The Florida House Thursday unanimously approved a bill that would adopt the nation’s first state-sanctioned definition of anti-Semitism and require schools and universities to regard the same as racism.
House Bill 741, sponsored by Rep. Randy Fine, R-Palm Bay, amends the Florida Educational Equality Act to add religion to the list of categories for which discrimination is prohibited, and adopts a 2017 definition of anti-Semitism encoded by the Miami-Dade County city of Bal Harbour and endorsed by the U.S. State Department.
Fine filed HB 741, approved in a 114-0 tally, in February as a response to the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement, which he says is orchestrating anti-Israel campaigns using anti-Semitic tactics.
Under the bill, the BDS movement is defined as a terrorist group no different than the KKK or ISIS, which has prompted some to question if criticism of the Jewish state could be mischaracterized as being anti-Semitic criticism of the Jewish people.
While the genesis for HB 741 was the rising tide of violence against Jewish people, including November’s mass shooting at a Pittsburgh synagogue, the bill took on added relevance after U.S. Rep. Ilhan Omar, D-Minnesota, said Jewish-Americans owe “allegiance to another country” and support for Israel is “all about the Benjamins.”
Omar’s February comments – against a backdrop of rising anti-Semitism nationwide and across the planet – made many feel that HB 741 is a timely and appropriate statement.
Co-Sponsor Rep. Mike Caruso, R-Boca Raton, said with 630,000 Jewish residents, the nation’s third highest Jewish population, Florida must “take the lead” in assuring Jewish people they will always be safe in the Sunshine State.
“They said, ‘Never again!,’ and here we are, again,” Caruso said. “Let’s not stand by this time and hope – hope – this is gong to go away because it won’t.”
Rep. Amy Mercado, D-Orlando, and Rep. Joe Geller, D-Dania Beach, both praised the bill, but said they want to see protections extended to transgender and LBGTQ communities.
“I would like to see this go further in recognizing other categories of people who are discriminated against,” Geller said, acknowledging that there are First Amendment issues with the bill that may need to be hashed out in the courts.
“Legislative and constitutional questions not withstanding,” he continued, “I am saying [that HB 741] loudly and clearly states that anti-Semitism, along with other forms of discrimination, is unacceptable.”
“It is so important that we take a stand-alone stance in standing up to anti-Semitism,” agreed Rep. Carlos Guillermo-Smith, D-Orlando, himself a victim of bullying and discrimination as a college student.
“Many of us who advocate for marginalized communities, [we’re] fighting back against discrimination that many of us see as very personal issues,” Guillermo-Smith said. “That is what I applaud [Fine] for bringing this bill forward, because it is important to make a stand-alone stance.”
Rep. Anna Eskamani, D-Orlando, called HB 741 a “really important bill,” explaining her family is Iranian-American and, as the first Iranian-American elected to public office in Florida, “I stand in solidarity with the Jewish people.”
“This is a step in the right direction,” she said. “We cannot negate the importance of this issue with our own priorities.”
“Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere,” said Rep. James Bush, D-Opa Locka, a civil rights activist for more than 35 years. “Anti-Semitism, racism, sexism — all the isms — is wrong. It is wrong yesterday. It is wrong today. It is wrong tomorrow.”
With the House version passed, its companion bill — Senate Bill 1272 — still has two committee stops to make before it can be presented for a chamber vote.
SB 1272, sponsored by Sen. Joe Gruters, R-Sarasota, was approved April 8 in a 5-1 vote by the Senate Judiciary Committee.
The lone dissenting vote was cast by Senate Democratic leader Audrey Gibson, D-Jacksonville, prompting discord and criticism within the 17-member Senate Democratic caucus.
Gibson said on Monday that she voted no on SB 1272 because “I just feel like this is an intentional piece of legislation to divide.”
By Wednesday, however, Gibson said after meeting with Jewish groups and Jewish legislators, she would fully support SB 1272.
“I am not anti-Semitic. Period,” Gibson said during a Wednesday press conference. “I rebuke anti-Semitism and all religious discrimination. Period.”