On Aug. 4, Floridians watched as Gov. Ron DeSantis shuffled onstage to deliver a late-afternoon press conference, flanked by current and former law enforcement officials from the Tampa Bay area. All this pomp and circumstance was dressed up for one high-profile exercise of executive power: the suspension of Hillsborough County State Attorney Andrew Warren who is Jewish.
It’s difficult to consider such a brazen political act as much more than run-of-the-mill for the notoriously firebrand governor. What was not business-as-usual, however, was one epithet buried between the pointedly partisan jabs we have come to expect from our political leaders.
The Governor of Florida employed the term “Soros-backed” to denigrate his political opponent.
George Soros, a prominent philanthropic billionaire, is the largest individual donor to Democratic campaigns across the United States. He is also Jewish.
A Holocaust survivor, Soros has been the subject of conspiracy theories about his ulterior, vindictive motives abounded practically from the first dollar donated. The Hungarian-Jewish contributor has a long history as the butt of a particularly insidious and antisemitic theory of Jewish control.
It must be clearly stated that criticism of Soros is not ipso facto antisemitic, but casting Soros in the light of antisemitic tropes reinforces hateful worldviews that pose real threats to the Jewish community.
The enthusiastic decision to utilize the term “Soros-backed” to delineate the actions of a “subversive” state official in need of rooting out by DeSantis’ office worries me as a member of Florida’s Jewish community for this reason. It casts a Jewish-American in the role of a puppet master, silently pushing forward the actions of a State Attorney that, per DeSantis, “picks and chooses the laws”.
The comment itself hardly belies a deep-seated antisemitism on DeSantis’ part, nor would it be logical to extrapolate such an opinion from this statement. However, the statement falls in lock-step with the imagined worldview of antisemites dating to the Protocol of the Elders of Zion, a piece of Russian state propaganda that alleged a Jewish plot to subvert the laws of the Tsar.
Further, this is not the only such comment made by a prominent Florida politician, nor is it DeSantis’ only brush with adjacency to antisemitism.
On August 8, Sen. Marco Rubio tweeted, “The Democrats just blocked my effort to try & force Soros backed prosecutors to put dangerous criminals in jail,” parroting the talking point of Soros’ supposed treacherous grip on the judicial system that he uses to undermine the laws of the United States. The tweet was quickly flagged as feeding antisemitic sentiment by many prominent advocates, yet it is arguable that the damage had already been done.
Similarly, on Aug. 19, DeSantis attended a rally with Doug Mastriano, the GOP’s nominee for governor in Pennsylvania. This partnership occurred in spite of numerous calls from Florida’s Jewish leaders to not appear with Mastriano due to the latter’s particularly close relationship to the founder of far-right social media platform Gab, Andrew Torba.
Torba has described his movement as explicitly “anti-Jewish,” claiming Jewish conservatives such as Ben Shapiro are not welcome.
We must not mince words: such sentiment has no place in the mainstream of American society. The issuance of statements that support antisemitic conspiracy theories, and the endorsement of a candidate advised by someone actively hateful towards Jews, pose a grave threat to the future of the Jewish community not just in Florida but the U.S.
DeSantis and Rubio know the harm these comments can carry — they have called out others in the past for fomenting antisemitism through similarly backhanded means. DeSantis had highly critical remarks for Minnesota representative Ilhan Omar when she attributed many of the same classic antisemitic tropes to Israel that DeSantis himself has now leveled at Soros. Rubio has raised the same concerns against musician Roger Waters.
You cannot condemn antisemitism on one day, then instantly reverse course and disseminate rhetoric that fuels hatred against the Jewish community. That is not what it means to be a friend of Floridian Jews, to genuinely want to uplift your Jewish constituency.
The actions of our leaders in Florida are more pertinent than ever to the Jewish community. On Aug. 15, residents of San Pablo Street in Duval County awoke to antisemitic, Holocaust denial flyers on their doorsteps. In South Florida, a string of similar incidents involving the branding of Jewish Disney executives with Stars of David on fliers alleging a Jewish plot to groom children are being investigated by North Miami Beach Police.
Further, individual Floridian Jews have been targeted with death threats across the state. The Mayor of Venice, for instance, was told to “kill himself” in a threat alleging that Jews should leave the state. Likewise, the synagogue of the judge who signed the warrant for the FBI to raid Former President Trump’s property had to cancel its Shabbat service due to death threats to Judge Reinhart and other congregants.
These are clearly cases of extremism by fringe members of civil society. Nonetheless, it would be hard to divorce many of these actions, which include references to the trope of Soros antisemitism, from the rhetoric of our political leaders when their vocabulary has dipped into the poisoned wellspring that fuels the actions of radical antisemites.
There exist a myriad of ways for both DeSantis and Rubio to express their opinions on Democratic mega-donors backing state attorneys without uniformly singling out Soros in a manner that feeds negative bias towards Jews in the media. It is a lapse in judgment and leadership that is unbecoming of those who profess to defend Jewish interests.
It’s not enough to extol support for Israel and the Jewish community sometimes. Words have a withering impact from the societal bully pulpit bestowed upon our political leaders. It’s the imperative responsibility of those leaders that believe themselves to be on the side of Floridian Jews to purge their remarks of speech that may worsen Florida’s wave of antisemitism.
Otherwise, who knows when the sinister people fueling such hatred will stop?
Check out other recent articles from the Florida Political Review here.
Featured image: Temple Emanu-El in Miami, Florida. Unmodified photo by Daniel Di Palma used under a Creative Commons license (https://bit.ly/3wnFDmm).