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Florida bill defining antisemitism passes unanimously in Senate, moves to DeSantis

A bill that would specifically define “antisemitism“ in Florida law has been passed unanimously by the Florida Senate, with its sponsor warning of “extremism and violence” without taking action.

Senate Bill 148 adopts a definition developed by the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance (IHRA) and provides examples of what it looks like in society. The bill, which passed earlier this week, comes at a time of increased tension and reports of hate speech and incidents, largely stemming from the ongoing war in the Middle East.

Supporters said the law seeks to educate people on what’s considered antisemitism and will help identify antisemitic hate crimes and discrimination in Florida.

“Combating antisemitism requires cooperation among experts, governments and civil society,” said Sen. Lori Berman, D-Boynton Beach, the bill’s sponsor. “Defining it and codifying it makes a clear statement that we are going to identify, confront, and call out antisemitism.”

If signed by Gov. Ron DeSantis into law, Florida would join several other states defining antisemitism at a legislative level.

The bill defines antisemitism as “a perception of Jewish individuals which may be expressed as hatred toward such individuals,” and any manifestations of antisemitism toward Jewish people, their property, community and religious institutions.

Among the definitions in the bill are some long-understood examples of antisemitism like calling for death or harm on Jewish people or denying “the genocide of the Jewish people at the hands of Nazi Germany.”

The bill also would expand that to include more contemporary examples of antisemitism, like making dehumanizing or stereotypical claims about the power Jewish people hold as a collective, “such as the myth of a worldwide Jewish conspiracy or of Jewish individuals controlling the media, economy, government, or other societal institutions.”

One section says it would be antisemitic to accuse “Jewish citizens of being more loyal to Israel, or to the alleged priorities of Jewish individuals worldwide, than to the interests of their respective nations.”

First Amendment questions

Since it was first introduced in the House, just days after the Oct. 7 Hamas attack on Israel, some lawmakers and organizations have expressed concern about the bill limiting the rights of pro-Palestinian activists or other critics to speak out against Israel’s response to the Hamas attack, which has demolished much of the Gaza Strip and left more than 30,000 Palestinians dead since the war began.

In January, the Florida chapter of the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR-FL), issued a statement condemning the bill as a threat to civil liberties.

“The proposed Florida HB 187/SB 148 legislation not only infringes on our constitutionally guaranteed free speech rights to critique unlawful Israeli policies, but also disregards the plight of other religious minorities like Sikhs, Jehovah’s Witnesses, and Muslims facing significant bullying and hate crimes across the state,” said Imam Abdullah Jaber, CAIR-FL executive director in the statement.

Berman argues that the amended definition in the bill does not include criticism of Israel that is similar to criticism of any other country and does not violate any First Amendment right.

The bill does say it would be antisemitic to “claim that the existence of the State of Israel is a racist endeavor,” or to “require of the Jewish state of Israel a standard of behavior not expected or demanded of any other democratic nation.”

After the Oct. 7 Hamas assault, antisemitic incidents in the U.S. have been on the rise, according to data released in January from the Anti-Defamation League, a nonprofit that tracks and combats antisemitism.

The organization tracked a total of 3,291 incidents between Oct. 7 and Jan. 17, which represents a 361 percent increase compared to the same period in 2022, which saw 712 incidents. ADL’s data since Oct. 7 includes 1,317 rallies that were marked by “antisemitic rhetoric, expressions of support for terrorism against the state of Israel and/or anti-Zionism,” but such rallies were not included in its earlier data. The group’s CEO, Jonathan Greenblatt, in the past, has stated “antizionism is antisemitism,” but not all members of the Jewish community agree on that equation.

“Outbreaks of antisemitism can be a harbinger of deep societal trouble and reflect that extremism and violence are eminent. It is dangerous and unacceptable,” Berman said. “When there is hateful behavior against anyone, it can quickly become a societal endemic.”

At a Senate hearing on Wednesday, Berman pointed out that the bill does not create a new crime, but clarifies the definition of antisemitism which can be used in conjunction with existing hate crime discrimination laws.

Hate crime offenses in Florida include acts committed based on the race, color, ancestry, ethnicity, religion, sexual orientation, national origin, homeless status, or advanced age of the victim. This kind of crime might look like a group of white teenagers threatening a Black teenager while using racial slurs, a gay man who is physically assaulted in front of a gay bar, or a bomb threat called into an Islamic center, according to the State Attorney’s website.

Hate speech alone would not constitute a hate crime under the First Amendment. But hate speech coupled with another offense, such as defacing public property or harassment, is considered a hate crime.

“Unless it falls into one of these other categories of unprotected speech, just saying hateful things about a group of people is protected in the United States. That’s First Amendment law,” said Caroline Mala Corbin, professor of law at the University of Miami School of Law.

On the Senate floor, Sen. Lauren Book, D-Davie, thanked lawmakers for their support of the bill and “standing alongside our community at time when its very difficult.”

Book referenced the Jewish concept of “Tikkun olam” which is often interpreted as a commitment to repair what is wrong with the world today.

“When you think about little Jewish kids ... who when they’re leaving Hebrew school or day school, they’re taking off their Kippahs because they’re afraid of going into Publix and somebody saying something that’s unkind,” she said. “That is the world that we live in.”

This story was produced with financial support from Trish and Dan Bell and from donors comprising the South Florida Jewish and Muslim Communities, in partnership with Journalism Funding Partners. The Miami Herald maintains full editorial control of this work.