State Rep. Esther Panitch on combating antisemitism and the responsibilities of representing the Jewish community

Rep. Esther Panitch. (Credit: Georgia House of Representatives)

Rep. Esther Panitch. (Credit: Georgia House of Representatives)

Since the most recent war between Israel and Hamas erupted last month, two of the most prominent voices in the Georgia General Assembly engaging in public dialogue over the long-running Israeli-Palestinian conflict have been two freshman Democrats — Rep. Esther Panitch, who is Jewish, and Rep. Ruwa Romman, who is Palestinian. Both have personal ties to the region, and distinctly different perspectives on what’s happening there. 

State Affairs spoke to both legislators last week about their concerns over the conflict and its implications at home, as well as about their current legislative priorities. Today we hear from Panitch. You can find our conversation with Romman, posted on Monday, here.

Esther Panitch first made a name for herself in Georgia as an attorney in several high-profile court cases in Atlanta, including representing several former Boy Scouts in a sex abuse case, and a client whose husband was convicted in the murder of a Jewish businessman.

Now she’s also known as the sole Jewish lawmaker in the Georgia House of Representatives, and one who’s working doggedly to combat antisemitism, in part through a bill she co-sponsored last session that inspired passionate, marathon debates on the House floor. The bill didn’t pass, but Panitch and her Republican co-sponsors vow to fight for it again next year.

Prior to Oct. 7,  Panitch said, “people didn't really want to believe antisemitism was a problem in the U.S.. Now the mask has slipped. People are pretty open about it, and shockingly, horrifyingly open about it … Now Jews are being attacked on college campuses for what's happening in Israel, and Jewish businesses in the United States are being attacked for what's happening in Israel.” 

An active, practicing Jew, Panitch grew up in Miami, attending synagogue and becoming involved in Hadassah, the national women’s Zionist movement. She met her husband on a Jewish Federation mission trip in Israel.

A talented debater in high school, she leveraged those skills at the University of Miami in both her communications classes as an undergrad, and in law school. Over the past two-and-a-half decades she has served as public defender in Miami and Atlanta, and now leads a private law practice specializing in criminal defense, family law and personal injury. 

Q. Tell me about your background and what (and perhaps who) led you to pursue public service and specifically to serve in the state Legislature.

A. I’ve always liked to talk, so I ended up as the first full-time debater on the new debate program with the new coach, even though I was in ninth grade and high school started in 10th grade. … I learned debate skills as part of the debate team with Supreme Court Justice Ketanji Brown [Jackson], who went to a competing high school. We overlapped for three years and spent our summers together in debate camp because we were all nerds and her coach used to teach some of these debate camps. She was in the speech events like oratory and I was in the debate events, so we never competed against each other. We were always friends. 

And South Florida really led the country in national debate, so I became like a nationally-ranked high school debater, and I knew that I could use my voice, and I did not want to do any more math or science, and I was terrible at both. In the School of Communications [at the University of Miami], you had a double major. So I did broadcasting to help my oratory skills, and I also did political science, never thinking I would actually use both sides of my degree. My plan was just to go into law school. So I did that and joined the domestic violence court [in Miami-Dade County] as my first job out of law school, and realized instead of helping judges, I wanted to be in front of them, arguing. So I joined the public defender's office in Miami. I spent five years there, started my own practice, and then two years later, my husband, who worked for Pfizer Pharmaceuticals, was transferred up to Atlanta for what was supposed to be only two years. We had three little kids under the age of 4 at that point, from three different pregnancies — bam, bam, bam.

And thinking we were going right back to Miami, and I wasn't gonna take the bar [exam] because we were only going to be there for two years, and I figured I'd stay home with the kids, which I realized I was not cut out for after a year. I said, ‘I'll take the bar here and if we go back, at least I'm licensed somewhere else.’ So I did pass the bar and then I got a job because I needed to exercise my brain and my kids were all in preschool at the time, and then my husband [Roger] got laid off … We had a choice: we could stay or we could go back home to Miami, and we decided we wanted to stay. We really liked Atlanta, people were really nice, and we had a change of seasons, which I never had growing up.
I had no real interest in running for political office until Trump won … when I realized you didn't have to have any political background to end up at the presidency. And I said, ‘I just can't sit back.’ I realized that he was dangerous. And we saw that at the moment of the Muslim ban, when I went to the airport and stood between TSA [Transportation Security Administration] and families coming in. I didn't do immigration law, but I was ready to use whatever skills I had to help families be reunified. … We sat at the airport and we were on-the-ground lawyers there for people who needed legal assistance at that moment.

… So fast forward to I guess it was 2021. My kids had all gone off to college. I had just turned 50. And I'm thinking, ‘I'm gonna live my best life now. [Then-Rep., now-Sen.] Josh McLaurin [a lawyer she’d previously worked with on the Boy Scouts case] calls me — it was November, I was actually here in the mountains taking a walk, and he said, ‘I'm thinking I'm going to run for Senate. Are you interested in running for my House seat?’ … Then February came and …[former state senator] Jen Jordan was running for attorney general at that point, and Josh and Jen said they had found out that [former Rep.] Michael Wilensky, the only Jewish member [in the House] at that point, wasn't going to run again for reelection. And they both said to me, ‘Did you know that there will be no Jewish voices next session?’ I checked, and they were right. … So I became essentially the defacto Jewish voice, even if that's not who all of my constituents are — they elected me and now I'm the voice for 150,000 Jews in Georgia, in government.

Q. What are the key issues that you're concerned about, working on and hope to see addressed in the next Legislative session?

A. So last session I had plans to kind of sit back and learn before filing any bills on my own. I was approached by [Rep.] John Carson, who's a Republican, about the antisemitism bill, which had been introduced the year before, and didn't make it out of the Senate. And so I said, ‘Sure I'll get involved,’ and it wasn't a big part of what I was planning to do, but I knew it was something that the Jewish community supported. So I was happy to lend my voice to it. And then I got flyered — the antisemitic flyers; they landed on my door, so I tweeted about it. The thought was, I could either be quiet about it — this had been happening in the Jewish community for months, and nobody said anything — or I could be vocal about it and alert the non-Jewish community to what had been happening to us. And that's what I chose to do. So after that, the bill became my primary focus in the Legislature, just because that's how things worked. This year it didn't pass the Senate; it did pass the House. We're going to try again. I even tried to get it on the Special Session agenda, but the governor said no, so we're going to bring it back up in the next full session and try again to have it pass.

[Another antisemitism bill] went to the Senate Judiciary Committee and was amended in a very dangerous way. So we asked to table the bill at that point, John and I.

Rep. Esther Panitch, D-Sandy Springs, spoke forcefully against antisemitism in Georgia on the House floor on Feb. 6, 2023, a day after antisemitic flyers were left in her driveway and at homes in other Atlanta neighborhoods. She was supported by a bipartisan group of legislators, including House Speaker Jon Burns, R-Newington (center) who said, “We pause this morning to reiterate that hate has no place in Georgia — no place in Georgia — none."
Rep. Esther Panitch, D-Sandy Springs, spoke forcefully against antisemitism in Georgia on the House floor on Feb. 6, 2023, a day after antisemitic flyers were left in her driveway and at other homes in north Atlanta. She was supported by a bipartisan group of legislators, including House Speaker Jon Burns, R-Newington (center) who said, “We pause this morning to reiterate that hate has no place in Georgia — no place in Georgia — none." (Credit: Georgia House of Representatives)

Q. What did you consider dangerous about the amendment to the antisemitism bill?

A. So the definition we wanted essentially says antisemitism is a ‘certain perception’ of Jews which leads to other things, and [Republican Sen.] Ed Setzler, who doesn't really have a Jewish constituency, decided he knows better and said it should be a ‘negative perception’ of Jews. He brought that into the committee meeting. He obviously had planned for it, and didn't discuss it with anybody in the Jewish community. I immediately saw it and said, literally while I'm sitting there testifying, ‘This is dangerous.’ It's not just negative perceptions that get Jews killed. It's positive perceptions — that Jews have power, or Jews have money — those get Jews killed just as much as any other antisemitic tropes. When they passed the amendment, we were shocked, and then John and I looked at each other and said this cannot go forward. So we asked the chair to table the bill. … Then the Lt. Governor decided it was important enough that he called a separate meeting of the Children and Families committee in the Senate, and it passed as we had authored it with the IHRA [International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance] definition of antisemitism … and then it was ready to get called up on Sine Die.

And we waited all day and night and it never got called, and I don’t know why. I'm a freshman Democrat. The president of the Senate doesn't consult me on what legislation he calls up. 

Last year, when the community was being taunted by antisemites throughout the state, we thought that would have been enough to get it called. Obviously, we're in a whole new dimension right now, after Oct. 7. Last year the challenges we came up against were that you should be able to criticize Israel, and this bill wouldn't let you. Which is untrue — it's a definition. And it’s only applied to decide the intent of a crime or an unlawful act. It doesn’t come into play except for discerning the motive of a crime against somebody Jewish, or perceived to be somebody Jewish, or something that's already unlawful, like housing discrimination or school discrimination because you're Jewish. So that's the only way it comes in.

And now after Oct. 7, I think people can see that what other people used to call anti-Zionism but not antisemitism has a lot of overlap, and something that's anti-Zionist can easily be antisemitic. Whereas last year, people wouldn't accept that reality. … So now we’re seeing ‘Gas the Jews’ at protests, and ‘River to the Sea,’ which calls for the expulsion of Jews or the murder of Jews. All of these used to be just called, ‘I'm criticizing the Israeli government.’ No, you're not. … Why are you attacking Jews in America for what you don't like going on in Israel? That's antisemitic. So this definition, and I said this in my speech last year — we hadn't seen very many examples of this in the United States, but Europe had, and that's who came up with the definition. So they were already dealing with anti-Zionism as antisemitism and we just hadn't seen it. … And now that definition is the only definition that takes into account people harming Jews because of what's going on in Israel.

Q. The war between Israel and Hamas in Gaza is far away from Georgia, but close to your heart. You've been very vocal on social media and elsewhere about the conflict. What is most important for people in Georgia to understand about this latest chapter in the complex 75-year Israel-Palestinian conflict??

A. So somewhere between 90% and 95% of Jews believe in Zionism, which is Jewish self-determination. Not Jewish supremacy, [but] Jewish self-determination. And so when you see these outlying groups like Jewish Voice for Peace [JVP], or If Not Now, they don't represent the Jewish community. They are the fringiest of the fringe and they are anti-Zionist and don't believe that Israel has a right to exist. Again, that's contrary to what 90% to 95% of the world's Jews believe.

So I want them to know that anybody who tokenizes Jews by holding up JVP, or If Not Now, that's what they're doing, they're tokenizing the Jewish community by using some who are willing to be used as a cover. And don't forget, there were Jews who supported the Nazi party before they were killed. So I put those in the same category. And nobody ever believes me when I say there were Jews in favor of the Nazi party, but there were … and just like now, it's very difficult for the mainstream Jewish community to believe that there are people actively trying to harm Israel during this time. And everybody I know has a personal connection to what happened over there. One of my children was friends with somebody who was murdered in the music festival. There was a lone soldier that was just killed from Dunwoody a couple weeks ago. And I have family in the IDF [Israeli Defense Forces]. Everybody here has a connection there. It might be remote geographically; it is not remote emotionally and psychologically. 

And then, as if what happened wasn't bad enough, you have the denialism. I went and watched that 43-minute video that they were showing to the journalists. I wouldn't wish watching that on anybody who doesn't have to. These are things you can't unsee. They are seared into your soul. But I had to bear witness as an elected representative that these things actually happened. And the glee that was taken by those murderers. So I do a lot of domestic violence work as part of my practice. And when there's a murder with domestic violence, it’s incredibly personal.… and that's what this was, but between strangers. … Of course everybody should be concerned about innocent civilians being caught up in it. The blame needs to be on Hamas for putting civilians in harm’s way intentionally. They want their numbers to go up, the numbers of dead. They don't include the numbers of combatants in their totals, but any child's death, any baby's death is one too many deaths. I look back to other wars that were fought to eradicate terrorists, like the Nazis — there was a blockade of Germany, because things were going to be used by the Nazis. There's always this balancing act of how to treat civilians, not just children, all civilians. And I believe there are a lot of mostly innocent people there, so you have to balance it … Hamas has said time and again that they will do this again and again and again. They have to be wiped out. But every life is sacred and every death is mourned. But again, Israel didn't start this.

… I criticized the far left, the Squad [progressive Democrats in Congress], for not speaking on Oct. 7. I made a snarky Tweet. And I was attacked by the far progressive left. And they threatened me with the primary. I say bring it. I didn't need this job. I have a law career. I still have a practice if I don't win. I mean, I'll be sad. I like doing what I'm doing, but I'm losing money being in the Legislature because I’m out of work for three months. So I'm not scared by competition.

Q. What does it mean to you for Gov. Brian Kemp to announce that he was sending an additional $10 million in state funds to support Israel's defense and flying the state flag at half staff for a week in the wake of the Hamas attack??

A. I was in Israel at the same time as Gov. Kemp in May. We saw each other at the U.S. Embassy reception. I'm incredibly grateful that he went. It was his first time and his family's first time to see why Israel means so much to the Jewish community here. How we are inextricably intertwined. Our lives here, our survival here, is dependent on the survival of the state of Israel. So I'm grateful for everything he does for Israel. And I'm hopeful that he will do the same for the American, Georgian Jewish community if this [antisemitism] bill passes, by signing it.

Q. Your work as a legislator can impact many people's lives and must feel consequential and perhaps even stressful at times. When you're not working, what do you do to unwind, free your mind and conjure up some joy?

A. That's a good question. I try to get to the mountains as much as possible just to disconnect. And I will say that I was raised in the Conservative branch of Judaism … and I was never [so] observant as to have no phones, no travel, no cars, that kind of thing on Shabbat [the Jewish sabbath]. Last weekend for the first time I realized how stressful everything was, and it was getting to me, and I stopped social media for the first time for Shabbat. And I think each week from here on out, I'm going to do something else that requires me to disconnect, because it is stressful. There's a lot of honor being the only Jewish member and a lot of responsibility, especially since Oct. 7. So I take that very seriously and it's hard to disconnect. I haven't done anything fun. My mother and I were supposed to travel to Europe and Israel for my birthday five days after Oct. 7, and I didn't feel that I could leave the district. … So I haven't had a vacation in a very long time, but I'm grateful that my family has a place in the mountains where I can just get away and wear a sweatshirt and disconnect.

The Esther Panitch file

Position:  Representative, District 51 (D-Sandy Springs/Fulton County)

Age: 52

Birthplace: North Miami, Florida

Current residence: Sandy Springs

Education: Bachelors of science in communications and a law degree, both from University of Miami.

Career path: Started her legal career as a domestic violence court coordinator, and then served as an assistant public defender in Miami-Dade County, handling cases from misdemeanors to murder. Moved with her family to Georgia in 2004, and joined the Fulton Conflict Defender’s Office before opening a private firm in Atlanta representing criminal defendants, victims and clients in family law cases. She is serving her first term as a state legislator.

Family: Husband, Roger Panitch, and three children: Miriam, 24; Ben, 22; and Jacob, 20.

Hobbies/passions outside work: Spending time in the north Georgia mountains; volunteering with Hadassah, the Women’s Zionist Organization of America.

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