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The Florida-Israel connection: How the state cultivates its Jewish ties

With booming trade and staunch political support, Gov. Ron DeSantis calls Florida “the most pro-Israel state.”
 
Surrounded by state legislators and Jewish leaders, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, center, holds up two bills that he signed on June 14, 2021, at the Shul of Bal Harbour, a Jewish community center in Surfside. DeSantis visited the South Florida temple to denounce antisemitism and stand with Israel, while signing a bill into law that would require public schools in his state to set aside moments of silence for children to meditate or pray.
Surrounded by state legislators and Jewish leaders, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, center, holds up two bills that he signed on June 14, 2021, at the Shul of Bal Harbour, a Jewish community center in Surfside. DeSantis visited the South Florida temple to denounce antisemitism and stand with Israel, while signing a bill into law that would require public schools in his state to set aside moments of silence for children to meditate or pray. [ AP ]
Published Oct. 20, 2023

Harry Cohen was in Jerusalem, enjoying an Italian dinner with Tampa and Israeli officials, when someone brought up the idea of converting the Fort Homer W. Hesterly Armory into a fitness and event space for the Tampa Jewish Community Centers & Federation.

“I don’t know if that was the first time it was ever discussed, but it was very early in the idea of doing that, and it was very, very memorable that we all sort of sat and talked about it around a dinner table,” the Hillsborough County commissioner said.

Five years later, in 2016, Tampa cut the ribbon on the $30 million Bryan Glazer Family JCC. That city leaders trace the genesis of a big West Tampa project like that back to dinner conversation in Israel, Cohen said, is not as odd as you’d think.

“In many cases, you bring back relationships that you can leverage in all kinds of different ways,” he said. “You make a relationship over there, and it can open doors to economic development, it can open doors to tourism, it can open doors to museum exchanges and cultural exchanges. It really can lead in all kinds of interesting directions.”

When a terrorist attack by Hamas rocked Israel on Oct. 7, Florida leaders unequivocally threw their support behind the country, which Gov. Ron DeSantis called “one of our greatest allies.”

DeSantis, a Republican presidential contender, was speaking as an American — but also as a Floridian. The political, cultural and economic ties between Israel and Florida run deep, given the state’s large Jewish population and tradition of welcoming outsiders. The Jewish magazine Mosaic last year dubbed Florida “Jerusalem on the Atlantic,” calling it “one of the best places in the world for Jews to live.”

“The Florida-Israel relationship is longstanding and quite substantial,” said Jack Ross, chief impact officer of the Tampa JCCs & Federation. “This is a fabric that has been woven over time by successive Democratic and Republican governors.”

The world's tallest digital Israeli flag and the word "solidarity" light up the 60-story Paramount Miami Worldcenter skyscraper in downtown Miami on Oct. 9.
The world's tallest digital Israeli flag and the word "solidarity" light up the 60-story Paramount Miami Worldcenter skyscraper in downtown Miami on Oct. 9. [ AP ]

The state has displayed its Israeli ties front and center the past two weeks, as DeSantis sent resources to Israel and pledged to sanction Iranian businesses over that nation’s links to Hamas. He also ordered the state to fund charter flights to evacuate Americans stranded in Israel.

“It’s raw for our community down in South Florida,” DeSantis told MSNBC’s “Morning Joe.” “We have the second-biggest Israeli American community in the country, we have a large Jewish population that’s really expanded a lot in the last few years, particularly with the Orthodox Jews. So everybody knows somebody who’s been over there, people know people that are missing, and unfortunately, people know people that have been killed.”

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Cultural, business ties

Florida didn’t become a haven of Israeli solidarity overnight.

Jewish developers built projects in South Florida throughout the early and mid-1900s. European Jews migrated across the Atlantic during and after World War II, and many made their way south, often working in tourism. Jews from across Latin America ended up in the Miami area, including thousands who emigrated following the Cuban Revolution in 1959. The Greater Miami Jewish Federation has called Miami “the new Ellis Island for people fleeing troubled countries.”

“In Israel, when you talk about someone, where do they want to go, the first place would be Miami,” said Mike Driquez, deputy consul general to Israel in Miami. “There are songs in Hebrew about (going to) Miami after the army. Everybody wants to be here. And people from here, Jewish people, when they want to leave and experience something, it’s always Israel.”

The Miami consulate represents a large Jewish population in Florida, Alabama, Mississippi and Puerto Rico — “between 800,000 and 1 million; depends on the weather and the season,” Driquez said. Many have friends and relatives in Israel, and the consulate has been overwhelmed trying to coordinate donations and volunteers while briefing U.S. leaders daily.

“We have acquaintances in the political scene, the economical scene, businessmen, communities Jewish and non-Jewish, evangelists, Muslims, Jews — everyone wants to contribute, and some we ask for help,” Driquez said. “Even on an individual level, on the level of the people, we are very, very well connected.”

Those connections have multiplied in recent years, with staunchly pro-Israel Govs. Rick Scott and DeSantis in Tallahassee. DeSantis frequently touts the number of people who have moved to Florida this decade, especially those from New York. Many are Jewish, including some Orthodox Jews, attracted in part by the state’s school choice program, which provides access to Jewish day schools.

A group of pro-Israel demonstrators are escorted across East Fowler Avenue in Tampa toward where supporters of Palestine were gathered on Oct. 8.
A group of pro-Israel demonstrators are escorted across East Fowler Avenue in Tampa toward where supporters of Palestine were gathered on Oct. 8. [ IVY CEBALLO | Times ]

In 2016, the Tampa JCCs launched the Florida-Israel Business Accelerator to promote trade partnerships in medicine, agriculture, defense technology and other industries. The accelerator is developing a venture fund to boost Israeli startups and give them a foothold in the United States and Latin America.

“When the first tech companies started coming to the United States, it was in New York and Silicon Valley,” Driquez said. “But now everybody knows that Miami and the Florida corridor have become very attractive for the IT sector.”

In 2021, the state partnered with an Israeli algae mitigation company to fight blue-green algae blooms along the Caloosahatchee River. For the past eight years, Space Florida has offered $1 million in grants in partnership with the Israel Innovation Authority to develop joint aerospace projects. Last fall, NASA’s Artemis exploration mission included protective materials designed by StemRad, an Israeli company with U.S. headquarters in Tampa.

In all, trade between Florida and Israel hit a record $650.9 million in 2022, according to Enterprise Florida, a 175% increase over the last 10 years.

“Just as there are opportunities for us to connect and make business relationships, the same for them — we’re a phenomenal market,” Cohen said. “And we’re a market that not only is very powerful itself, but we offer great access to the rest of the country, certainly to the East Coast.”

For DeSantis, political considerations

On the morning of the Hamas attacks, DeSantis offered one of the quickest responses from any major 2024 presidential contender.

“Israel not only has the right to defend itself against these attacks, it has a duty to respond with overwhelming force,” DeSantis posted on the social media platform X, formerly known as Twitter. “I stand with Israel. America must stand with Israel.”

DeSantis calls himself “the most pro-Israel governor” in America, and he describes Florida as “the most pro-Israel state.” After visiting Israel at least five times as a congressman, he’s twice returned on official state business. He brought a delegation of nearly 100 to Jerusalem for a Cabinet meeting in 2019. He’s signed laws targeting antisemitic hate crimes, pushed for stronger educational standards on the Holocaust and approved $18 million in funding for Jewish day school security.

Gov. Ron DeSantis meets with Israeli President Benjamin Netanyahu during an April trade mission to Israel. DeSantis calls himself "the most pro-Israel governor" and Florida "the most pro-Israel state," and, since the start of Israel's war with terrorist group Hamas, has been forceful in his support of the Jewish state and people.
Gov. Ron DeSantis meets with Israeli President Benjamin Netanyahu during an April trade mission to Israel. DeSantis calls himself "the most pro-Israel governor" and Florida "the most pro-Israel state," and, since the start of Israel's war with terrorist group Hamas, has been forceful in his support of the Jewish state and people. [ Courtesy of the Executive Office of the Governor ]

While he has vociferously opposed public investments based on diversity and equity programs, he sanctioned Airbnb and the parent company of Ben & Jerry’s over their decisions to stop doing business in the Israeli-occupied West Bank, threatening to end state investments unless they changed course. Both eventually did.

On occasion, however, DeSantis has had to distance himself from antisemitic messaging. In July, a campaign staffer was fired for amplifying, and possibly creating, a social media video featuring a historic Nazi symbol. Nazi demonstrators have waved DeSantis signs and banners at demonstrations in Orlando and Tampa, prompting Democrats and Jewish leaders to demand the governor denounce them. Following one Nazi event last year, DeSantis said opponents were trying “to play games to try to politicize” and “smear me as if I had something to do with it.” DeSantis spokesperson Christina Pushaw suggested the demonstration may have been a “stunt” organized by “Dem staffers,” drawing sharp criticism from the Anti-Defamation League Florida.

Since the Oct. 7 attacks, DeSantis has been forceful in his criticism of Hamas and those under its regime, calling Gazans “all antisemitic” and saying the United States should not accept refugees from such a “toxic culture.”

There are political considerations. About 665,000 Florida voters, or 3.9% of the electorate, are Jewish, according to a 2021 Brandeis University study. In a state with traditionally tight margins, they can be a swing factor.

In the 2022 midterms, 33% of Jewish voters nationwide went Republican, according to a Fox News poll, up from 26% in 2018. But in Florida, more than 40% of Jewish voters identify as Republican, according to the Brandeis study. And in 2022, DeSantis drew 45% of the Jewish vote, according to Jewish Insider.

In his bid for president, DeSantis must also court evangelical Christians, who also tend to support a sovereign Israel.

“There is a strong pro-Israel evangelical perspective and heart towards Israel,” said Scott Thomas, pastor of Free Life Chapel in Lakeland and the state director of Christians United for Israel, which has 900,000 members in Florida. “I believe that when these politicians and our leaders begin to speak in this capacity, it’s great to know where their alignment is.”

Ross, of the Tampa JCCs, has accompanied Republicans and Democrats to Israel. He said visiting gives them an opportunity to see and speak not only to Israelis on issues that might matter to Floridians, but also to Palestinian leaders, so they can get a better sense of those viewpoints, too.

Since 2005, Tampa has been sister cities with Ashdod, a key port city about 15 miles north of Gaza and south of Tel Aviv. When Cohen and other Tampa leaders visited, they brought a $60,000 check from the Tampa JCCs to help renovate an aging bomb shelter.

As Ashdod sustained rocket fire during the first week of conflict with Hamas, Cohen thought about his trip to Ashdod, knowing a small part of Florida was there, too.

“Tampa’s name is etched in stone on the Ashdod City Hall,” he said. “You can’t help but know when you’re there that they are in a vulnerable spot.”