On May 31, Florida Governor Ron DeSantis signed a bill that prohibits anti-Semitism in public schools and universities throughout the state. However, the legislation also equates criticism of Israel with anti-Semitism, effectively censoring the advocacy of Palestinian rights.
Two days before DeSantis officially signed HB 741 into law in Florida, he carried out a symbolic signing during a ceremonial state cabinet meeting in Israel. The session featured a variety of Israeli speakers and culminated with Florida lawmakers issuing a declaration of support for the country. “Since we’re in Jerusalem, we may actually get some interest in our Cabinet meetings for a change, which would be great,” joked DeSantis during the meeting. A number of news organisations filed a lawsuit against the state’s government, claiming that the meeting violated Florida’s transparency law, as it took place in a foreign country and wasn’t made publicly accessible to journalists. Although they weren’t officially listed as members of DeSantis’ delegation, he was accompanied by pro-Israel mega donors Sheldon and Miriam Adelson.
HB 741 states that, “A public K-20 educational institution must treat discrimination by students or employees or resulting from institutional policies motivated by anti-Semitic intent in an identical manner to discrimination motivated by race.” The bill identifies anti-Semitism as calls for violence against Jews, Holocaust denial, or the promotion of conspiracy theories that target Jewish people, but it also contains an entire section that equates Israel criticism with the prohibited anti-Semitism. This includes, “applying a double standard to Israel by requiring behaviour of Israel that is not expected or demanded of any other democratic nation.” According to the bill’s text, criticism of Israel is always anti-Semitic unless it is “similar to criticism toward any other country.”
“We know what could happen in Florida from the chilling effects we’ve already seen elsewhere: human rights defenders will be smeared as antisemites, investigated by schools, and in some cases punished. Events will be cancelled, or censored via bureaucratic harassment. Theses will not be written. Debates in class will not take place. And many activists will self-censor out of pure exhaustion,” Palestine Legal’s senior staff attorney Meera Shah told Mondoweiss, “All of this profoundly diminishes Florida’s ability to educate students to be leaders in a global economy.”
The House version of HB 741 was sponsored by State Representative Randy Fine, a rabidly pro-Israel lawmaker who has held office since 2016. In April, after Sen. Audrey Gibson voted against HB 741’s companion bill and called it “divisive”, Fine denounced the Senate Democratic Leader and called on Democrats to “hold her accountable.” “It is sad that in the world propagated by Washington Democrats like Congresswomen Ihlan Omar and Rashida Tlaib and Tallahassee Democrats like Audrey Gibson, fighting anti-Semitism is ‘divisive’, said Fine, “In this time of rising anti-Semitism around both the country and globe, it is unconscionable that the most powerful Democrat in the Florida Senate would vote against banning discrimination based on anti-Semitism.”
That same month, Fine made headlines for referring to a Jewish constituent as “Judenrat”, a term used to describe Jews who collaborated with the Nazis during World War 2. Fine used the word in reference to Paul Halpern, a Palm Bay resident who organised a panel discussion regarding the Israel/Palestine conflict. Fine took to Facebook to criticise the panel for being anti-Semitic. “First, there is no ‘Palestine,’” Fine wrote, “Second, having a bunch of speakers who advocate for the destruction of Israel but promise that this one time they won’t, is a joke. We should not engage these bigots. We crush them.” After Halpern pushed back on this assertion and pointed out that the majority of the panelists were Jewish, Fine responded, ″#JudenratDontCount..I know that Judenrat liked to keep tabs on all the Jews in order to report back to the Nazis back in that time, but no one is making you continue that tradition today.”
“In my mind, Judenrat is the worst thing that you can call a Jewish person,” Halpern told the Huffington Post, “He’s despicable as a representative and a person.”
Governor DeSantis is a close ally of the President and some believe that the Israel trip could help deliver Florida for Trump in 2020. “For a lot of Jewish voters, this trip puts an exclamation point on the Republican Party’s commitment to Israel and to Jewish people,” the Republican Jewish Coalition’s Neil Strauss recently proclaimed, “We saw a nice rise in support for Gov. DeSantis and we want to keep that going. Florida is the best example of where if Republicans gain Jewish voters, it can make a real difference.”
Although HB 741 faced little political resistance, a group of Jewish Floridians sent a letter to DeSantis in April asking him to veto the legislation. One of the letters signatories, the constitutional lawyer Alan Levine, co-authored an Orlando Sentinel op-ed the following month with community psychologist Donna Nevel which denounces the bill. “There is little doubt that a prosecution under HB 741 for criticising Israel will be challenged as unconstitutional,” they wrote, “But beyond that, we should all be deeply troubled by any attempt by the government to put someone in jail simply for speaking out on a matter of such public concern as a country’s human rights violations.”