Florida now ranks fourth in the country for incidences of antisemitism, with 269 incidents in 2022.
D'Ann Lawrence White, Patch Staff
D'Ann Lawrence White, Patch Staff
FLORIDA — With the signing of a bill by Gov. Ron DeSantis increasing penalties for antisemitic acts of harassment and vandalism, the Jewish community in Florida is calling on cities throughout the state to demonstrate solidarity by adopting the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance's definition of antisemitism.
DeSantis signed House Bill 269 May 1 following his visit to Israel in April to help the country celebrate its 75th anniversary of independence.
The bill, which received the unanimous approval of both the House, 114-0, and the Senate, 40-0, expands the legal penalties against those who harass, threaten or intimidate people on the basis of religious beliefs, making all threats a first-degree misdemeanor and all "credible threats" a third-degree felony.
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DeSantis said the new law reinforces the vow he made to the Jewish people in 2019 when he signed HB 741 into law in 2019, combating antisemitism in public education.
The legislation also allowed him to place economic sanctions on Airbnb, which attempted to boycott Jewish homeowners in Judea and Samaria. Airbnb was placed on DeSantis' newly created Florida List of Scrutinized Companies. Ben & Jerry's was later added to the list after the ice cream company boycotted Israel.
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Ben Cohen and Jerry Greenfield — the founders of the ice cream company, both of whom are Jewish — told Axios in 2021 that their decision to stop selling ice cream in Israeli-occupied Palestinian territories led to backlash.
“In 2019, I had the opportunity here in Israel to sign into law groundbreaking legislation to root out antisemitism from our public education system, establishing Florida as a leader in protecting religious liberty,” DeSantis said during his April 28 address in Jerusalem. “Four years later, the threats faced by religious Americans of all faiths have evolved. Through this legislation, we are ensuring that perpetrators who commit acts of antisemitism and target religious groups or individuals will be punished.”
Passage of House Bill 269 was universally lauded by Jewish groups throughout Florida.
"This is an important first step toward giving law enforcement the tools they need to hold antisemites accountable for their targeted acts of harassment and intimidation," said Mike Igel, chairman of the Florida Holocaust Museum. "It sends a clear message to antisemites that acts of bigoted intimidation will not go unpunished."
Cities Urged To Define Antisemiitism
Meanwhile, Clearwater became the 24th city in Florida and the only city in Tampa Bay to approve a resolution adopting the definition of antisemitism outlined by the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance.
The Clearwater City Council voted unanimously in favor of the resolution in April.
"All sorts of bigotry and hatred are certainly intolderable, but with the increase in violence and hate directed at the Jewish community, this resolution is particularly appropo now," said council member Kathleen Beckman.
"It is very sad and troubling to me that in 2023 we need to be gathered here today asking you to pass a resolution regarding antisemitism," said Stuart Berger, a 34-year resident of Clearwater and director of the Jewish Community Relations Council for the Gulf Coast Jewish Federation of Florida.
"Antisemitism has often been described as the most ancient and enduring of hatreds, and much like the virus, it adapts to the times it finds itself in," Berger said. "In our country antisemitism went underground after the second world war. Unfortuately, it never went away. And today it is no longer underground. We know passing this resolution will not end antisemitism but it is an important step to combatting it."
"It helps to remind our citizens that violence, hatred and bigotry will not be tolerated," said Samuel Huckin, a Clearwater resident and board member of the Jewish Federation of Florida. "Jewish people are just 2 percent of the world population but receive over 55 percent of hate crimes."
Although the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance's definition of antisemitism has been adopted by 39 countries, including the United States, and 30 U.S. states, Clearwater resident Bruce Holberg said, "Unfortunately, antisemitism has become in fashion again."
A decade ago, he said, there were 751 incidents of antisemitism in U.S., according to Antidefamation League. In 2022, that number climbed to 3,697 incidents, the highest on record.
With 269 reported incidents of antisemitism in Florida last year, Florida is now fourth in the nation for antisemitic activities, Holberg said.
Combating Antisemitism In Florida
As part of the effort to fight antisemitism, nonpartisan watchdog nonprofit StopAntisemitism has teamed up with the Christian advocacy organization, Philos Project, to launch a billboard campaign, condemning antisemitic behavior.
“Florida has, unfortunately, become a hotbed of antisemitism, which goes against Christian values, and we could not allow our Jewish neighbors to shoulder this burden alone," said Philos Project Deputy Director Luke Moon.
“We need more non-Jewish groups like the Philos Project to take a public stand against antisemitism,” said StopAntisemitism Executive Director Liora Rez. “Jews cannot be alone in this fight; bigotry and hatred being spewed in Florida will not end with the Jewish people nor stop at the state border. We hope these billboards encourage and empower more of our allies.”
One billboard is located near Orlando International Airport, another is in Miami and two more are located on Pinellas County's Gulf beaches.
Last November, another nonprofit group called JewBelong placed three billboards along Interstate 275 in at Floribraska Avenue, Westshore Boulevard and near Tampa International Airport after derogatory flyers began appearing in Tampa neighborhoods and swastikas were painted on buildings in the city.
"The occurrence of antisemitic incidents continues to rise in the Tampa Bay area as evidenced by the dissemination of offensive flyers, neo-Nazis rallying on street corners and vandalism at schools, government buildings and libraries," said JewBelong co-founder Archie Gottesman.
While he said the messaging of these billboard campaigns is "provocative," Mark Segel, director of strategic initiatives for the Tampa Jewish Community Centers and Federation, said they "recognize the benefit of such a campaign" and are pleased to see national nonprofits join their effort to fight antisemitism in Tampa Bay.
He said the Tampa JCCs and Federation are eager to partner with non-Jewish and Jewish communities "to explore how we can work together to make Tampa a safe and welcoming place for people of all faiths, races, nationalities and backgrounds."
Among the Tampa JCCs and Federation's initiatives are:
- Working with leadership at the Hillsborough and Pasco County school systems to ensure proper responses to antisemitic incidents at the schools.
- Monitoring social media, publishing appropriate content and reporting inappropriate posts.
- Bringing community members together for seminars and workshops to learn how to best combat antisemitism.
“The Jewish people have a long history of standing up against hate, intolerance and bigotry regardless of whether it’s being directed at us or others," said Tampa JCCs and Federation President Jeffrey Berger. "We are proud to work with the Black, Asian, Hispanic and other communities to help make Tampa a place where all people can live happily, safely and securely.”
Among those fighting against antisemitism are students at Tampa Preparatory School in Tampa.
On International Holocaust Remembrance Day in January 2022, antisemitic graffiti was found inside a locker room at Tampa Prep.
Florida Holocaust Museum chairman Mike Igel, who happens to be a graduate of Tampa Prep, decided to turn the hate crime into a teaching moment.
During an all-school assembly, he told Tampa Prep students how his grandparents were saved from the Nazis by strangers who died rather than give them up, illustrating the importance of standing up for others.
“While I was speaking, I could tell these kids just got it,” Igel said. “They were engaged throughout, but I knew the message had resonated when non-Jewish students from diverse backgrounds approached me to say they felt supported and seen. If anyone wonders why Holocaust education in schools is important, they need look no further.”
The students turned Igel’s lessons into action, forming new clubs focused on diversity, including the Jewish Student Union and Indian Culture Club.
“We didn’t just feel that we had a safe space to form these clubs — they were actually celebrated,” said Seth Black-Diamond, president of the Jewish Student Union. “So many students were interested in joining that we had to hold our first meeting in the auditorium.”
Head of School Kevin Plummer said he's seen the impact firsthand.
“A few months into the school year, I asked a recent transfer about her experience here," said Plummer. "The student, who had been teased and singled out for her hijab at her former school, said, ‘At Tampa Prep, there are kids like me — and the ones who aren’t like me, still like me.’
“I could not be prouder of our students for their focus and follow-through,” Plummer said. “Mike helped remind us that when life presents us with hate and division, we can overcome it with understanding and respect.”
“Seeing the students’ response makes me so hopeful for the future,” said Igel. “We live in a world full of hate and ignorance, but responses like this remind us that good will always overpower evil if we are brave enough to take action.”
This year on International Holocaust Remembrance Day, Tampa Prep students hosted an assembly during which students spoke from the heart about their own experiences with bigotry and talked about ways to stand up to hatred.
Taking Action Nationally
On April 25, U.S. Sen. Jacky Rosen, D-Nevada, and Sen. James Lankford, R-Oklahoma, co-chairs of the Senate Bipartisan Taskforce for Combating Antisemitism, introduced the Holocaust Education and Antisemitism Lessons (HEAL) Act to strengthen Holocaust education at public schools as well as awareness of available Holocaust educational resources in local communities.
This bipartisan legislation would direct the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum to conduct the first comprehensive study on Holocaust education and resources nationwide to help improve the ways in which public schools are equipped to teach about the Holocaust and antisemitism.
Noting that Florida was the first state to require Holocaust education in schools, Igel said it was heartening to see the focus on Holocaust education expanding to the federal level.
"Especially as the number of Holocaust survivors dwindles, it’s more important than ever to pass this knowledge to the younger generations," he said. "It is part of the museum’s mission to teach everyone the inherent worth of human life in order to prevent future genocides, and efforts like these bolster our commitment to that goal.”
If passed, the bill would require the U.S. Department of Education to provide a report on Holocaust education in schools, examining quality, education materials and assessment metrics, as well as identifying schools where Holocaust education is not required.
“Antisemitism is rising around the nation. The solution for combating this issue is, first and foremost, education," Igel said. "Holocaust education has never been more necessary. The Holocaust teaches us what can happen when perpetrators encounter bystanders instead of upstanders. Thankfully, it also contains powerful lessons about the value of standing up and defending one another’s common humanity, especially in the face of evil."
What House Bill 269 Means
HB 269 builds existing laws regarding the exercise of religion in Florida by:
- Prohibiting a person from intentionally dumping litter onto private property for the purpose of intimidating or threatening the owner, resident, or invitee of such property;
- Prohibiting a person from willfully and maliciously harassing, threatening, or intimidating another person based on the person's wearing or displaying of any indicia relating to any religious or ethnic heritage;
- Creating a new prohibition against displaying or projecting, using any medium, an image onto a building, structure, or other property without the written consent of the owner of the building, structure, or property;
- Creating a new trespass offense if a person who is not authorized, licensed, or invited willfully enters the campus of a state college or university for the purpose of threatening or intimidating another person, and is warned by the institution to depart and refuses to do so;
- Prohibiting a person from willfully and maliciously interrupting or disturbing any assembly of people met for the purpose of acknowledging the death of an individual.
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