With the signing of a bill by Gov. Ron DeSantis on May 1 increasing penalties for antisemitic acts of harassment and vandalism, the Jewish community in Florida is now calling on cities throughout state to demonstrate its solidarity by adopting the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance’s definition of antisemitism.
DeSantis signed House Bill 269 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.
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.
“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.”
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.”
With 269 reported incidents of antisemitism in Florida last year, Florida is now fourth in the nation for antisemitic activities, Holberg said.
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.”