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Florida governor offers support for Israel and blasts Disney



Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis condemned antisemitism and offered strong backing for the Israeli government in a speech in Jerusalem on Thursday but also discussed his long-running feud with Disney, saying at a news conference that the entertainment giant’s lawsuit against him doesn’t have “merit.”

“I think it’s political,” DeSantis said in a news conference in Jerusalem, accusing Disney of being “upset that they are actually having to live by the same rules as everybody else.”

Walt Disney Parks and Resorts filed a lawsuit Wednesday in federal court accusing the Florida governor and his political allies overseeing the company’s special taxing district of violating its “federal constitutional rights.”

DeSantis rejected that accusation out of hand and said the special district meant Disney had “no accountability, no transparency, none of that.”

DeSantis addressed officials and journalists at a time of heightened tension between Israel and the United States and amid a rise in antisemitism within his home state. His speech at “Celebrate the Faces of Israel,” an event hosted by the Jerusalem Post and the Museum of Tolerance Jerusalem, came during the third stop on DeSantis’ worldwide tour that has already landed him in Japan and South Korea, and will end with a visit to the United Kingdom.

In the speech, DeSantis sounded familiar conservative themes: he called Jerusalem the “eternal capital of the Jewish people,” called Iran’s pursuit of nuclear weapons an “existential threat” to the Jewish State and said the United Nations unfairly criticizes Israel.

The event thrusted DeSantis, a likely presidential contender, into Israel’s national tumult, marked by sectarian violence and domestic uprisings over Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s efforts to overhaul the nation’s judiciary. Those plans, temporarily on hold, led to rising tension between President Joe Biden and Netanyahu.

DeSantis has not addressed Netanyahu’s proposal, but in a statement last month to announce the appearance, he criticized the Biden administration’s posture toward its Middle East ally.

“At a time of unnecessarily strained relations between Jerusalem and Washington, Florida serves as a bridge between the American and Israeli people,” DeSantis told the Jerusalem Post in March.

Speaking Sunday on CBS’ “Face the Nation,” Netanyahu indicated he would meet with DeSantis during the visit.

“Of course I’ll meet with everyone. Why not?” he said. “I meet with Republican governors and Democratic governors. I’d meet with every American representative, governor, senator, members of Congress. It’s my job. And I think it’s important for Israel’s bipartisan support in the United States. I make a point of it.”

Leading up to his arrival in Israel, Florida lawmakers passed bipartisan legislation targeting a recent uptick in episodes of antisemitism in the state. Last year, hundreds of flyers falsely claiming the public health response to Covid-19 was orchestrated by Jewish people were distributed to homes in South Florida. And in October, antisemitic messages were projected on the outside of TIAA Bank Field in Jacksonville during the Florida-Georgia college football game.

Meanwhile, reports of neo-Nazi activity have been on the rise, according to the Anti-Defamation League. A recent analysis from the organization found 269 recorded antisemitic incidents in Florida last year, an all-time high and double the total from 2020.

The legislation makes it a crime to dump litter with hate messages on private property, to harass and threaten people who are wearing or displaying items that would indicate their religious or ethnic heritage, and to display or to project hateful images on buildings and structures without the owner’s permission.

On Wednesday, DeSantis’ office notified the public that he had received the bill, which typically means he is likely to sign the legislation imminently. During a 2019 visit to Israel, DeSantis ceremonially signed a measure that prohibits antisemitic speech in public schools and universities. Given the timing, a similar symbolic gesture on foreign soil could be likely, though his office did not respond to a CNN inquiry.

Amid the rise in antisemitic attacks, DeSantis has faced criticism from Democrats and others in the state, who have accused the governor of not doing more to denounce these public demonstrations of hate.

Last year, DeSantis lashed out at people calling on him to condemn Nazi demonstrations near Orlando, accusing his political opponents of trying to “smear me as if I had something to do with it.” The day before, a spokeswoman for DeSantis deleted a tweet that suggested the demonstrators might be Democrats in disguise.

“Signing pieces of legislation does not erase his silence on the rise of anti-semitism over the last few years,” said Florida Democratic Party chairwoman Nikki Fried, herself a member of the Jewish faith. “He has an obligation to stand up and say hate speech is not welcome in the state of Florida and he continues to be silent every time”

Jeffrey Salkin, a columnist for Religious News Service and a rabbi of Temple Israel of West Palm Beach, said he was grateful to see DeSantis travel to Israel and hoped he would use the platform to address the rise in antisemitism worldwide and “speak up for democratic values.”

“The rise in antisemitism, of course, fills all American Jews and others with deep fear,” Salkin said. “We need Gov. DeSantis to speak out loudly and clearly when antisemitic acts take place in Florida itself. Especially those that have been perpetrated by far-right, White-supremacist elements. It is not enough to nearly bemoan ‘woke politics.’ He must also bemoan the reactionary forces that have endangered Jewish life and lives for centuries.”

DeSantis has long positioned himself as an ally of Israel, visiting the country several times as a member of Congress and during his first six months as governor. He has sided with Israel repeatedly in its ongoing conflict with Palestinians, suggesting in 2019 that the latter is not interested in peace.

“If you look at this whole conflict, to me, the biggest problem has been that Palestinian Arabs have not recognized Israel’s right to exist as a Jewish state,” he said. “That kind of denialism poisons really everything.”

DeSantis has received past support from some of the Republican Party’s staunchest pro-Israel donors, including $500,000 during his 2018 race for governor from Miriam Adelson and her husband, casino magnate Sheldon Adelson. The couple also donated $5 million to the state GOP after DeSantis won the party’s gubernatorial nomination that year.

Last November, DeSantis was warmly received at the Republican Jewish Coalition’s annual leadership meeting, the first major Republican cattle call in the 2024 White House race.

Mel Sembler, a board member for the coalition, said he was encouraged to see DeSantis spend time in Israel ahead of his likely campaign for president. Sembler once accompanied George W. Bush to Israel before the Texas governor launched his campaign for the White House.

Sembler, though, said he was troubled that DeSantis and other Republicans were so far failing to make a strong case for GOP voters to look beyond former president Donald Trump in 2024. Unless he can secure the nomination, Sembler said, DeSantis’ positions toward Israel would become moot.

“He’s got to get elected president to accomplish anything over there,” Sembler said.

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