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1. Checking the Israel Box
Is Ron DeSantis running?
All signs indicate that the hard-liner Florida governor is on the cusp of throwing his hat in the ring and challenging his former political patron Donald Trump for the Republican Party’s 2024 presidential nomination. These signs include DeSantis’s book tour (aka campaign stop) in Iowa and a closely watched ad war with Trump, in which DeSantis backers ran online ads calling on Trump to “fight Democrats, not lie about Governor DeSantis.” This was in response to a Trump PAC’s ad that alluded to a 2019 story about DeSantis once eating pudding with his finger while on a flight, since there was no spoon to be found. In the 20-second spot the narration talks about how “DeSantis has his dirty fingers all over senior entitlements,” as the video depicts an actor sticking his fingers repeatedly into a chocolate pudding container.
More serious is the recent spree of state legislative moves by DeSantis, including anti-LGBTQ measures and anti-abortion laws.
But perhaps the most distinctive sign that DeSantis does not see Tallahassee as his final stop: He’s going to Israel.
It’s a must-visit for any presidential hopeful—a necessary box to check on the way to national primaries and a potential presidential race. George W. Bush did it while serving as Texas governor and spoke frequently about his helicopter ride over Israel’s narrow waistline; Barack Obama went on a pre-campaign visit, too. His main takeaway was the constant fear experienced by Israeli children living under threat of rocket attack in Sderot, a town bordering the Gaza Strip. Donald Trump did not go on a pre-campaign visit, but he made sure to make Israel part of his first overseas trip as President.
DeSantis first visited Israel in 2019, but now, as election season nears, he’s going again, just in time for Israel’s 75th independence anniversary. He will be the keynote speaker at a conference sponsored by The Jerusalem Post.
On Friday, DeSantis got a taste of what he’s walking into when several activists from IfNotNow disrupted his speech with calls of “Jews against DeSantis.” Later they tweeted: “DeSantis is an antisemite whose actions and policies both support Israel’s apartheid and put Jews in danger.”
2. The Most Pro-Israel Governor?
Before his first visit to Israel, DeSantis stated, “I promised to be the most pro-Israel Governor in America,” and he still takes pride in adopting policies on Israel that make the Sunshine State stand out.
Key to these policies was taking a strong stance against BDS, the campaign to boycott, divest and sanction Israel. While half of the states in the Union have some version of anti-BDS laws on their books, Florida under DeSantis proactively went after boycotters in 2019 when Airbnb tried to forbid users from listing homes in West Bank settlements. DeSantis took on the fight voluntarily, even though it did not relate to his state. And he eventually won, pushing the vacation-share giant to rescind its Israel-related guidelines.
In Israel, DeSantis will find a right-wing government aligned with his views on the region.
Speaking at an event organized by the Republican Jewish Coalition last fall, DeSantis noted that under his leadership, Florida was the first state to have its officials participate in public events “in Judea and Samaria…I don’t care what the State Department says, they are not occupied territories,” he remarked. “It is disputed territory.”
These positions on Israel are pretty much the standard for GOP candidates nowadays and reflect the policies of the Trump administration, which, following the leadership of then Secretary of State Mike Pompeo on this issue, moved to undo the official definition of the West Bank as occupied territories.
DeSantis’s social agenda, on the other hand, may be less of a fit for Israelis. While his anti-LGBTQ measures may resonate with some members of Netanyahu’s coalition, his anti-abortion policies do not, since Israel, even under its current right-wing government, is relatively open to women’s abortion rights.
3. Celebrating with Israel
Israel’s 75th anniversary couldn’t have come at a less festive time. The nation is split, with masses taking to the streets in an attempt to push back against the drive by Netanyahu’s right-wing government to overhaul the state’s judicial system. In addition, a spate of terror attacks, both on the streets and with rockets launched from Israel’s southern and northern borders, have increased Israelis’ sense of insecurity.
It’s also not the best time for U.S.-Israeli relations.
The Biden administration has expressed in no uncertain terms its unease with the Israeli government’s measures, both domestically and regarding the Palestinians, and President Biden made it clear that he has no intention of inviting Netanyahu to the White House in the near future.
Still, the occasion of Israel’s 75th anniversary is an opportunity to show American friendship to Israel and to send a message that despite disagreements, there is a strong bond between the nations.
As of now, this message will be delivered by visits of Republican and Democratic Congressional leaders around Israel’s Independence Day. Speaker of the House Kevin McCarthy is expected to visit Israel in late April, and Minority Leader Hakeem Jeffries will be there a week earlier.
There are also plenty of other opportunities for the administration and Congress to show support. Here’s what to look for: How warm is the language used by U.S. Ambassador to Israel Tom Nides in his Independence Day comments? Will Biden put out a statement, and if so, will it also touch on the disagreements? And who will represent the administration at the Israeli embassy’s Independence Day reception? The rule of thumb is that the higher the position, the better the relationship.
4. Jeffries’s Past Comes Back to Haunt Him
Speaking of Minority Leader Jeffries, the past week wasn’t an easy one.
CNN’s Kfile unearthed previously unknown writings by Jeffries in which he defended his uncle, Leonard Jeffries, a Black Studies professor who came under fire in the 1990s for his explicit antisemitic rhetoric.
Speaking at a 1991 Black arts festival, Leonard Jeffries claimed that “rich Jews” in Hollywood conspired to denigrate African Americans in the films they produced. He also called Jews “skunks” and “dogs.” He was widely condemned for his antisemitic attacks and eventually had to give up his position at City University of New York.
This episode has occasionally popped up as Hakeem Jeffries made his way up the political ranks, and Jeffries always maintained that he had only a “vague recollection” of the controversy since he was away at college and his parents sought to shield him from the troubling news about his uncle.
But now it turns out that Jeffries not only knew about the controversy, he even weighed in, defending his uncle in an editorial he published in his college paper, stating that “Dr. Jeffries has challenged the existing white supremacist educational system and long-standing distortion of history. His reward has been a media lynching complete with character assassinations and inflammatory erroneous accusations.” The editorial also mentioned Louis Farrakhan as having “come under intense fire.”
5. Fighting it Out
At this point, you can probably guess what happens next.
The Republican Jewish Coalition issued a statement saying that “Minority Leader Hakeem Jeffries owes the Jewish community an explanation as to why he lied and attempted to cover up his defense of these revolting antisemites.” They also argued that the issue was “yet another disturbing data point of the Democratic Party embracing and promoting antisemites.”
Jewish Democrats, on the other side, rallied behind their leader, noting his long- standing friendship with the Jewish community and his support for Israel. Florida Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz tweeted that she has seen how Jeffries “embodied the Jewish values of tikkun olam (repairing the world) and gemilut hassadim (giving love and kindness).”
Both sides are right. Jeffries is indeed cherished by the Jewish community (including by the pro-Israel lobby) as a great friend. But he also owes the community an explanation. It’s not too hard to do, and since he still has a long career in Democratic politics, now would be a good time to clear up this issue.