An informal survey — a reporter asking people he knows — finds many unable to name their state representative or senator.
This might be a good time to find out, as the Georgia General Assembly convened Jan. 8 for its 2024 session.
This year’s top legislative priority for Jewish Atlanta’s communal organizations is — as it was last year — to place in the state code a reference to the definition of antisemitism adopted by the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance.
Last year’s debate was framed by incidents of anti-Jewish leaflets being thrown onto properties in areas with Jewish populations — among them the driveway of state Rep. Esther Panitch, a Fulton County Democrat, and the singular Jewish voice in the legislature.
This year’s backdrop is Israel’s war against Hamas in Gaza, sparked by the Hamas-led, Oct. 7 massacre of 1,200 people and the kidnapping of 240 from kibbutzim, towns, and an outdoor music festival in southern Israel.
“I believe that if this bill cannot pass now, when the world can see that anti-Zionism frequently crosses into antisemitism, it will not pass until there is a dead or injured member of the Jewish community,” Panitch said.
She noted that Georgia’s hate crimes statute was passed into law only after the February 2020 murder of Ahmaud Arbery, a 23-year-old African American, who was pursued and killed by three white men while jogging in a neighborhood near Brunswick, Ga.
The IHRA definition reads as follows: “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.”
The IHRA definition is controversial less for that wording than its 11 accompanying examples of antisemitism. Several deal with Israel, including 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.”
The measure’s opponents contend that those examples could be used to stifle speech about Israel. Proponents reject that assertion, contending that the definition — which they label the “gold standard” — will be employed by prosecutors to determine if a crime was motivated by anti-Jewish animus and by state agencies to deal with internal issues.
If passed and signed into law, Georgia would join the 33 states that have adopted the IHRA definition via legislation, resolutions, executive orders, or proclamations. More than 40 countries (including the United States, per an executive order by then-President Donald Trump) and 1,100 non-governmental institutions also have adopted the IHRA definition.
The strategy favoring a reference to the IHRA language, rather than including the wording itself, is designed to block attempts to amend the definition. Last year, a bill overwhelmingly cleared the House but died in the Senate when an attempt to alter the wording prompted its lead sponsors — Cobb County Republican Rep. John Carson and Panitch — to ask that it be pulled from consideration.
“In speaking with lawmakers, there is a different understanding of the importance of the definition,” said Dov Wilker, regional director of the American Jewish Committee, who cited “the language that’s being used, the type of rhetoric we are hearing in response to the war.”
The Jewish Federation of Greater Atlanta employs Rusty Paul — the president of iSquared Communications, Inc., as well as the mayor of Sandy Springs — to lobby on the community’s behalf.
“We have worked with Rep. Carson and Rep. Panitch to reinforce with Senate leaders the importance of retaining the IHRA definition of anti-Semitism which is the standard in most states and has survived several court challenges,” Paul said. “This issue has attained critical status given the significant recent rise in antisemitic activity.”
Beyond the antisemitism definition, other priorities include increasing Medicaid reimbursements to meet current costs, an item of importance to Jewish Family & Career Services and other social service providers and expanding access to the program, which serves low-income and disabled Georgians.
“The state has a long history of underfunding Medicaid programs. That is driving more providers from the program since reimbursements fail to cover service costs. Medicaid patients are finding it harder to access providers willing to accept them. The state has accumulated a record surplus, and we will work to get some of those resources shifted to Medicaid to improve access,” Paul said.
The need to increase reimbursement rates is critical for the William Bremen Jewish Home and other providers of home and community-based services. Increased funding would aid recruitment, training, and retention of professionals and support non-profits that serve these clients.
Georgia is one of 10 states that have rejected expansion of Medicaid coverage. Republicans have indicated a willingness to consider accepting federal funds to expand Medicaid in exchange for relaxation of the certificate of need rules that govern construction of hospitals.
Terri Bonoff, CEO of JF&CS, also urged the legislature to “ensure compliance” with the mental health parity law passed last year under the leadership of then-House Speaker David Ralston, a Republican, who died in November. “This is in response to the urgent, increased need for mental health care and rising caseloads, particularly among children, youth, and families,” she said.
School vouchers likely will return to the agenda. House Democrats last year were joined by a number of Republicans to halt a Senate measure that would have provided $6,500 to families of students who leave public schools in favor of private schools or home schooling.
The legislature also may consider expansion of an education tax credit program, known as Student Scholarship Organizations, utilized by the ALEF Fund, which provides scholarships to Jewish day schools. The state makes available $120 million in tax credits, with individual filers eligible to receive a $2,500 tax credit and joint filers $5,000 for SSO donations. Businesses can receive a maximum credit of $25,000.
“The program is annually oversubscribed, which means credits are prorated rather than the dollar-for-dollar credit expressed in the law. Meanwhile, a state auditor’s analysis shows the program actually saves the state money while giving parents flexibility and assistance to choose sending their students to Jewish day schools,” Paul said.
A June 2023 report by the state auditor said that in calendar year 2022, a total of 18,743 scholarships were awarded to private school students, in amounts ranging from more than $10,000 to less than $1,000. While the report said that “the exact fiscal impact cannot be determined,” it also held that the program’s “fiscal impact is driven by expenditure reductions resulting from fewer students in public schools, which offsets the forgone tax revenue.”
Another proposal circulating among Jewish organizations would establish a state version of the federal Non-Profit Security Grant program utilized by religious institutions and non-profits to afford security enhancements. In fiscal year 2023, the federal program provided $305 million in such aid. In fiscal 2022, more than $2.4 million was distributed to religious institutions and non-profits in designated high-risk urban areas in Georgia and more than $4 million was shared elsewhere through the state.
Panitch also would like to see a state law that increases penalties for people who surreptitiously distribute hate material, such as antisemitic flyers, on private property.
- Dave Schechter
- Georgia General Assembly
- International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance
- Esther Panitch
- Ahmaud Arbery
- John Carson
- Dov Wilker
- American Jewish Committee
- jewish federation of greater atlanta
- Rusty Paul
- Jewish Family & Career Services
- William Bremen Jewish Home
- Terri Bonoff
- David Ralston