’s hate crimes statute stalled in the state Senate this spring after passing the House. Advocates say that having a definition could provide useful context for law enforcement officers responding to incidents like the ones that took place over the weekend, and that it could serve as a guidepost for local officials working to identify antisemitic intent in housing or employment discrimination.

“If they knew there was a consequence that any crime they commit would be enhanced under the hate crime statute, maybe they’ll think twice,” state Rep. Esther Panitch, a Sandy Springs Democrat and the Statehouse’s only Jewish lawmaker, said of the neo-Nazi demonstrators.

The bill’s backers in the House overcame objections from some on the left who feared that codifying the IHRA definition — which views some critiques of Israel as antisemitism — would stifle the speech of pro-Palestinian activists. After the bill passed the Statehouse, lawmakers hoped for a swift passage in the GOP-controlled Senate. 

Instead, the General Assembly’s legislative session ended in March with no further action and no clues from Republican Gov. Brian Kemp as to his position on the bipartisan legislation. In an interview with Jewish Insider in early June after he returned from a trip to Israel, Kemp said he “wouldn’t want to speak to something I haven’t seen right now.” 

A spokesperson for Kemp told JI on Tuesday that his position has not changed following the neo-Nazi incidents.

“We don’t have any updates regarding that,” said Garrison Douglas, Kemp’s press secretary. “That’ll be up to the Assembly to go through that process and go through that entire thing, and we’ll see what comes of it.” 

In a tweet, Kemp condemned the incidents as a “shameful act” and said “there is absolutely no place for this hate and antisemitism in our state.”

The bill’s loudest opponent in the state Senate was Republican Sen. Ed Setzler, who expressed concern in a March committee meeting over how the IHRA definition affects people’s free speech, questioning if someone who “believes earnestly that the existence of the state of Israel is a racist endeavor” should be categorized as an antisemite. 

Setzler proposed an amendment to the bill that would remove from the bill the IHRA definition’s examples of antisemitism, and edit its definition of antisemitism from “a certain perception of Jews” to “a negative perception of Jews.” By the time the amendment passed — without the support of Panitch and Republican state Rep. John Carson, her co-sponsor — it was too late for the bill to proceed. It will next be considered in January when the state legislature reconvenes. 

“I don’t think he wants to interfere. But at the same time, he makes his priorities known through his floor leaders,” Panitch said of Kemp, referring to the six lawmakers he appointed to shepherd the bills he supports through the legislature.  

In his interview with JI, Kemp said that “the legislation doesn’t really play a role in my role of being able to be going after people for hate crimes or any other activities that’s targeting any person of faith or any certain demographic group,” he noted. “I feel like I have the power and authority to do that now.” 

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