Avert Your Eyes, Law-making in Progress
From Where I SitOpinion

Avert Your Eyes, Law-making in Progress

The "tortuous" path of legislation that would define antisemitism in Georgia.

Dave Schechter is a veteran journalist whose career includes writing and producing reports from Israel and elsewhere in the Middle East.

Dave Schechter
Dave Schechter

As the saying goes, there are two things you do not want to see made: sausages and laws.

House Bill 30, for example, would add a definition of antisemitism — that of the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance — to the Georgia state code.

“I know it when I see it” is not considered an acceptable legal standard. But — no shock here — there is division within the Jewish community on what constitutes antisemitism.

March 6 was the deadline for moving a bill from one chamber of the General Assembly to the other. “Crossover Day” is a day- and night-long conveyor belt of House and Senate floor votes.

HB 30’s route was, for its backers, surprisingly bumpy.

Rep. Esther Panitch called the process “tortuous,” as she urged colleagues to pass the bill. The first-term Jewish Democrat from Fulton County complained that HB 30 had been “twisted and contorted into something it’s not and I don’t know why.”

The IHRA “working definition” sounds straightforward: “Antisemitism is 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.”

More controversial are the 11 accompanying examples of antisemitism.
Those include accusing Jews outside of Israel of dual loyalty, comparing Israel to Nazis, calling Israel “racist,” “denying the Jewish people their right to self-determination,” and applying standards to Israel “not expected or demanded of any other democratic nation.”

Supporters insist that HB 30 will not inhibit free speech. Opponents warn that it could be used to stifle debate over Israeli policies toward the Palestinian Arabs.

The bill’s journey began in the House Judiciary Committee, where members questioned why HB 30 contained only a reference to the IHRA definition, rather than its text.

HB 30 was written that way deliberately, to prevent future legislatures from changing the language, which has been adopted or endorsed by 40 nations (including the United States), 30 U.S. states, and some 1,100 institutions worldwide.

Perhaps perplexed by this strategy or surprised to hear from Jewish witnesses opposed to HB 30, the committee unexpectedly put off a vote.

A week later, after that word “working” had been removed (the chairman, a former judge, had questioned its indefinite nature), the committee sent the bill on to the Rules Committee, the next step before a floor vote.

Supporters were caught unaware when the Rules chairman re-routed the bill back to the Judiciary Committee.

Perhaps he was swayed when Jewish opponents of HB 30 sent him a letter that noted disagreement within the community on the issue and restated free speech concerns.

The bill’s proponents revised their strategy. The IHRA language was added (but not the 11 examples). The Judiciary Committee signed off and the Rules Committee sent HB 30 to the House floor.

Late in the afternoon of March 6, HB 30’s chief sponsor, Marietta Republican Rep. John Carson, cited a lengthy list of Jewish organizations as evidence of widespread community support.

Carson, a Baptist, characterized the opponents as “a loud group of ‘quote-unquote Jews,’ that are opposing this because they support Palestine and do not support Israel and the Jewish people.”

In the future, he might want to avoid such language (which may have contributed to at least one representative voting against the bill).

Jewish identity is not inextricably linked to this or any other issue. Anti-Jewish bigots certainly don’t care.

Sunset was approaching and, with it, the start of Purim, a holiday based in the story of an unsuccessful attempt to eradicate the Jews of Persia. The heroine was Esther, a Jewish woman who caught the monarch’s eye, became queen when he banished her predecessor, and pleaded successfully on behalf of her people.

Panitch suggested that — just as the historic Esther had been the right woman in the right place at the right time — she found herself in a similar position. “This bill is not why I came to the legislature,” Panitch said, but perhaps “it is for this moment that I am here.”

When the vote results were announced — 136 in favor and 22 against (16, for whatever reason, did not vote and six were absent) — there was applause on the House floor.

Now that HB 30 has crossed over, it must clear the Senate’s Judiciary and Rules committees before reaching the floor. Any changes will require another House vote. To reach Gov. Brian Kemp’s desk, all of this must happen before the General Assembly adjourns on March 29.

Given its path thus far, there’s no certainty how this sausage — er, law — will turn out.

read more: