The issue of anti-Semitism has taken on urgency in recent weeks.
Amid alarming statistics showing a spike in anti-Semitism, seven Jewish organizations in Florida united lawmakers and law enforcement for a virtual Town Hall to call attention to the issue.
Seven chapters of the Florida Jewish federations worked to organize the virtual town hall, which also hosted U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio and U.S. Reps. Vern Buchanan, Byron Donalds and Gus Bilirakis, among other local leaders.
“It’s an ancient evil. It’s one that has reared its head over and over again throughout human history,” Rubio said about anti-Semitism. “Whether it’s somebody spray painting hateful messages on the side of a building or some of the rhetoric we hear, domestically or internationally, it’s incumbent upon all of us to call it out for what it is.”
Gov. Ron DeSantis, who traveled to Jerusalem in 2019 to sign a bill that made religion a protected class in the state’s education system, was also on hand.
“I’m very pro-Israel I have great relationships over there,” DeSantis said.
DeSantis discussed international policy during the town hall and said “sanctions by the United Nations” are feeding into anti-Semitism. The U.N. has adopted resolutions condemning Israel, not sanctions.
“Israel has a right to defend itself, and if these international institutions are singling them out in applying a different standard to the world’s only Jewish democracy, then we are saying, yes, that is anti-Semitic to apply a separate standard in that way,” DeSantis said.
DeSantis said he thinks policymakers should create policies that discourage anti-Semitism.
“I think if you look back 20 years ago, anti-Semitism is worse today than it was, which is really incredible that we would be seeing that. And I think the best way to do it from a position in elected office is we got to go on offense against anti-Semitism,” DeSantis said.
The Florida Legislature, this past Session, put millions toward security at Jewish institutions and schools.
The issue of anti-Semitism has taken on urgency in recent weeks after several highly publicized anti-Semitic incidents, including when the Florida Holocaust Museum in St. Pete was vandalized with graffiti depicting swastikas and, in Bal Harbour, a Jewish family was harassed outside a synagogue with a driver yelling slurs and throwing garbage at them.
The Holocaust Museum is in Rep. Ben Diamond’s district.
“These are not isolated incidents. In fact, there were recently anti-Semitic fliers circulated in my neighborhood, as well as along iconic Beach Drive here in downtown St. Petersburg. So, this is not just an academic discussion. This is a real discussion about what we can do and a call to action for us all to be involved in calling out anti-Semitism and hate, wherever we see it,” Diamond said.
Anti-Semitism in Florida, according to the Anti-Defamation League, saw a 40% spike from 2019 to 2020. The group said the tension in the Middle East between Israel and Hamas has caused “a dangerous and drastic surge in anti-Jewish hate” in the U.S. According to the FBI, in 2019 60% of all hate crime in the U.S. targeted Jews.
Those statistics may not even show the full extent of the problem, because reporting hate crimes to the FBI is purely voluntary under federal law.
One new federal law that recently passed, the Jabara-Heyer NO HATE Act, seeks to improve hate crimes data collection.
Other speakers included State Rep. Fiona McFarland, State Attorney Andrew Warren, St. Petersburg Police Chief Anthony Holloway and David Harris, CEO of the American Jewish Committee.
“People ask what can be done, and obviously that’s the single most important question, what can we do about it,” Harris said. “Well, we’ve gathered today to express our collective outrage, and that’s one important step. Silence is never the answer. But there’s more we have to do. We have to count on our political leaders.”
Several speakers, like Rubio, DeSantis and Donalds, emphasized standing with Israel in their speeches as a means to combat anti-Semitism, many referencing the recent conflict between Israel and Hamas, which resulted in the deaths of at least 227 people in Gaza and 12 in Israel.
Florida Politics reporter Kelly Hayes contributed to this report.
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