Georgia lawmakers, in support of Israel, pass a bill that would define antisemitism in state law


ATLANTA  — As a Southern Baptist, Suzanne Guy felt obligated to push for passage of an antisemitism bill that cleared the state legislature on Thursday.

“It should be important to everyone because it is important to the God of the Bible who has a special covenant with the Jewish people,” Guy said after the measure received final passage and was sent to Gov. Brian Kemp who is expected to sign it into law.

The legislation would put into law a definition of antisemitism written by the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance to help prosecutors and law enforcement officers identify hate crimes and illegal discrimination targeting Jewish people.

Guy, a member of First Baptist Church of Woodstock, said the measure is important because instances of antisemitism have skyrocketed since the start of the Israel-Hamas war in October.

“It is a momentous day not only for our Jewish sisters and brothers but for all Georgians," said Guy, who also serves on the Georgia Baptist Public Affairs Committee that helps set policy for the Georgia Baptist Convention, the state’s largest religious organization with some 1.4 million members. “We must stand with our Jewish sisters and brothers.”

Senate President Pro Tem John Kennedy, a Macon Republican, guided the bill to Senate passage by a 44-6 vote.

“Today we can fight a pervasive and escalating threat in our state and fight it together," Kennedy said.

The House later agreed to Senate changes, passing the measure 129-5.

The legislation definition defines antisemitism as "a certain perception of Jews, which may be expressed as hatred toward Jews. Rhetorical and physical manifestations of antisemitism are directed toward Jewish or non-Jewish individuals and/or their property, toward Jewish community institutions and religious facilities.”

Some lawmakers opposed the bill, saying they thought it would be used to censor free speech rights.

“The First Amendment guarantees our rights as citizens to criticize any government, foreign and domestic," said Sen. Nikki Merritt, a Lawrenceville Democrat. “Does our Constitution not mean anything? Do our federal laws not mean anything?

But supporters say the definition will only come into play after someone has committed a crime.

“This legislation is not about stifling free speech," Kennedy said. "Nor is it about the government stopping someone from simply sharing their views. It is about safeguarding the dignity and the safety of our Jewish friends and neighbors.”

In at least eight states nationwide, lawmakers are working on measures to define antisemitism, part of an upsurge of legislation motivated in part by the Israel-Hamas war. Arkansas passed such a law last year, and new bills are pending this year in Indiana, Florida, Massachusetts, New Jersey and South Dakota.

What was already a fraught topic in early 2023 has become downright raw with the Israel-Hamas war. Some protesters chanting “Free Free Palestine!” were dragged from the committee room Monday by police officers after the vote and one was arrested. That came after some Jewish residents of Georgia testified they had experienced a surge of bias incidents, including an antisemitic group that hung a Jew in effigy outside a Macon synagogue over the summer.

State Rep. John Carson, a Marietta Republican who sponsored the bill, told the House that the measure shows “Georgia stands with our friends in the Jewish community.”

Some Democrats said they wanted to support their Jewish constituents and allies, with some recalling the historic support of Jewish people for Black civil rights. An Atlanta synagogue was bombed in 1958 by racists striking out against a rabbi's opposition to segregation.

“The Jewish community stood hand-in-hand with us," said Senate Minority Gloria Butler, a Stone Mountain Democrat. “Today I return their favor and stand with them.”

Associated Press reporter Jeff Amy and Index editor Roger Alford contributed to this article.