trip talk

Ahead of Israel trip, DeSantis faces pressure to address antisemitism

Florida governor could use trip to Israel this week to sign new state hate crimes bill

Spencer Platt/Getty Images

Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis speaks to police officers about protecting law and order at Prive catering hall on February 20, 2023 in the Staten Island borough of New York City.

In advance of Gov. Ron DeSantis’ highly anticipated trip to Israel this week, the Florida legislature is expected to pass a new hate crimes bill stemming from a recent surge of antisemitic incidents across the state.

If history is any guide, the Florida governor could use part of his speech at the Museum of Tolerance Jerusalem to promote the bill and perhaps even ceremonially sign it into law — as he did while spotlighting a similar piece of legislation on his last tour through Israel four years ago.

GOP insiders in Florida suspect that DeSantis, whose plans for the trip remain closely guarded, is weighing a repeat gesture as he heads to Israel on Thursday. “The timing of it would fall right in line with his trip,” Mike Caruso, a Republican state representative who authored the legislation in Florida’s House, said in an interview with Jewish Insider on Monday. If the bill passes early this week, as he anticipates, “it’s going to be there for the governor to sign in Israel if he chooses to.”

An overture of that sort would come as DeSantis has faced pressure from Jewish Republicans who say they are eager to see the governor speak out against rising antisemitism, particularly as he gears up to launch a widely expected presidential campaign.

His upcoming appearance in Israel could help to placate some Jewish activists who, in recent interviews with JI, have expressed disappointment over the governor’s continued silence amid a troubling uptick in antisemitism, even as he has taken other steps to win support from Jewish voters ahead of a potential announcement.

In recent weeks, Jewish leaders in Florida and from outside the state have reached out to DeSantis’ team in a behind-the-scenes campaign exhorting the governor to issue a public statement directly condemning antisemitism, according to people involved in the effort who asked to remain anonymous to discuss a sensitive matter. 

So far, their requests have gone unheeded, they told JI.

“A lot of people feel that they would like to see him take a stronger position on this,” said a Jewish leader in South Florida who is involved in local efforts to combat antisemitism and hate crimes. “I know he’s pro-Israel, but when these antisemitic acts are happening throughout the state — and they are happening, I believe, in almost every county if not every county — it seems to me that somebody should be taking a look at that and saying we don’t want hate here.”

A spokesperson for DeSantis did not respond to a request for comment from JI. 

During his time as governor, DeSantis, 44, has hardly ignored the issue of antisemitism. In May 2019, for instance, he led a signing ceremony in Israel to promote an education bill adding religion as a protected class with respect to discrimination in public schools while legally enshrining a definition of antisemitism to include accusations of Jewish dual loyalty.

“Florida is the most Israel-friendly state in the country and as long as I’m governor, we will continue to stand with the Jewish community,” he said in a statement at the time.

Last fall, a spokesperson for DeSantis released a statement condemning antisemitism on the governor’s behalf, following criticism from Florida Democrats over his delay in denouncing a proliferation of high-profile demonstrations targeting Jews.

“Governor DeSantis rejects attempts to scapegoat the Jewish community — it has no place in Florida,” his press secretary, Bryan Griffin, said last October, touting “a proven record of supporting the Jewish community and fighting antisemitism” as well as the Boycott, Divest and Sanctions movement against Israel.

Earlier in 2022, the governor had rejected calls to condemn a Nazi protest in Orlando, claiming at a press conference that Democrats were “trying to smear me as if I had something to do with it.” 

Now, however, Jewish leaders strongly believe the current moment demands a direct response from the governor, amid a sharp rise in antisemitic incidents, including assault, harassment and vandalism, reported last month in an annual audit conducted by the Anti-Defamation League.

The report did not account for more immediate incidents, including a string of antisemitic flyers distributed in recent weeks throughout Palm Beach County as well as demonstrations from a neo-Nazi group, the Goyim Defense League, whose leader recently relocated to Florida.

“Local leaders have strongly condemned these antisemites who have descended upon our community from elsewhere,” Dave Aronberg, the Democratic state attorney for Palm Beach County, told JI. “We would love to have the governor use his bully pulpit to strongly condemn these antisemites and tell them to leave our state.”

Aronberg said he has spoken with Jewish Republican leaders in Florida who are engaged in contacting the governor but is not involved in the outreach himself, even as he supports the effort. “It used to be the easiest thing in the world for elected officials to condemn Nazis. It was a gimme,” he said. “Today, it’s not as easy.”

Meanwhile, Robin Bernstein, a former U.S. ambassador to the Dominican Republic in the Trump administration who lives in Palm Beach, is optimistic that DeSantis’ upcoming trip to Israel “will give him a platform” to speak out, she said in a recent interview with JI.

The governor’s one-day visit to Israel on Thursday will be his third stop on an international trade mission that kicked off in Japan on Monday and is scheduled to conclude in the United Kingdom. In a recent statement, the governor’s office said he “will meet with government leaders and Israeli companies that have invested or are interested in investing in Florida,” among other things.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu confirmed in an interview with CBS’ “Face the Nation” on Sunday that he was open to meeting with DeSantis during the governor’s visit this week.

DeSantis will also deliver the keynote address at the Museum of Tolerance Jerusalem to commemorate the 75th anniversary of Israel’s founding “at a time of unnecessarily strained relations between Jerusalem and Washington,” DeSantis said in a separate statement last month.

Bernstein expressed hope that the governor will use the new hate crimes legislation “as an opportunity to stand against antisemitism” and other acts of bigotry, she said.

The bipartisan legislation, which seeks to criminalize displays of “religious or ethnic animus” on private property as felony hate crimes — in response to a surge of such incidents across the state — was unanimously approved in the Florida House last week. A companion bill is expected to pass the state Senate before Thursday and then sent to the governor’s office, where it will await his signature. 

DeSantis has not publicly commented on the bill. But Caruso, the state lawmaker who authored the legislation, said he had discussed it with the governor’s office and was confident it would pass. He said he would be “ecstatic if the governor signed” the bill in Israel later this week. 

“That would really give it some coverage that I think the bill deserves,” Caruso told JI. “I hope the governor does. I look forward to it. We shall see.”

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