by David Silverberg
While anti-Semitism continues to be a problem in Florida and elsewhere, the president, governor, legislators and police are pushing back against hate-driven actions on the ground.
The day after the shooter of 11 Jewish worshippers in Pittsburgh, Pa., went on trial, the US House of Representatives unanimously passed a bill condemning anti-Semitism. President Joe Biden’s administration has issued a new national strategy to combat anti-Semitism and the state of Florida has a new law against hate propaganda.
There is a tendency, especially among those who are the targets of ideological hatred, to concentrate on threats and dangers while overlooking countermeasures and successes. When it comes to anti-Semitism the stakes are particularly high and the reaction particularly acute, given that anti-Semitism demonstrably leads to murderous violence and only 80 years ago it gave rise to state-sponsored genocide by Nazi Germany.
But a clear-eyed, objective, evaluation of the overall situation is necessary for a rational—and effective—response.
So what is the state of anti-Semitism today nationally, in Florida and in its Southwest corner? And what is being done about it?
The national response
On May 25, President Joe Biden’s administration issued the US National Strategy to Counter Antisemitism. The strategy “represents the most ambitious and comprehensive U.S. government-led effort to fight antisemitism in American history,” according to its introduction.
“The Strategy outlines a whole-of-society effort to combat antisemitism, including unprecedented, coordinated, and bold actions that will be implemented across government agencies, as well as calls to action for public officials, private sector leaders, and Americans from every sector, industry, and walk of life,” it states.
Fundamentally, the Strategy rests on four pillars:
Pillar 1: Increase awareness and understanding of antisemitism, including its threat to America, and broaden appreciation of Jewish American heritage;
Pillar 2: Improve safety and security for Jewish communities;
Pillar 3: Reverse the normalization of antisemitism and counter antisemitic discrimination, and;
Pillar 4: Build cross-community solidarity and collective action to counter hate.
As part of its overall approach, the Strategy orders over 100 specific actions, including protecting places of worship, launching an education campaign, and conducting annual threat assessments by the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) and the National Counterterrorism Center.
In addition to that executive action, on May 31, the US House of Representatives passed House Resolution 382. The bill celebrates Jewish American Heritage Month but also “calls on elected officials, faith leaders, and civil society leaders to condemn and combat antisemitism.”
Introduced on May 9 by Rep. Debbie Wasserman-Schultz (D-25-Fla.), who represents a district covering Miami, the bill passed by 429-0 in an otherwise fractious and contentious House.
Florida’s new law and a new leader
Flanked by state Reps. Randy Fine and Mike Caruso, who sponsored the legislation, Gov. Ron DeSantis signs House Bill 269 on May 1 during a visit to Jerusalem. (Photo: Rep. Randy Fine).
On Jan. 19 of this year, before the start of the legislative session, state Reps. Mike Caruso (R-89-Palm Beach County) and Randy Fine (R-33-Brevard County) introduced House Bill (HB) 269, aimed against the kind of leafletting that had become a feature of anti-Semitic activity in Florida.
The bill made it a first degree misdemeanor “to intentionally dump litter onto private property for the purpose of intimidating or threatening the owner, resident, or invitee of such property. However, if such litter contains a credible threat, the violation is a third degree felony.”
Prohibits willfully and maliciously harassing, threatening, or intimidating another person based on the person’s wearing or displaying of any religious or ethnic clothing or insignia;
Creates 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;
Creates a new trespass offense if any person who is not authorized, licensed, or invited willfully enters the campus of a state college or university to theaten or intimidate another person, and is warned by the institution to depart and refuses to do so; and
Prohibits willfully and maliciously interrupting or disturbing any assembly of people meeting to acknowledge the death of an individual [i.e., tributes, memorials or funerals].
The bill made its way through the Florida House and Senate, receiving final passage on April 26 in a unanimous vote of the Florida Senate—and providing Gov. Ron DeSantis (R) the opportunity to sign it on May 1 with a flourish during a trip to Israel. (More on this below.)
On May 16 there was a particularly significant election for Florida when Democrat Donna Deegan was elected mayor of Jacksonville.
Beginning in October 2022, Jacksonville began gaining a reputation as a center of anti-Semitism due to the actions of a small number of activists, calling themselves National Socialist Florida. They hung banners and projected anti-Semitic slogans and symbols on prominent buildings. During celebrations associated with a Georgia vs. Florida football game, the message “Kanye was right about the Jews” was projected across the stadium and banners stating “End Jewish Supremacy in America” and “Honk if you know it’s the Jews,” were hung from an overpass. (An excellent inside look at the Jacksonville group is in the NPR article, “In Florida, far-right groups look to seize the moment.”)
The anti-Semitic messaging was denounced by Jacksonville’s outgoing mayor, Lenny Curry, and numerous other prominent residents, including Shad Khan, owner of the Jaguars football team.
In November, Deegan made a point of condemning the overt anti-Semitism in Jacksonville. She won her primary in March and went on to final victory. While hardly her only issue, the election put a solid opponent of hate in office and expressed residents’ rejection of the anti-Semites’ message.
At street level in Southwest Florida
In Lee County, police were active in investigating and pursuing a case of overt anti-Semitism in Cape Coral.
On March 11 a man threw bricks at the glass entrance doors at the Chabad Jewish Center of Cape Coral while worshippers were inside. The vandal also toppled an image of a menorah and smashed a car window when he couldn’t damage the center’s doors. On April 20, Cape Coral police arrested Maron Mark Raymon, 51, for allegedly committing the crime. Raymon had a record of numerous prior arrests and legal proceedings.
Maron Raymon (CCPD)
“I’m very pleased with the attitude of our department and our community, that we came together, that we realized that this was a horrific act and shook confidence in the core of our community, that this isn’t something that happens in Cape Coral but we can’t say this anymore,” said Cape Coral Police Chief Anthony Sizemore at an April 24 news conference announcing the arrest.
“I think it sends a message that if you do something, you’ll get caught,” observed Rabbi Yossi Labkowski in an interview on NBC2 News. “It might take a little long, it might take a little time but you’ll get caught.”
Raymon was held in custody and arraigned on May 22 and pleaded not guilty. There is no indication that he has bonded out of custody. A hearing is scheduled for 9:00 am on July 5 in courtroom 8-B before Judge Robert Branning in the Lee County Judicial Center, 1700 Monroe Street, Fort Myers, Fla.
To the south, in Collier County, things have taken a different turn.
Last October, the county issued a proclamation that “condemns any call to violence or use of violence for any purpose at any time; and resolves to actively and vigorously oppose, investigate, and prosecute to the fullest extent of the law any advocacy of violence, acts of violence, or crimes manifesting hatred against any person, property, or institution based on faith, race, gender, creed, sexual orientation, or national origin.”
That statement of principles is now being put to the test.
One incident occurred on May 3 at a meeting of the Collier County School Board when the Board met to vote on a new superintendent of schools. The climate was highly charged and emotional between supporters of an experienced candidate already serving as interim superintendent, Leslie Ricciardelli, and a more fundamentalist candidate, Charles Van Zandt, who among other statements, called for reaching out to “unchurched students” and teaching Christian values.
There were five hours of public comments at the meeting and Rabbi Adam Miller, head of Temple Shalom in Naples, spoke about concerns that Jewish and non-Christian students might be isolated if the schools became overtly religious.
The atmosphere “was unlike anything that I had experienced up to that point in a public forum like that,” Miller recounted in an interview with WGCU Public Radio. “A number of the speakers who were there, particularly many of those who were speaking in favor of the district engaging with Mr. Van Zandt, spoke in language that was extremely hateful in nature.”
He continued: “They talked about teachers as being indoctrination agents on behalf of some agenda that they don’t agree with. They spoke hatefully of those who were not identified as Christian. One speaker got up and talked about Satan being among us. So that became something that ramped up more and more inside the meeting, that sense of hatred or fear of the ‘other,’ of those who might be different than ourselves.”
Ultimately, in a surprise move, the Board voted 3 to 2 to appoint Ricciardelli superintendent, a decision that infuriated Van Zandt’s supporters and religious fundamentalists.
After the meeting Miller had one conversation that he described as “respectful,” with a member of the opposing camp. But when in the parking lot, “as I was walking towards my vehicle, a couple of men who had been talking in a group left their group and started to shout at me as I walked across the parking lot. They were shouting louder and louder and walking toward me in a way that was very aggressive, shouting things like, ‘Judaism is wrong,’ I’m on the path to sin. They were talking negatively and denigratingly of Judaism and of me as a rabbi. And it was clear that these two individuals wanted a confrontation. And it was very alarming.”
Miller went back into the building and the incident ended when the men left in their car. He said the experience left him “quite shaken” and shocked him. He spoke about the incident publicly and observed that “I think for some it’s become a wake-up call.”
The next incident came on May 15 when 70 flyers were distributed to homes in the middle-income Naples Park neighborhood. The flyers, in plastic bags weighted with white rice, announced simply that “It’s okay to be white” with a picture of a mother and child. They also carried the death’s-head (Totenkopf) logo of the Aryan Freedom Network, the Web address “white-power.org” and the final line: “Distributed randomly without malicious intent.”
As its website reveals, the Aryan Freedom Network (AFN) is an overtly racist, neo-Nazi, anti-Semitic organization. According to the Anti-Defamation League (ADL), an organization that works to combat anti-Semitism, the group, based in DeKalb, Texas, began as a white supremacist website in 2018 and became a membership organization in January 2022, working to unite a variety of white supremacist groups.
The ADL states: “AFN is led by Tonia Sue Berry (aka Daisy Barr) and Dalton Henry Stout (aka Brother Henry). Berry’s father was the late Indiana Klan wizard Jeff Berry, while her brother, Anthony Berry, was the Indiana state leader (Grand Dragon) for the now defunct Confederate White Knights. Stout’s father, George Stout, was a speaker at the 2018 ‘Arklatex White Unity Conference’ organized by Dalton and in 2021, the elder Stout was outed as a member of the Church of the Ku Klux Klan. Tonia Berry and Dalton Stout married in 2020 but appear to have divorced in April 2022.
“AFN is just the latest white supremacist group Dalton Stout has promoted or established in recent years,” it states.
Most recently, the AFN held a demonstration in Centerville, Texas, on June 5, replete with swastika flags and Nazi salutes.
An AFN demonstration in Centerville, Texas last Sunday, June 4. (Image: Twitter)
In Naples, a spokesman for the Collier County Sheriff’s Office told Naples Daily News reporter Tayeba Hussein that what they termed the “suspicious incident” of leafletting did not target “specific people.”
The random distribution and stated non-malicious intent is designed to get the leafletting around the prohibitions of HB 269, which makes it a crime to target specific individuals or make credible threats.
If the leafletting was intended to mobilize residents of Naples Park, all evidence indicates that it failed, instead sowing confusion and disgust.
“It’s what’s in your heart, you know, it’s your character. It’s not the color of your skin. And to have something like this is just offensive to me. I don’t agree with it,” resident Pam Haffener told WINK News. “It seems like it’s something that somebody just wants to stir up some trouble or something like that. I don’t know what any other reason somebody would drop something like that in the driveway.”
Analysis: Having an impact
Resolutions, legislation and a federal initiative may not seem very effective against acts of hatred on the ground but in fact they cumulatively bring considerable weight against bigots.
Anti-Semitism remains socially repulsive in American society. That’s not only evidenced by personal expressions and disapproving media coverage but in the legislation that has passed. All the most recent laws and resolutions were approved unanimously in their respective bodies. It shows bipartisan agreement and broad ideological commitment against anti-Semitism.
Further, the whole body of American law continues to prohibit criminal expressions of hatred and threats against groups of people and individuals.
The Biden Strategy in particular is a broad, detailed, whole-of-society effort to contain, diminish and punish anti-Semitism. With its over-100 specific actions at the federal, state and local levels it is likely to have an incremental but profound impact over time. No government action can end blind bigotry but eventually such broad initiatives can make a difference and the prioritization of hate crimes means they will be prosecuted as effectively as possible.
The pity, of course, is that such a government strategy is necessary at all and that previous social mores, education and disapproval are no longer sufficient to keep this kind of hatred at bay.
Additionally, no candidate on the presidential campaign trail is espousing anti-Semitism as part of his or her official platform. However, both former President Donald Trump and Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis (R) have used anti-Semitic tropes to add to their appeal to Republican primary voters. DeSantis, however, made a pilgrimage to Israel, addressed the Museum of Tolerance Jerusalem and signed HB 269 while there.
Based on historical experience, the key tipping point in societies comes when government and the forces of civil order go over to the side of extremism, hatred and rage. In Germany that occurred in 1933 when Adolf Hitler was made chancellor and began implementing Nazi ideology in law and official policy. In the United States, it was Donald Trump, as President, who expressed approval for this kind of hate in 2017 with his remarks accepting the Charlottesville, Va., neo-Nazis and extremists. It has taken the two years since he left office to try to correct the imbalance he created.
Today, as distressing as anti-Semitic groups and activities are, it needs to be kept in mind that they are still small, fragmented, illicit and widely condemned. National and state law remains firm against them and the anti-Semitism they espouse. With the support of all people, that can continue to be the case.
When it comes to Florida, what seems likely to happen up until the election of 2024 is that the state’s government and Republican politicians will proceed in an extreme rightward direction. While this may play well with an aging, hard-core Make America Great Again (MAGA) base (which is what counts for the Republican presidential nomination), it’s likely to be rejected by the rest of the country. Culturally, Florida is likely to be left an isolated, remote anomaly among the states. If anti-Semitism is part of the Florida MAGA, anti-woke mix, then the Florida way is likely to be rejected by the rest of the country as well. It will leave the Sunshine State a cold, dark self-absorbed shadow of its former self.
The case of Collier County
Politically, these are tense times in Collier County and intense passions are in play. The county’s conservatism and Trumpism has emboldened far-right activists to try a variety of extreme experiments. These have included attempting to nullify federal law and enacting an anti-vaccination ordinance and resolution. This is driven by the activism of a small group of religious zealots, anti-vaxxers, anti-abortionists and MAGA adherents (or MAGAdonians, as Trump has termed them) who claim to speak for “we the people.”
Their efforts have been defeated, rebuffed or diluted to the point of ineffectiveness. In a particular setback, despite electoral success in electing MAGA candidates in the 2022 county School Board election, the MAGA choice for superintendent was narrowly defeated, a defeat that grocer and MAGA activist Francis Alfred “Alfie” Oakes III is trying to overturn through litigation. It was at the meeting where this vote took place that Rabbi Miller was accosted.
The anti-Semitism displayed in Collier County is partially driven by religious zeal, partially the outgrowth of ideological frustration, and partially an effort to exploit the area’s reputation for extreme conservatism. This may very well be the case with the Aryan Freedom Network’s efforts. It is entirely possible that only a single person is promoting the organization. He performed the leaflet drop in Naples Park trying to gain publicity and recruit new members. All evidence indicates that he failed.
To date, there has been no violence and no prosecutable hate crimes committed in Collier County, at least as publicly discernible.
Residents have to presume that if a chargeable crime is committed, the Collier County Sheriff’s Office will swiftly, effectively and impartially investigate and prosecute it. As long as there is confidence in unbiased and professional policing to keep public order and a willingness to pursue hate crime perpetrators, something of a lid can be kept on more dangerous actions.
However, given the political passions of the presidential campaign, especially at its center in Florida, residents simply have to expect more extreme rhetoric, more threats and more incidents in the days to come.
Legislation cannot change people’s hearts. There will always be hatred, prejudice and rage and that will include hatred against Jews for simply being Jews. But maybe, if Jews are active, stand firm, don’t panic and if democracy can be preserved in Collier County and the nation, the hatred, prejudice and rage can be contained and confined to the extreme fanatics and fringe fools where it usually resides.
None of this conflict manifests itself in Florida daily life or in Collier County. The sun shines, the shops are open, people are friendly and waves languidly lap the beautiful beaches.
But it’s worth remembering that on this day 79 years ago on a different beach in Normandy, France, American and allied forces had to fight to protect democracy from the danger posed by Fascism’s hatred, prejudice and rage. They won the fight then but the struggle hasn’t ceased. And here at home it needs to be won again today.
Special to Big Mouth Media from The Paradise Progressive. Originally published on June 6, 2023.