“If you openly support BDS in Florida, you’re dead, politically.”
That was Florida Governor Ron DeSantis’s conclusion from the surprisingly large role the issue of the antisemitic “boycott, divestment and sanctions” (BDS) campaign against Israel played in his close race against Tallahassee mayor Andrew Gillum in Floridan’s gubernatorial election last November.
DeSantis edged out the hardcore progressive Democrat by a mere 0.4 percent, or 32,000 votes.
DeSantis made the remark during the course of his official visit to Israel last week. He led a massive trade mission of Florida business leaders, cabinet secretaries, and university presidents on a five-day trip to the Jewish state. During the course of the mission, Florida universities signed collaboration agreements with Israeli universities spanning a vast spectrum of undertakings from water purification to space research.
The mission merged the twin goals of increasing Florida-Israel economic, academic and commercial ties; and fighting anti-Semitism generally, and the BDS campaign against Israel specifically. Its success was a stunning expression of DeSantis’s state government’s friendship with Israel. It also placed the sharp contrast between progressive Democrats — like his opponent, Gillum — and DeSantis in stark relief.
Throughout his three terms in Congress, DeSantis distinguished himself as one of the most active defenders and promoters of the U.S. strategic alliance with the Jewish state. In contrast, in the years preceding Gillum’s general election run for Florida governor, he cultivated and benefitted from close ties with BDS groups.
DeSantis made his remark about the negative effect his opponent’s support for Israel’s worst opponents in America had on Gillum’s election prospects during a visit Wednesday to the Hub Etzion in the Gush Etzion industrial park. The Hub is a flexible work office space and a central meeting place for the growing hi-tech, small business and self-employed community of Gush Etzion and Efrat in Judea and Samaria.
During the course of his visit at the Etzion Hub, DeSantis held a roundtable discussion with Israeli officials to discuss the BDS movement and the reasons that Israel is being targeted for discrimination. He also held a joint press conference with Gilad Erdan, Israel’s Minister of Strategic Affairs, responsible for Israel’s efforts to combat the global BDS campaign being waged against it.
DeSantis’s visit to the Etzion Hub marked the first time a Florida state official made an official visit to Judea and Samaria. He was accompanied by his cabinet secretaries and members of his delegation.
DeSantis’s decision to visit Gush Etzion, and hold his anti-BDS roundtable discussion in Judea, was a means to attack the BDS movement at its foundation.
The BDS campaign calls for social ostracism of Israelis and Jewish supporters of Israel outside of Israel. It also calls for the boycott of Israeli businesses and citizens, divestment from Israeli firms, and sanctions against Israel and firms that do business with Israel.
The BDS campaign has various permutations. One of them is a selective boycott of Jews and Jewish commercial enterprises in Judea and Samaria. President Barack Obama supported the BDS campaign in that permutation. For example, during Obama’s visit to Israel in 2013, the White House explicitly excluded Israeli students from Ariel University in Samaria from a speech Obama gave before an audience of Israeli students from all of Israel’s other universities.
In its final weeks in power, the Obama administration refused to veto, and indeed insisted on, the passage of UN Security Council resolution 2334. The radically anti-Israel resolution called for states to discriminate against Jews in Judea and Samaria, calling for “all states…to distinguish, in their relevant dealings, between the territory of the State of Israel and the territories occupied since 1967.”
Beyond its false interpretations of the Fourth Geneva Convention from 1949, there is no legal basis for the resolution to deem Israeli communities and neighborhoods in Judea, Samaria, and united Jerusalem illegal.
Aside from the speciousness of the legal claim, the assertion that Israeli communities in Judea and Samaria and unified Jerusalem should be targeted from discriminatory treatment is problematic for two reasons. First, it targets Israelis based on the fact of their Jewishness. Palestinians and Arab Israelis who work in Judea and Samaria are not targeted for discriminatory treatment and boycott. Only Jews are.
Second, and perhaps more important, by insisting that there is something inherently criminal about Jewish existence in Judea and Samaria, the cradle of Jewish civilization, the partial BDS campaign legitimizes the Palestinian view that Jews are not a nation and have no right to self-determination.
The PLO itself made this point in its internal guidance to its officials. In 2011, the UK Guardian and Al-Jazeera published what became knowns as “The Palestine Papers.” They included a trove of documents from the Palestine Liberation Organization’s Negotiations Support Unit (NSU). Among the documents that were published was a November 2007 memo titled, “Strategy and talking points for responding to the pre-condition of recognizing Israel as a ‘Jewish state.’”
Explaining the Palestinian refusal to accept Israel’s demand to recognize that it is the nation state as the Jewish people, the memo asserted, “Recognizing the Jewish state implies recognition of a Jewish people and recognition of its right to self-determination. Those who assert this right also assert that the territory historically associated with this right of self-determination (i.e., the self-determination unit) is all of Historic Palestine. Therefore, recognition of the Jewish people and their right of self-determination may lend credence to the Jewish people’s claim to all of Historic Palestine.”
In other words, once you accept that the Jews are a people, you recognize their homeland is the land of Israel and that their national history unfolded in the land of Israel. That history and sovereignty took place largely in Judea and Samaria and Jerusalem. So if you admit that the Jews are a people, you necessarily admit that Judea and Samaria, like the rest of the land of Israel, is their native land.
Conversely, by rejecting those rights, and indeed if you criminalize Jews who breathe in and out while in Judea and Samaria and unified Jerusalem, then you effectively criminalize Jews who breathe in and out in Tel Aviv. The two are indivisible. So people who support limited BDS inevitably support the view that Israel as a whole has no right to exist.
State governments historically have not played a major role in foreign policy issues. But as the BDS campaign casts a wider net, seeking to intimidate U.S. firms, universities, cultural institutions, and individuals to boycott Israel, preventing extortion of U.S. citizens and entities that conduct normal relations with Israel and Israelis has become a domestic issue. As a result, nearly half of the state governments have passed anti-BDS legislation over the past several years.
Two months before DeSantis entered office, the online holiday rental giant Airbnb announced that it would delist Jewish-owned properties in Judea and Samaria from its website, thus denying Jews the right to use the service to advertise their properties in the areas, just because they are Jews.
Airbnb’s move was precipitated by a massive pressure campaign by anti-Israel, pro-BDS groups spearheaded by Human Rights Watch. Its announcement was heralded as a great victory for BDS groups and seen as a watershed event that would lead to a flood of companies announcing similar discriminatory policies to target Jews in Judea and Samaria.
DeSantis responded swiftly and effectively.
During his visit to Hub Etzion, DeSantis described what happened and its significance for the wider campaign to defeat BDS in America. He also made clear why it was important for him to hold the anti-BDS roundtable in Judea.
“One of the reasons we wanted to come here [to Judea] is because we were fighting this BDS movement [in response to] Airbnb,” he began.
“In the end of last year, [Airbnb] announced that they were going to target Israeli Jews in Judea and Samaria for disfavored treatment. That triggered our anti-BDS legislation in Florida so when I became governor [in January], we immediately placed Airbnb on the ‘scrutinized companies list.’ That would have triggered a number of different penalties particularly if Airbnb went public.”
DeSantis continued, “We have a very big pension system. And that would basically have made them persona non grata for us to invest in. So we took action early. We were the first state to do so. Other states started making noises and taking action. So I’m pleased to say that as we’re here today, Airbnb has reversed the policy.
“In Florida we welcome engagement with Israelis of all stripes. We are not going to discriminate against some Israelis or other Israelis and if people discriminate against Israel as a whole or try to find certain segments of Israeli society to discriminate against commercially, we view that as triggering our anti-BDS legislation and we will take action accordingly. So I’m glad that that has been addressed satisfactorily. And I really think that had we not done what we had done, I think that other companies would have followed Airbnb’s lead.”
In greeting DeSantis, Minister Erdan said, “Governor DeSantis has been one of the greatest and most consistent friends of Israel and of the U.S.-Israel alliance. Governor DeSantis promised that under his leadership, Florida would be the most pro-Israel state in America and he has kept his promise. In the name of the government and people of Israel, I want to thank Governor DeSantis for all that he has done.”
DeSantis’s decision to include the trip to Judea in his itinerary demonstrated two key facts.
First, elections matter. While it is true that Gillum tried to distance himself from his ties to BDS groups once they became an election issue, the fact is that he enjoyed long-standing, close ties to these groups. Gallium also harshly criticized President Trump’s decision to move the U.S. embassy to Jerusalem, and Israel’s steps to defend its border with Gaza from penetration by Hamas-organized mobs.
Had Gillum been elected, there is little chance Florida would today be leading the campaign to protect U.S. business, academic and cultural ties with Israel and defeating BDS campaigns to criminalize and discriminate Jews in the U.S. or in any part of Israel.
The second lesson from DeSantis’s visit is that the Palestinians are right about one thing: if Jewish life can be delegitimized in any part of Israel, then it will inevitably be delegitimized in all parts of Israel. You cannot defend Israel’s right to exist in general while claiming Jews are criminals for living or working or building in specific parts of the country.