The General Assembly overwhelmingly passed legislation Thursday defining antisemitism and incorporating it into Georgia’s hate crimes law.
The state Senate approved the bill 44-6 after a nearly two-hour debate. The Georgia House of Representatives followed in a 129-5 vote.
The House had passed a similar version of the legislation last year, only to have it die in the Senate. Since then, however, incidents of antisemitism have been on the rise across Georgia, sparked by the Oct. 7 massacre of Israeli civilians by Hamas militants and its aftermath, Senate President Pro Tempore John Kennedy, R-Macon, told his colleagues Thursday.
Kennedy cited the spreading of antisemitic flyers in Jewish neighborhoods by what he described as “outside agitators” and the hanging in effigy of a Jew outside a synagogue in Macon.
“The Oct. 7 attack on the Jewish state and our ally … highlighted the nearly nonstop threat our Jewish brothers and sisters face,” Kennedy said. “This is the antithesis of what our great state and our great nation are all about.”
“Certain things rise above politics,” added Rep. John Carson, R-Marietta, who sponsored the bill in the House. “It’s time to get this done.”
The legislation, now headed to Gov. Brian Kemp’s desk, would establish as part of state law the definition of antisemitism used by the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance, an intergovernmental organization founded by Sweden’s prime minister in 1998.
The bill allows prosecutors to seek enhanced penalties when crimes have been committed because the victim is Jewish.
While only one Republican – Sen. Colton Moore of Trenton – voted against the legislation in the Senate, it split the Senate Democratic Caucus.
Senate Minority Leader Gloria Butler, D-Stone Mountain, supported the measure, citing a long history of antisemitism in Georgia including the 1915 lynching of factory superintendent Leo Frank after he was convicted of murdering a 13-year-old employee – which a consensus of historians now believe was a miscarriage of justice – and the bombing of an Atlanta temple in 1958.
But some Democrats argued the bill violates the First Amendment right to free speech because it would allow Georgians to be charged with a hate crime for simply criticizing the Israeli government’s war on Hamas that has killed thousands of Palestinian civilians.
Sen. Nikki Merritt, D-Grayson, tried unsuccessfully to amend the bill to clarify that criticism of Israel may not be deemed antisemitic.
“This is not an anti-hate bill,” Merritt said. “This is an anti-speech bill.”
But Sen. Brian Strickland, R-McDonough, chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, which unanimously approved the bill on Monday, said it is not aimed at speech. He cited a portion of the legislation that specifically states it is not to be construed as infringing on free speech rights.
“You can continue to say anything you want in this state. This bill protects that,” Strickland said. “(But) you can’t go and hit somebody in the face because you don’t like what the country they identify with is doing.”
Sen. Harold Jones, D-Augusta, said the bill is guilty of “picking and choosing” because it singles out Jews for protection but does not address violence motivated by Islamophobia or hatred of other immigrant groups.
But Kennedy said Jews in Georgia have been particularly vulnerable to hate-motivated violence.
“The Jewish community in our state is crying out for this,” he said. “This bill is needed.”
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