House Bill 269 seeks to curb rash of anti-Semitic incidents in Florida
WFSU | By Margie Menzel
Across Florida, anti-Semitic sentiments have been projected onto buildings, hung from an overpass, tossed into yards in the night. A bill before the Legislature would toughen the penalties for some of this.
According to the Anti-Defamation League’s annual Audit of Anti-Semitic Incidents, Florida is the state with the 3rd-highest number of such incidents -- 190 in 2021. For perspective, there were 98 such incidents reported statewide in 2017.
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“And I wept for the fact that we have children who require armed guards to safely come to Sunday school," said Alicia Smith. "It’s just wrong.”
Smith chairs the security committee of Tallahassee’s Temple Israel. When their regular armed guard didn’t show up one Sunday, Smith was called. Outside the classroom, parents were anxiously waiting with their children -- afraid to bring them to Sunday school without an armed guard.
It’s not paranoia. And media reports suggest the number in Florida increased still further last year.
An anti-Semitic message was projected on the outside of the TIAA Bank Field football stadium in Jacksonville. Anti-Semitic banners have been hung from interstate overpasses. Anti-Semitic flyers have been distributed in Jewish communities in South Florida.
“We were called as a community, as a nation, to stand for the 6 million Jews who got murdered by Hitler’s Nazis in World War II, and I think today we’re called to stand for the 672,000 Jews that now live in Florida,” said Delray Beach Republican Representative Mike Caruso.
Caruso is the sponsor of House Bill 269. Under the bill, people who take actions such as defacing or damaging religious cemeteries, projecting images of religious “animus” onto a property without permission or harassing others because of religious-based garments could be charged with third-degree felonies.
“Every time I get a threat on Facebook, I just leave it up," Caruso said. "You know, I get phone calls, I get it through every medium there is. But the ones on Facebook, my wife says, ‘Why don’t you just take them down?’ I say, ‘No, that just proves the whole point.’”
Caruso’s wife is Jewish. The comments on his Facebook page say things like: “Dismantle the Jewish oligarchy that owns the media.” One calls him a traitor and says, “your treasonous attempts to trample the free speech rights of Americans is duly noted and will be dealt with a harsh response.” Or: “This guy is trying to eliminate free speech... Go re read the 1st Amendment ..He wants to make it a 3rd degree felony just for pointing out Jewish power.”
“There’s always the haters," Caruso said. "I know Randy’s gotten some threats, I’ve gotten a lot of threats. People that co-sponsor the bill -- and right now I think we’ve got about 25 legislators co-sponsoring the bill -- and they’re all receiving threats.”
“It is not criticized as much as other forms of discrimination" said Brevard Republican Representative Randy Fine. "It’s sort of like ‘Well, that’s just the Jews.’"
One of the co-sponsors of the bill is Fine, who is Jewish.
"And so what we need to do, and what we’re proposing to do in Florida, is to speak loudly and forcefully and say, ‘This just isn’t welcome here,'” Fine said.
As of now, much of what has concerned Fine and Caruso is considered hate speech. And hate speech—no matter how hurtful or offensive, is protected under the First Amendment. Former Florida Supreme Court Justice Barbara Pariente is Jewish, too, and commends the intent of House Bill 269. And yet—
“I believe the main concern would be that we do not run afoul of the First Amendment, which entitles individuals and groups to engage in hate speech as long as it doesn’t foment violence,” she said.
Pariente belongs to a temple in Palm Beach County that, like Temple Israel in Tallahassee, has increased its security.
The Anti-Defamation League reports that 2021 recorded the highest number of anti-Semitic incidents nationwide since the group started tracking them in 1979. The ADL began seeing a sharper rise in anti-Semitism in 2016—the year former President Donald Trump was elected. Reports of anti-Semitic activity have increased each year since 2018.
Pariente does not name names. But she notes that one of the early steps leading to the Holocaust was the banning and burning of books.
“And that’s why I’m so concerned with seeing in our state books that might lead to difficult conversations being banned from libraries and teachers being afraid that they’re going to run afoul of certain mandates,” she said.
Recent laws passed by the Republican-led Legislature and approved by Gov. Ron DeSantis have resulted in school books being challenged and pulled from shelves. There are also new rules governing how teachers discuss certain aspects of race, history, gender and sexuality in the state’s public schools. Nationally, people are politically polarized. High-profile celebrities spout racist and anti-Semitic views with few consequences.
Tallahassee’s Alicia Smith says there’s been an uptick in harassing calls to Temple Israel, along with letters and posts to its Facebook page.
“And people are fearful, and people stoke those fears for their own powerful political ends," she said. "And that’s how it happens. And I keep reminding my children and my grandchildren and my fellow congregants -- even my non-Jewish friends -- particularly my non-Jewish friends -- that all it takes for evil to exist in the world is for enough good people to do nothing. And that’s my biggest fear.”
House Bill 269 faces three committee stops. As yet, it has no Senate sponsor.