DeSantis Convenes Historic Florida Cabinet Meeting In Jerusalem, Signs Anti-Semitism Bill
A long historic day took Gov. Ron DeSantis from the trade shows of Tel Aviv to an industrial park in the disputed Judean Hills of the West Bank to the cradle of Judaism and Christianity for a ceremonial meeting of the Florida Cabinet.
At every stop along the way, he worked to further polish his bona fides as the most pro-Israel U.S. governor by pushing a conservative agenda that promotes open trade, condemns boycotts and criticism of Israel, and outlaws anti-Semitism in schools.
The day was a culmination of keeping campaign promises and seeing the work he started in Congress come to fruition, with Thursday’s denouement being a somber visit to Yad Vashem, the World Holocaust Remembrance Center, and the City of David and the Western Wall.
The ultimate coup would be a hoped-for meeting Thursday with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who is in a tough battle to stay in power following recent elections that forced him to create a coalition government.
“Everyone I’ve talked to, people that are very knowledgeable, don’t know what is going to happen,” DeSantis said. “Hopefully they can straighten it out today and if that’s the case, I think I will be his first foreign meeting since the coalition gets approved.”
‘Ruckus’ or remedy needed?
At the first of several press briefings that day, DeSantis addressed the emergency injunction request filed by the First Amendment Foundation and most of the state’s newspapers Tuesday that asked a judge to block the Cabinet meeting scheduled for later in the afternoon.
He called the arguments “totally baseless” that officials were “willfully violating the law” for holding the meeting at the U.S. embassy in Jerusalem, about 6,000 miles from the state Capitol. He wondered why they waited until the last minute to file the lawsuit.
“It’s open to the public, you guys can listen in and everything so it’s not being done in secret,” he said.
He later called the lawsuit “frivolous” and said that people “sometimes just want to cause a ruckus.”
DeSantis gave the lawsuit credit for creating more interest in the Cabinet meeting, “because usually there isn’t a hell of a lot.”
For its part, the foundation said it was examining further court action that would ensure future meetings couldn’t be held outside the Sunshine State.
Praise for DeSantis, condemnation for BDS
The day started early as the 100-member delegation of the Florida business mission, organized and sponsored largely by Enterprise Florida, packed their gear, left their Tel Aviv hotels and boarded buses for the Israel-America Business Summit at the Avenue Convention Center in Airport City next to Ben Gurion Airport.
DeSantis gave the keynote address touting Florida’s “low-tax environment” and cut a video promo for the Israel Chamber of Commerce. Then the delegation hit the road again.
The press van followed the governor’s convoy of about six vehicles, including a vanload of Florida legislators from Tel Aviv into the disputed West Bank Settlement of Gush Etzion. Gilad Erdan, Israel’s minister of public security, praised DeSantis for making the journey.
“Here the Hebrew prophets envisioned society built on justice, freedom and human dignity. Here lies the roots of the great alliance between the United States and Israel…which is built first and foremost on our shared values,” Erdan said. “Governor, you’ve been one of the greatest and most consistent friends of Israel and the U.S-Israel alliance. You promised that Florida under your leadership would be the most pro-Israel state in America. And you kept your promise.”
A by-now common thread of the trip were the ardent statements DeSantis has made against the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement. He said the reason he was in the West Bank was because of his condemnation of the BDS movement that promotes boycotts of Israel during ongoing strife with Palestinians.
He again touted the sanctions that were placed on the online home rental giant Airbnb for delisting properties in the disputed West Bank.
“That triggered our anti-BDS legislation in Florida when I became governor and we put them on the scrutinized companies list,” he said. “Had we not done what we had done, other companies would have followed Airbnb’s lead.”
DeSantis also framed his gubernatorial election battle with Andrew Gillum in terms of BDS, adding that it may have played a key role in his narrow victory over the Tallahassee mayor. He said Gillum only distanced himself from the BDS movement after his come-from-behind primary victory.
“We had a blue wave throughout the country,” DeSantis said. “I’m in the nation’s toughest swing state. When you have a wave against you, you expect to get washed out.”
During a later news conference with Israeli journalists, he dismissed a question about judges in other states tossing out anti-BDS statutes by saying “You can get a district judge to do anything; it’s becoming a joke.”
“If you boycott Israel and you’re a company or country, then we are going to take action and boycott you,” he said.
To a question about helping President Trump get re-elected in 2020 by moving Jewish votes from the Democratic to Republican column, DeSantis said that “the Democratic Party has really gotten into negative waters in terms of Israel and embracing BDS. Some of the people they’ve elected to the Congress have horrific views on Israel.”
The main event
Following the event, the convoy made its way to the U.S Embassy in Jerusalem for what many considered the highlight of the trip, the Cabinet meeting and signing of the anti-Semitism bill afterward.
Reporters were barred from using computers or phones to report on the meeting live, but it was live-streamed on the state-funded Florida Channel, despite periodic glitches.
The meeting was held in what turned out to be an annex of the new U.S. Embassy in Jerusalem.
After going through a security check at the street entrance that required attendees to turn over their passports for visitor badges, the guests were escorted through the grounds of the former consulate building to a skylit room with stone columns that used to be the chapel of a monastery. The room was named after Thomas C. Wasson, the first ambassador to Israel, who was shot to death in 1948 while crossing the street.
DeSantis got the meeting started by asking Ben Cohen back in the Florida Cabinet chamber in Tallahassee to provide an invocation, but the conference system didn’t recognize the code – glitching out four times.
Afterward, Attorney General Ashley Moody joked that Israel excels in technology, “which we are still learning from.” She also said that same technology made it possible for people to watch it live-streamed back in Florida, though according to the News Service of Florida, the video dropped out and the audio was out-of-sync in the Cabinet room where members of the public and media gathered to watch the meeting.
As the meeting continued, DeSantis offered a resolution recognizing the relationship between Israel and Florida, calling Israel a true friend of the U.S. It passed unanimously.
The cabinet members heard from a victim of terror, Miriam Fuld, the widow of Ari Fuld, who was stabbed in the back last year by a 16-year-old Arab boy. She told the Cabinet the perpetrator “was raised to have nothing but hatred for Jews.”
The members also heard a presentation on water quality and emergency management from Israeli experts in those fields.
After the meeting ended, DeSantis signed an anti-Semitism bill that was passed unanimously by the Florida legislature.
Randy Fine, a Republican legislator from Melbourne Beach, got personal when he sat beside DeSantis at the King David Hotel in Jerusalem to sign the bill that adds anti-Semitism to the categories of discrimination outlawed by Florida.
He talked about a boy 32 years ago who failed Algebra because he missed one test – a test that was given on the important Jewish holiday of Yom Kippur. “If that was a real holiday we would have all had it off,” the teacher told him.
“And I swore an oath that when my boys were born nothing like that would ever happen to them,” he said. “Unfortunately, the threat of that is still real.”
The bill treats anti-Semitic conduct and other religious discrimination the same way it treats racial discrimination. It is limited to the public school system, including the state’s public universities and has to be administered in accordance with the First Amendment.
“An institution that adopts any anti-Semitic policies or guidance, that is going to be verboten,” DeSantis said at a press briefing immediately after signing the bill.
Jeffrey Schweers is accompanying Gov. Ron DeSantis and his 90-plus member delegation on his Israeli business development mission this week as a pool reporter for the Florida Society of News Editors. Schweers will provide regular reports and updates from Tel Aviv and Jerusalem for Florida’s newspapers. Follow him on Twitter for updates @jeffschweers. Schweers, a reporter for the Tallahassee Democrat, can be reached at email@example.com