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The rise of new anti-Semitism: How threatened are Florida’s Jews?

by David Silverberg

For Jews, Passover is a holiday commemorating danger but also liberation.

It memorializes the night that death came for Egypt’s first-born but spared the Jews, who fled slavery the next day for freedom and, ultimately, the Promised Land.

Passover this year was particularly poignant but also especially relevant for the Jews of Florida.

Florida may not be the Jewish promised land but, as for all Americans, it has been an attractive place to retire, to prosper, raise families and pursue happiness.

But in the past few weeks there has been a new and increasingly dangerous trend. As political turmoil and tensions roil the state, its two most prominent political figures are using ancient anti-Semitic tropes for political purposes.

It is one thing when anti-Semitism is expressed in isolated incidents of vandalism, leafletting and demonstrations at the grassroots. But it is far more threatening and orders of magnitude worse when scapegoating and ancient smears come from a top official using the power of his bully pulpit—and that’s what’s happening in Florida.

Causes for concern

The political drama consuming the United States right now is the prosecution of former President Donald Trump for numerous alleged crimes. However justified, this prosecution has raised the country’s emotional temperature and inflamed political passions.

It has also resurrected the classic anti-Semitic technique of scapegoating a whole people based on a stereotype of a single, supposedly cunning and manipulative individual.

Of the many villains and demons in his universe, Trump is aiming his increasingly desperate ire at George Soros, a Jewish billionaire and contributor to democratic and Democratic Party causes. (More about Soros in the sidebar below.)

Because a Soros-funded political action committee contributed to the campaign of New York District Attorney (DA) Alvin Bragg, Soros’ name has become an epithet that is always linked to Bragg in the Trumpist and Make America Great Again (MAGA) mythos.

Typical was the Monday, April 3, Trump fundraising message to his followers.

“What liberal billionaires like George Soros and the globalist cabal fear most is YOU,” his message stated. “…YOU – alongside more than 74 million of your fellow patriots – PROVED that even a corrupt billionaire like Soros and his puppet D.A. are no match for the sheer will and collective might of our MAGA movement.”

As Kurt Braddock, a public communication professor at American University, told USA Today of the messages: “They’re loaded with anti-Semitic language, some of which has been used in the past to validate violence against Jews. There’s no other way to describe it — he’s using anti-Jewish stereotypes and historical hatred to raise money.”

Trump’s hatred, prejudice and rage is inclusive and diverse in the sense that it encompasses all his perceived enemies, regardless of their race, religion or color. Most thinking people are unlikely to take his attacks on Soros any more seriously than they take his attacks on anything else.

However, when Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis (R), a shadow candidate for president, decided to defend his rival for the nomination, he chose to scapegoat Soros and use the same tropes as well.

“The weaponization of the legal system to advance a political agenda turns the rule of law on its head. It is un-American,” DeSantis stated in a March 30 tweet. “The Soros-backed Manhattan District Attorney has consistently bent the law to downgrade felonies and to excuse criminal misconduct. Yet, now he is stretching the law to target a political opponent.”

He continued: “Florida will not assist in an extradition request given the questionable circumstances at issue with this Soros-backed Manhattan prosecutor and his political agenda.”

DeSantis continued his scapegoating at a speech last Saturday, April 1, in Harrisburg, Pa., in which he stated “And I can tell you this: these Soros DAs are a menace to society, a menace to the rule of law.”

These accusations are in a different category altogether because they come from the lips of the highest elected official in Florida.

An ugly rising tide

For some time now anti-Semitism has been a rising problem in Florida as well as throughout the United States.

On March 23, the Anti-Defamation League (ADL), a New York City-based Jewish organization that tracks and fights anti-Semitism, released its Audit of Antisemitic Incidents 2022, a comprehensive look at anti-Semitism nationwide.

It found that last year saw a 36 percent rise in anti-Semitic incidents.

The Audit stated: “In 2022, ADL tabulated 3,697 antisemitic incidents throughout the United States. This is a 36% increase from the 2,717 incidents tabulated in 2021 and the highest number on record since ADL began tracking antisemitic incidents in 1979. This is the third time in the past five years that the year-end total has been the highest number ever recorded.

“Incidents increased in each of the major Audit categories: antisemitic harassment increased 29% to 2,298; antisemitic vandalism increased 51% to 1,288 and antisemitic assaults increased 26% to 111. The vast majority of antisemitic assaults (107 out of 111) were perpetrated without the use of a deadly weapon. There was one fatality. Notably, visibly Orthodox Jews were targeted in 53% of the assault incidents nationally. This year, no assaults perpetrated against the Jewish community resulted in mass causalities.”

In Florida, there was a rise in propaganda-based incidents like leafletting and banner displays. As the Audit put it:

“The activities of several newly formed white supremacist groups in 2022 also contributed to the rise in propaganda incidents. These new groups – the Texas-based Aryan Freedom Network, Florida-based NatSoc Florida, the Iowa-based Crew 319, the Southern California-based Clockwork Crew (aka Crew 562), Florida Nationalists and the short-lived, New York-based Aryan National Army – were responsible for seven percent (or 62 incidents) of the antisemitic propaganda distributions in 2022.

“As in previous years, extremists used fliers, posters, stickers, banners and graffiti to share their antisemitic views. In Florida, NatSoc Florida and GDL [Goyim Defense League] used laser projectors to cast antisemitic messages on buildings on at least seven occasions. Individuals associated with GDL, Crew 562 and Crew 319 drove around in moving vans draped with antisemitic propaganda.”

In Florida, Jacksonville has been the particular focus of anti-Semitic activity, with laser images of swastikas projected on buildings.

In Southwest Florida anti-Semitic activities included defamatory leafletting related to COVID prevention mandates in Fort Myers and online posting of an anti-Semitic video by Katie Paige Richardson, at the time the campaign manager for Collier County School Board candidate Tim Moshier.

However, some of the incidents involved vandalism and destruction of property.

On Jan. 31, 2022 Rabbi Mendel Greenberg’s mailbox in Bonita Springs was destroyed, his car window smashed, and his sidewalk defaced with the word “Jew’s” in big red letters. The vandalism was committed by two teenagers, Tucker Bachman, 17, and a 14-year old accomplice who were swiftly caught by the Lee County Sheriff’s Office. The vandals were charged with hate-crime felonies and in March they were sentenced to probation.

On March 11 of this year 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.

(The individual was described as a man in his 50s wearing a white shirt and tan pants. Police said he was about 6 feet tall, 200 pounds, with glasses and thinning gray hair. He remains at large and anyone with information on his identity or whereabouts is encouraged to contact Cape Coral police at (239)-574-3223 or email at Anonymous phone tips can be submitted by calling Crime stoppers at (800) 780-TIPS. Please reference Case Number 23-006123).

Both these attacks were directed at Chabad houses. These are centers of worship and community activity for the very orthodox Lubavitcher Chasidic sect and movement. The buildings prominently displayed Jewish symbols. In keeping with biblical commandments and Jewish tradition the rabbis in both centers were very traditional in appearance. They had full beards, always wore yarmulkes (skullcaps) and generally dressed conservatively in black and white clothes, with the tassels of prayer shawls showing from beneath their shirts.

In other words, they fit traditional Jewish stereotypes and so were targeted.

The incidents above and those detailed in the Audit show the kind of low-level, fragmented anti-Semitic activity now taking place at street level.

But when the sentiments being expressed in vandalism and leafletting are given high government sanction and encouragement, the threat goes to a whole new tier.

The consequences of calumny

Both Trump and DeSantis would likely deny any anti-Semitism given their past extravagant shows of support for the State of Israel.

While he was president, Trump made a great display of supporting Israel, among other things ordering the movement of the US embassy to Jerusalem, a move Israelis had been urging practically since the founding of the state in 1948.

For his part, Israel’s prime minister at the time, Benjamin Netanyahu, played up to Trump while he was in office and even founded a city with his name, Ramat Trump, in the Golan Heights.

(In 2020 their friendship ended when Netanyahu officially congratulated President Joe Biden 12 hours after he was declared the winner of the election. Trump reportedly responded: “He [Netanyahu] was very early — like, earlier than most. I haven’t spoken to him since. F–k him.”)

Netanyahu was also happy to welcome DeSantis, who took an entourage of Jewish Floridian donors to Israel in May 2019 on a business mission to build trade ties. At the time he vowed to be “the most pro-Israel governor in America.” In Israel, among his other activities, he visited Yad Vashem, the Israeli Holocaust memorial.

Both men’s pro-Israel gestures no doubt played well with Jewish political contributors. But for Floridians at the grassroots, their rhetoric has very different consequences.

That’s because it’s the scapegoating, stereotyping and anti-Semitic dog whistles that are filtering down to their grassroots supporters.

So far, there has not been any anti-Semitic violence against Jews in Florida like the Oct. 27, 2018 shooting of 11 Jewish worshippers in the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh, Pa.—the same state where DeSantis made his most recent attack on George Soros.

But the lies, smears and conspiracy theories are circulating and the more these politicians play to them, encourage them and repeat them, the more likely that physical violence will follow.

Trump in particular more than offset whatever pro-Israel sentiment he expressed and whatever Jewish family ties he possessed (his daughter Ivanka converted to Judaism and his son-in-law Jared Kushner is Jewish) by the whole aura of “hatred, prejudice and rage”—and violence—that he projected both as a presidential candidate and then as president. His statement in 2017 that there were “very fine people on both sides” of the clashes in Charlottesville, Va., opened the door to social acceptance of neo-Nazism and far right prejudice.

Trump probably did not realize the full implications of what he was saying at that time. Even after four years in the presidency he remains an astonishingly ignorant man, virtually oblivious to history. In 2017 he didn’t have a clue—but he doesn’t seem to have learned much since.

DeSantis, however, is a different case. Not only did he have an Ivy League education (Yale, Harvard) and serve in a military that cannot and does not tolerate racism and prejudice in its ranks, he is at least passingly familiar with the Holocaust thanks to that visit to Yad Vashem.

He is also renewing his Israeli ties. On March 28 The Jerusalem Post newspaper and a new Museum of Tolerance Jerusalem announced that DeSantis will again visit Israel to deliver the keynote address on April 27 for an event titled “Celebrate the Faces of Israel.”

The Museum of Tolerance Jerusalem in particular, is a new institution whose mission is to “encourage democracy, combat the roots of anti-Semitism and extremism, and promote regional stability, global harmony, human dignity and a love of Israel.”

So given his knowledge of history and his familiarity with the Holocaust and the events and factors leading to it as well as his association with an institution devoted to preventing their recurrence, DeSantis’ Soros scapegoating and use of anti-Semitic tropes has no excuse. In fact they express forethought and conscious intent—and DeSantis should know better.

Moreover, given his repetition of his Soros scapegoating at his campaign-style appearances outside the state, it looks like he’s taking this anti-Semitic show on the road and will be repeating these smears throughout the country in the months ahead as he campaigns for president.

Analysis: A fraying consensus

The American consensus against overt expression of anti-Semitism and Nazism had its origins in World War II and the revelation of Nazi death camps and genocidal extermination efforts. It’s worth remembering that prior to America’s entry into the war, anti-Semitism was a widely accepted sentiment and actively promoted by prominent Americans like Henry Ford, Charles Lindbergh and Father Charles Coughlin, a radio-broadcasting priest.

However, the Holocaust was so horrific, so inhuman and so extreme that since the liberation of the camps it has been viewed as the nadir of human behavior. Even in popular entertainment, Nazism became synonymous with evil.

To prevent a recurrence, the Holocaust has been commemorated, taught in schools, academically examined and been the focus of institutions like museums. Nazi exterminators have been hunted down, prosecuted and deported even when they were in their 90s.

But now it is 78 years since Nazi Germany surrendered. That’s nearly four generations and the memory is fading. A generation of people like Katie Paige Richardson is coming of age, with no knowledge of the past and a susceptibility to outlandish conspiracy theories and fantasies. Even in education, Holocaust studies are eroding. In Florida’s Martin County, the Holocaust-themed novel The Storyteller was banned from the local school district’s library due to a parent complaint.

Throughout America and especially in Florida, the consensus against anti-Semitism is being treated as one more “politically correct” taboo, one more “woke” prohibition among many that are being dismantled and discarded.

The crumbling of this consensus can be traced to that one particular moment on Aug. 15, 2017 when Donald Trump said that there were “very fine people on both sides” of the conflict in Charlottesville, Va.

Coming from the mouth of a President of the United States, Trump appeared to be saying not only that neo-Nazis could be “very fine people” but that Nazism and anti-Semitism could be “very fine” too—whatever other caveats he might have expressed at that moment.

Even if the sensible world recoiled in horror, even if it inspired a former Vice President to run for president at the age of 74 and fight for the “soul of America,” as Joe Biden has said it did, Trump’s words nonetheless opened a box of demons that had been kept tightly sealed for the previous 72 years.

In Florida the governor, who aspires to be President of the United States, is crusading against “wokeness,” hoping to ride a segment of the population’s resentment of public prohibitions against racism, misogyny, discrimination—and anti-Semitism—to the White House. But the unacceptability of anti-Semitism was perhaps the first “woke” taboo of the modern era and he’s determined to smash them all.

His rival, Trump, who is struggling in the grip of the law like a feral pig in the coils of a Burmese python, is similarly using every trope, stereotype and bias to escape justice.

Jews have known situations like this before. They’ve seen the outcomes of this kind of turmoil. They’ve faced this kind of “hatred, prejudice and rage” many times, even at the dawn of their history. Now, presumably, they know better than to just paint their doorposts with blood and hope the Angel of Death will pass over them.

In the past they’ve been victims. They’ve also been victors—but they’ve only been victorious when they’ve actively defended their inalienable right to exist.

Special to Big Mouth Media from the Paradise Progressive. Originally published om April 6, 2023.

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