DeSantis woos Jewish conservatives in Florida, but can he with the Kosher vote nationwide?

In Florida, which is home to over 650,000 Jews – America’s third largest Jewish electorate – there is naturally a strong political imperative to woo the “kosher vote”


LAS VEGAS, NEVADA - NOVEMBER 18: Florida Governor Ron DeSantis speaks to guests at the Republican Jewish Coalition Annual Leadership Meeting on November 19, 2022 in Las Vegas, Nevada. The meeting comes on the heels of former President Donald Trump becoming the first candidate to declare his intention to seek the GOP nomination in the 2024 presidential race. (Photo by Scott Olson/Getty Images)

December 02, 2022 17:23

After his triumphant re-election as Florida’s governor last month, it’s not hard to see why many Republicans are increasingly seeing Ron DeSantis as their best hope for recapturing the White House in 2024.

And with Donald Trump openly palling around, as Sarah Palin would put it, with antisemites and fascists, DeSantis looks a particularly appealing prospect for Jewish conservatives.

The Florida governor, who hasn’t yet made his intentions clear but is dropping heavy hints he may run, is certainly trying to push their buttons.

Days after his stunning 19-point win, DeSantis was the star of the show at the Republican Jewish Coalition’s annual con-flab where he wowed conservatives with his Florida “blueprint for success” – an apparently electorally potent formula which stands in stark to the party’s underwhelmingly mid-terms’ performance.

A Catholic, DeSantis has long been keen to present himself as a strong friend of Jews and a staunch ally of Israel.

“We won the highest share of the Jewish vote for any Republican candidate in Florida history,” the governor boasted. “I will say if you look at our record on issues related to Israel and supporting the Jewish community it is second to none.”

DeSantis, who pledged when he ran for a first term in 2018 that he would be the “nation’s most pro-Israel governor”, tickled his conservative hosts by referring to the West Bank as “Judea and Samaria” and denying it was occupied. “We understand history. We know those are thousands of years of connection to the Jewish people,” he suggested. “I don’t care what the State Department says. They are not occupied territory, it is disputed territory.”

DeSantis’ record on the Jewish state certainly isn’t all talk. He took his whole cabinet to Israel in 2019; used Florida’s anti-BDS legislation to take on Ben & Jerry’s and Airbnb; and increased collaboration between Israel and the state’s aerospace industry.

The governor also cheer-led a series of Trump-era policies such as moving the US Embassy to Jerusalem and recognising Israel’s sovereignty over the Golan Heights. Unsurprisingly, he’s not a fan of what he terms the “Biden-Khamenei nuclear deal”.

DeSantis has also enacted other measures to crack down on antisemitism in Florida’s public schools and boost Holocaust education and better security at Jewish day schools.

No wonder Jewish conservatives are swooning. “A remarkable Jewish renaissance is under way in Florida,” wrote Bush administration alumni Elliott Abrams and his co-chair of the Jewish Leadership Conference, Eric Cohen, earlier this year. “Jewish schools and synagogues are rapidly expanding. Jews from the Northeast and Midwest, as well as Latin America and Israel, are migrating to the Sunshine State in significant numbers, making the Jewish communities there lively and varied.”

In a state which is home to over 650,000 Jews – America’s third largest Jewish electorate – there is naturally a strong political imperative to woo the “kosher vote”. Four years ago, the governor’s Democrat opponent, left-winger Andrew Gillum, learned that to his cost. Gillum lost the gubernatorial race by 30,000 votes after DeSantis repeatedly attacked him for being insufficiently supportive of Israel, suggesting that his positions were more appropriate to “running for mayor of the Gaza Strip”. (Gillum denied that he supported BDS and said he’d enforce the state’s 2016 anti-boycotts legislation).

And while he didn’t win a majority of Jewish voters – Republicans put his score at 45 percent – DeSantis’ overall victory margin was no doubt padded by this impressive performance. Indeed, Florida’s growing ultra-Orthodox population – who largely back the Republicans – is thought to have been key to DeSantis’ inroads into the Democrats’ hold on the Jewish vote.

But there’s a reason that the majority of Florida’s Jews – nearly 6 in 10 of whom identify with, or lean towards, the Democrats – didn’t vote for DeSantis.

For all his bill-signing and cash-splashing on Jewish causes, critics say the governor has shown an apparent Trump-like aversion to speedily condemning antisemites. “Does DeSantis support Jews or go easy on antisemites?” asked the US Jewish weekly The Forward on the eve of his re-election, documenting his seeming reticence to weigh in against swastika-flag-waving neo-Nazis when they’ve reared their ugly heads on several occasions in Florida this year. Indeed, when asked about one notorious demonstration in Orlando in February, the governor painted himself as the real victim, accusing the Democrats of trying to smear him.

Despite rising antisemitism, DeSantis has also been accused of stirring the pot by labelling opponent as “Soros-backed”; running campaign ads featuring Christian nationalists; and using the term “Zuckerbucks” – a Republican attack line on Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg’s donations to local election offices which has been condemned by the ADL. Nor did DeSantis have any qualms campaigning this year for a string of controversial far-right candidates, including Pennsylvania governor-hopeful Doug Mastriano.

And on the two issues at the top of Jewish voters’ concerns this year – the Supreme Court’s decision to end the nationwide right to abortion and the threat to democracy posed by Trump-backed “election-deniers” – DeSantis was certainly no ally. The governor has attempted to make it more difficult to vote – albeit with some exceptions for Republican-leaning counties – and signed legislation banning abortion after 15 weeks with no exceptions for rape or incest.

Similarly, American Jews, who are among the strongest supporters of same-sex marriage and gay rights, are unlikely to be impressed by DeSantis’ Section 28-like “don’t say gay” legislation – a central pillar of his liberal-baiting “war on woke”. Jewish community leaders have also rightly joined other religious leaders in condemning DeSantis’ use of vulnerable migrants for political stunts.

So, yes, Ron DeSantis may well be an improvement on a man who dines with antisemites and white nationalists. But that’s a pretty low bar to cross. Surely, the Republican party can do better?

December 02, 2022 17:23

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