Jewish Groups Assess State Legislature Action

Jewish Groups Assess State Legislature Action

An unexpected setback for Atlanta’s major Jewish organizations was the failure to add a definition of antisemitism to the state code.

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

Rusty Paul declared the legislative session an “overall success” for the Jewish Federation’s priorities.
Rusty Paul declared the legislative session an “overall success” for the Jewish Federation’s priorities.

The gavel came down, “sine die” — a Latin phrase that lawmakers translate as “we’re out of here” — was declared and, early on April 5, the frenetic final day of the Georgia General Assembly session came to an end.

An unexpected setback for Atlanta’s major Jewish organizations was the failure to add a definition of antisemitism to the state code. Early confidence was replaced by shock when a bill overwhelmingly approved by the House did not receive a Senate floor vote.

The legislation called for employing the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance definition, which states: “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.”

Matt Weiss said the antisemitism definition bill fell prey to divisions among Senate Republicans and other priorities.

Matt Weiss, legislative chair of the Jewish Community Relations Council of Atlanta, said: “The bill’s fate was the byproduct of internal divisions within the Republican leadership in the state Senate and the rush of other legislation during the final hours of the General Assembly that was deemed ‘higher priority.’”

The office of Republican Lt. Gov. Geoff Duncan, who presides over the Senate, told the AJT that “we had a very full calendar the last few days of session and unfortunately time ran out before we could get to HB 1274 in the Senate.”

Dov Wilker, regional director of the American Jewish Committee, summed up the supporters’ sentiments: “We’re disappointed that the Senate did not vote on House Bill 1274. This important bill, at a time of rising antisemitism, would have demonstrated significant leadership and support for the Jewish community. We hope that in the next legislative session a similar bill will be reintroduced, and the state will be able to demonstrate its continued support for the Jewish community.”

That “disappointing failure” aside, Rusty Paul, a lobbyist for the Jewish Federation of Greater Atlanta, declared the 2022 session “an overall success for JFGA’s priority issues.” Paul is president of iSquared Communications, Inc., as well as the mayor of Sandy Springs.

Republican Gov. Brian Kemp signed a bill that increased — to $100,000 from the previous $1,000 — the threshold for a state contract that would require a vendor to pledge not to participate in any boycott of Israel. In effect, this monetary increase reduces the number of potential lawsuits against the law.

Aaron Ahlquist said that public schools will face “very difficult decisions” about teaching uncomfortable subjects.

Georgia’s statute, and similar laws in other states, have been challenged by proponents of the Boycott, Disinvestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement, which seeks to employ economic pressure to force changes in Israeli policy toward the Palestinians.

When a federal judge in May 2021 rejected a request to dismiss a lawsuit challenging the Georgia law, he also declared that it violated free speech provisions in the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution, as well as Fourteenth Amendment due process protections.

On another Israel-related issue, lawmakers created a Georgia-Israel Legislative Caucus, to promote business, educational and cultural ties between the two.

The legislature expanded the tax credits available to people who donate to K-12 private school scholarships, an item of importance to Jewish day schools and the ALEF Fund, which provides scholarships. Beginning next year, the available tax credits increase to $120 million annually, from the current $100 million. The maximum individual tax credit will rise to $2,500 from the current $1,000, and the maximum business credit to $25,000 from the current $10,000.

Kemp was expected to sign bills that restrict how divisive subjects, such as American racial history, are taught. Aaron Ahlquist, policy director for the Southern division of the Anti-Defamation League, said that Jewish groups remain concerned about Holocaust education being impacted by efforts to avoid making students feel uncomfortable.

“To be truly effective, Holocaust education must be more than an objective recitation of fact. And the lessons of the Holocaust require difficult conversations around the dangers of building systemic hatred. To learn about the fragility of democracy, the importance of standing up for one another, the ways in which the normalization of hatred and bigotry can have devastating consequences,” Ahlquist said.

Terri Bonoff is optimistic about the mental health reforms, but awaits details on implementation.

“I think that the threat to Holocaust education may have been slightly mitigated, but schools will be facing some very difficult decisions about what they can and cannot teach, without any real guidance or clarity because of the vagueness of the bill, and could very well make a choice not to put themselves at risk by crossing some subjective and arbitrary line.”

The General Assembly also made sweeping changes to the state’s mental health policies.

Beginning July 1, the state must enforce a federal “parity” law requiring insurance companies to treat mental health coverage as they do physical health. The state also will forgive student loans for mental health providers in underserved parts of the state, in hopes of spurring more students to enter the field. Mental Health America, a nonprofit advocacy group, ranks Georgia last in mental health professionals per capita. The American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry says Georgia has eight psychiatrists per 100,000 children, compared with its recommendation of 47 per 100,000.

“The mental health legislation holds great promise,” said Jewish Family & Career Services CEO Terri Bonoff. “Currently our reimbursement rates for those clients who use insurance to see our clinicians are woefully low. This legislation requires insurers to pay in ways that mirror other medical care.”

“Directionally, it’s huge,” Bonoff said, but the proverbial devil is in the details. State agencies must translate the bill’s language into rules and guidelines that instruct agencies such as JF&CS on which services and clients are eligible for increased reimbursement.

Rusty Paul declared the legislative session an “overall success” for the Jewish Federation’s priorities.

The bill directs state agencies to provide grants to support outpatient services. “Again, this will be enacted with language that has yet to be developed. We certainly will advocate and hope that all of these changes help nonprofits and other providers scale up, adding capacity to meet the urgent and growing demand and to help people have greater access to care,” Bonoff said.

Medicaid reimbursement rates remains a priority for JF&CS and Jewish HomeLife, operator of The William Berman Jewish Home, a skilled nursing facility and the provider of at-home and community-based services through The One Group.

Paul said that JFGA “championed” the bill directing the Department of Community Health to study reimbursement rates for at-home and community-based care. “The legislation essentially acknowledges that the state Medicaid program pays providers below-market rates for the services they provide,” he said.

JF&CS and JHL will benefit from the $1.9 million that the state budget has earmarked to pay for the required fingerprinting of workers serving the aged, blind and disabled — a cost previously borne by the agencies. Paul said that this augments the 10 percent increase in state funding for at-home and community-based services approved last year.

The legislature opened up 513 slots for special needs Medicaid programs, earmarked $4 million for non-Medicaid, at-home and community-based services and approved increases of 2 percent in funding for services for people with intellectual or developmental disabilities, 5 percent for family mental health support programs without Medicaid support and 10 percent increase for addiction services. All of this “would be very, very helpful, as those programs have been hit particularly hard during the pandemic,” Bonoff said.

Rep. Mike Wilensky said that opposition to restricting concealed weapons in houses of worship is stronger in rural Georgia.

Under Georgia law, houses of worship — synagogues included — that wish to ban guns now must post a notice to that effect.

The new law permitting Georgians to carry concealed weapons without a permit “has generated controversy within the Jewish community,” Weiss said. “The community is divided on the issue, with more conservative Jews supporting the legislation and more liberal Jews opposing it.”

Democratic Rep. Mike Wilensky, who is retiring after serving two terms in the state House, told a JCRC post-session forum that legislative resistance to restricting concealed carry in houses of worship is stronger in rural Georgia, where it is more common for church members to “put on their boots, put on their tie and put on their gun.”

JCRC Executive Director Leslie Anderson noted that many synagogues already employ armed, off-duty police officers to be present outside, and sometimes inside, their buildings. “It’s a special kind of fear that I don’t think a lot of other folks feel in the same way, having not been targeted because of antisemitism,” Anderson said.

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