Ga. Capitol roundup: Lawmakers rescue bill to define antisemitism

Published: Mar. 23, 2023 at 11:12 AM EDT
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Among the latest development at the Georgia Capitol:

  • The Senate Children and Families Committee revives legislation to legally define antisemitism.
  • A measure would standardize how compensation is handled for people who are wrongfully convicted.
  • Lawmakers come up against a deadline as they try to make more changes to Georgia’s mental health system.
  • The ProGeorgia coalition of more than 60 nonprofits was recognized for efforts to get people registered to vote.

Antisemitism legislation makes a return

ATLANTA - A new Senate committee has given new life to a bill that would formally define antisemitism in Georgia law.

The Senate Children and Families Committee voted 6-2 on Thursday to insert language that had previously been in a different bill into House Bill 144.

The effort had faltered Monday after the previous bill was amended in a way that sponsors opposed, after running disputes over whether it would be used to censor criticism of Israel.

The bill would adopt a definition by the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance, which defines antisemitism as a “perception of Jews, which may be expressed as hatred toward Jews” and can have both “rhetorical and physical manifestations.”

Supporters say a legal definition is necessary because officials don’t always recognize antisemitism. Beth Gaan and her son Aaron Gaan testified that Fulton County schools failed to act for 18 months as students taunted Aaron Gaan and his brother with swastikas and “Kill the Jew” posters.

“Why? Because there was no definition,” Beth Gaan said. “The school was afraid to act, and the police could not act. And if there was a definition of antisemitism, there would not have been a question of what this was and how to act.”

Supporters say it would be used to prove that someone is motivated by anti-Jewish feeling if they commit a crime or an illegal act of discrimination. That could help prove a hate crime under a 2020 Georgia state law that allows additional penalties for crimes motivated by race, color, religion, national origin, sex, sexual orientation, gender or disability.

But opponents say they fear the definition will be used to police speech on college campuses and elsewhere, pointing to a 2019 dispute at Georgia Tech over whether student group programming claiming Israel is a racist and apartheid state. The bill directs state agencies to consider antisemitism as evidence of discriminatory intent for noncriminal law and policy prohibiting discrimination.

“This bill is not about combating antisemitism,” said Fatima Chaudhry, the president of the Georgia Tech Muslim Students Association. “It is a bill that will be used to silence those advocating for Palestinians and against human rights violations in Israel, infringing upon freedom of speech.”

This bill includes “targeting of the state of Israel,” as one manifestation of antisemitism, although the alliance says on its website that “criticism of Israel similar to that leveled against any other country cannot be regarded as antisemitic.”

The House voted 136-22 to approve the previous measure, House Bill 30, just a few weeks after some residents in suburban Atlanta found anti-Jewish flyers left in their driveways inside plastic bags. Among them was Democratic Rep. Esther Panitch of Sandy Springs, one of the bill’s sponsors and Georgia’s only Jewish legislator.

A survey conducted last fall by the American Jewish Committee found that four in five American Jews said antisemitism in the U.S. has grown in the past five years. A quarter of respondents said they were directly targeted by antisemitic expressions, either in person or on social media. But there has been persistent opposition the Georgia measure. Some critics warn it would limit free speech, especially in criticizing the actions of the state of Israel.

Bill would revamp aid for those wrongfully convicted

ATLANTA - A bill making its way through the Georgia Legislature would change how the state compensates people who serve time after being wrongfully convicted of a crime.

HB364, the Wrongful Conviction Compensation Act, would establish a compensation process.

According the the Georgia Innocence Project, Georgia is one of 12 states that do not provide statutory compensation for people who are wrongfully convicted.

Exonerees can get paid now, but advocates say the process isn’t an easy one.

“The current process is extremely complicated and inefficient,” said Blis Savidge with the Georgia Innocence Project. “Right now exonerees can get compensation but what they have to do is they have to find a lawmaker to sponsor a private resolution and then they have to lobby the Legislature.”

The bill, which goes next to the Senate Appropriate Committee, includes a proposal of paying $60,000 to $120,000 for each year wrongfully behind bars. An exoneree could receive cash up to $1.5 million and then an annuity for any additional compensation after that. It would create a panel of people including judges, lawyers and other experts to review the claims and make recommendations, as opposed to lawmakers who currently make the decisions when an exoneree appeals to them.

Georgia Senate unveils new mental health bill at late hour

ATLANTA - An effort to make more changes to Georgia’s mental health system could stall in the closing days of the 2023 legislative session even though a Senate committee on Wednesday unveiled a rewritten bill that House sponsors and advocates found broadly acceptable.

That’s because the Senate Health and Human Services Committee didn’t take a vote on House Bill 520 and didn’t schedule another meeting before a Thursday deadline for bills to advance out of Senate committees.

Committee Chairman Ben Watson, a Savannah Republican, said that means a two-thirds vote of the Senate would be required to set aside normal rules and vote on the bill after the deadline. When asked whether he would seek that move, Watson said “That’s probably not my question to answer.”

Voting rights advocates recognized for registration efforts

ATLANTA - A coalition of more than 60 nonprofits were recognized Thursday for their efforts to get people registered to vote.

The coalition ProGeorgia. They are a group of non-profits committed to making sure people get registered to vote each election year, and that people exercise their right to vote.

The group said they have ramped up their efforts, and over the last ten years, and collected nearly 250,000 voter registration forms and have contacted millions of potential voters. Despite their success, they said there is still much work to do.

“We shouldn’t have to change the rules every year to vote. We shouldn’t have to clear people off the rolls if they haven’t voted recently. We should be able to request an absentee ballot and mail it in without difficulty, said Tamieka Atkins, with ProGeorgia.

The coalition was recognized by both the House and Senate chambers. ProGeorgia will be going on tour starting in May, hitting other parts of the state to try and get people registered to vote.