Antisemitism bill passed amid concerns over stifling of free speech

Senate President Pro Tem John Kennedy, R-Macon, discussed HB 30, a bill to define antisemitism, on the Senate floor on January 25, 2024 (Credit: Jill Jordan Sieder)

ATLANTA — Today the Georgia General Assembly passed a bill that defines antisemitism for the enforcement of laws and regulations in the state that prohibit discrimination. 

The bill, which did not move in the Senate last session, and faced strong opposition from proponents of free speech, was amended with language to affirm it would not suppress any individual’s First Amendment rights.

Today both legislative chambers discussed, debated and voted on House Bill 30, the amended  antisemitism bill.

Rosalie Agrow (left) and Simone Wilker celebrated the passage of HB 30, the antisemitism bill, at the State Capitol on Jan. 25, 2024 (Credit: Jill Jordan Sieder)

The longest debate took place in the Senate, where Senate President Pro Tem John Kennedy spoke in strong support of the bill. He recounted incidents in Georgia over the past year where Jewish residents were harassed by “gross flyers carrying every trope of anti-Jewish sentiments” and an incident in his district in Macon where “they hung a Jew in effigy outside a local synagogue.” 

Kennedy said the “escalating threat in this state” against Jewish people has been heightened since the October 7 attack on “the Jewish state and our ally” by Hamas militants, whom he said “call not just for the destruction of Israel but the death of Jews around the world.” He said the attack and its aftermath “highlighted the near-nonstop threat that our Jewish brothers and sisters face. And while that might feel a world away, the pain and the conflict hits home for many of us.”

The bill includes the definition of antisemitism used by the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance (IHRA), which includes among its examples of antisemitic speech criticism of the state of Israel. 

That has triggered concern among free speech advocates, including many in the Muslim community, who have argued that reliance upon the IHRA definition would criminalize the speech of people who protest the actions of Israel, including its recent military campaign against Hamas and the bombardment of Gaza.

Several senators suggested the bill might have a chilling effect on free speech or could lead to the arrest of or negative career consequences for someone protesting against Israel. 

Sen. Nikki Merritt (Credit: Jill Jordan Sieder)

Sen. Nikki Merritt, D-Grayson, called it “an anti-free speech bill” that threatens the livelihood of college professors and others who criticize Israel. Sen. Sheikh Rahman, D-Lawrenceville, asked if a person would face legal peril if they said Israel is an apartheid state. 

Kennedy said they would not, because the law dictates punishment only for people who commit a crime, such as vandalizing property or punching someone, while making antisemitic statements.

“This bill is extremely well vetted,” said Kennedy, noting the Senate Judiciary Committee had addressed such concerns by adding language that says nothing in the bill “shall be construed to diminish or infringe upon an individual's right to engage in legally protected conduct or expressive activity pertaining to any matter of United States foreign policy or international affairs.”

“This legislation is not about stifling free speech nor does it result in stopping someone from sharing their views,” said Kennedy. “It is about safeguarding the dignity and the safety of our Jewish friends and neighbors, and most importantly, standing up to hate.” 

Senate Minority Leader Gloria Butler spoke in favor of the antisemitism bill on Jan. 25, 2024. (Credit: Jill Jordan Sieder)

Senate Minority Leader Gloria Butler, D-Stone Mountain, was among several Democrats who emphatically supported the bill, noting that “resentment, prejudice and hate” have impacted Black Georgians as well as Jews and that antisemitism “poisons us all.”

The Senate voted 44-6 to pass the bill and immediately transmitted it to the House. An hour later, House members took up the amendment to the bill. 

Rep. John Carson (Credit: Jill Jordan Sieder)

Rep. John Carson, R-Marietta, a chief sponsor, said Georgia has seen “an unbelievable increase in antisemitic acts” since the bill was discussed last spring. “I hope you’ll stand with me and say this activity has got to stop.” 

Rep. Becky Evans, D-Atlanta, noted that seven of the 11 examples of antisemitism in the IHRA definition “refer to criticisms of Israel” and that “many of us are concerned that the charge of antisemitism will be used on those who speak against the human rights abuses of Israel.”

Carson said the bill, which he has worked on for three years, relies on “the world’s most accepted definition of antisemitism” that he said comes into play when there is “a hate crime and there’s an allegation that the action was motivated by anti-Jewish sentiment.” 

He then invited House members to “join with me and show the nation who we are as Georgians and stand up to this antisemitic behavior once and for all.” 

Carson replied, “No one can be arrested for speaking ill of Israel. It’s when that is combined with violence or discrimination. … The First Amendment protects saying whatever you want, no matter how vile.”

People in the House gallery, including many Jewish citizens, applauded after the passage of HB 30, the antisemitism bill, on Jan. 25, 2024 (Credit: Jill Jordan Sieder)

The House voted 129-5 to pass the bill, with at least a dozen members not voting.

Rep. Esther Panitch, House Speaker Jon Burns and Rep. John Carson discussed HB 30, the antisemitism bill, after its passage on Jan. 25, 2024. (Credit: Jill Jordan Sieder)

Afterward, House Speaker Jon Burns, R-Newington, said, “Hate will not rule this House. … We stand with Israel. We stand with the Jewish people who have been such a vital part of the United States and Georgia. … Hate crimes against our neighbors, these acts that make our neighbors fear for their very safety and their lives will not be tolerated. … I’m standing tall today because of the acts of this House and the Senate. … It’s a good day for Georgia, and it’s a good day for mankind.”

Rep. Esther Panitch, D-Sandy Springs, the sole Jewish member in the House who has fought for the bill’s passage since last year, said, “There are 150,000 Jews in Georgia who now feel like they have been seen, heard, acknowledged and protected.”

Gov. Brian Kemp issued a statement expressing support of the bill. 

“Thanks to the General Assembly’s careful deliberation and passage, I will soon be able to sign this important piece of legislation that builds on our commitment to protect Georgians from criminal acts, including those based on hate,” Kemp said.

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