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Ron DeSantis signs legislation to combat hate crimes while on trip to Israel

The Florida governor is in Israel as part of his overseas trade mission as he prepares to launch a presidential campaign.
Florida Governor Ron DeSantis signs legislation to combat anti-Semitism during the Jerusalem Post Conference in Jerusalem on April 27, 2023.
Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis signs legislation to combat antisemitism at the Jerusalem Post Conference in Jerusalem on Thursday.Kobi Wolf / Bloomberg via Getty Images

JERUSALEM — Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis signed legislation cracking down on hate crimes Thursday morning after a high-profile speech in Israel. 

Known as the “Public Nuisances” bill, the legislation — passed Wednesday by the Legislature — makes it a felony for hate groups to harass people for their religion or ethnicity. Florida had the fourth-highest number of antisemitic incidents last year, according to the Anti-Defamation League.

DeSantis is in Israel as part of his overseas trade mission with stops in Japan and South Korea. He also met with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on Thursday before he wrapped up the global trip in the United Kingdom.

“He’s a friend of Israel,” Netanyahu said in an interview shortly after the meeting. “We talked about Iran. We talked about Israel-U.S. relations.”

DeSantis is preparing to join the 2024 presidential contest as soon as mid-May.

DeSantis also signed a measure to combat antisemitism on a trip to Israel in 2019. It was aimed at preventing discrimination on the basis of religion in Florida public schools. 

DeSantis addressed a packed auditorium in Jerusalem on Thursday morning at the Museum of Tolerance Jerusalem. The “Celebrate the Faces of Israel” conference comes the same week as the 75th anniversary of Israel’s independence. DeSantis, flanked by his wife, Casey, arrived to cheers in the standing-room-only auditorium.

“We must support Israel’s right to defend itself,” he told the friendly crowd. 

DeSantis shared his often-told story about using water from the Sea of Galilee to baptize his children — and how people in Israel sent him some replacement holy water when staff members at the Governor’s Mansion mistakenly threw out a half-empty bottle.

He also stressed national security issues.

“Iran’s pursuit of nuclear weapons creates a risk like you’ve not seen in this region,” DeSantis said. “It’s an existential threat to the state of Israel and to the United States of America.”

DeSantis’ supposedly pro-business trade mission risks being overshadowed by a growing controversy back home: the dramatic escalation of his feud with Disney, which accused him of being anti-business and of orchestrating a “targeted campaign of government retaliation” in a new lawsuit.

DeSantis dismissed the lawsuit as “political” at his news conference after his speech Thursday in response to a question from NBC News. 

Aside from the official state purposes of the trip to Israel, it also is a way to bolster his foreign policy credentials after he faced backlash for having called the war in Ukraine a “territorial dispute.” He later clarified his comments, calling Russian President Vladimir Putin a “war criminal.”

Netanyahu is seen as a staunch ally of former President Donald Trump, who is running for a second term in 2024 and has been relentlessly attacking DeSantis over the past few months.

“We didn’t talk about American politics,” Netanyahu said in the interview Thursday. "I have enough politics here."

Netanyahu has been wary of being seen as interfering in U.S. elections before. In 2012, he denied having done so after a clip of him was featured in an ad for Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney. Analysts don’t expect Israelis to signal a clear preference for either Trump or DeSantis — at least not yet.

“I imagine that every Israeli politician will try to stay out of it and try to say that both of them are friends of Israel,” said Jonathan Rynhold, the head of the political studies department at Bar-Ilan University. “Whether former President Trump lets Israeli politicians do that or not is another question, because he tends to see things in very personal terms.”

In 2017, DeSantis and other U.S. lawmakers traveled to Israel to tour possible sites to move the U.S. Embassy to Jerusalem. In his speech Thursday, he said he tried to “cajole” the previous administration to move the embassy. At the time, he met with Yehudah Glick, a Brooklyn-born rabbi and former Knesset member whom Palestinians see as a far-right lightning rod. He survived an assassination attempt in 2015 and later unsuccessfully ran for president. 

In an interview ahead of DeSantis’ visit, Glick praised DeSantis’ family values and his support of moving the U.S. Embassy to Jerusalem. Trump ended up announcing the move later in 2017; Glick stressed he has no inside knowledge of whether DeSantis’ public advocacy played any role.

“Ron DeSantis was extremely active in trying to locate the exact place to put the embassy,” Glick said. “I was very impressed by how much he was devoted to it.”