On the same day that New York Governor Kathy Hochul reaffirmed her stance against anti-Semitism and BDS at the American Jewish Committee’s Global Forum on the Upper East Side, Florida Governor Ron DeSantis also appeared in the news for his attendance at a different Jewish event, but in a negative light.
“They can’t cancel me,” the first-term Republican said at the Tikvah Fund’s Jewish Leadership Conference this past Monday. “I’m gonna speak my mind. When the left is having a spasm, that just tells you that in Florida we are winning.” The host organization promotes support for Israel alongside free-market economics, traditional values, and Western leadership. It is chaired by former Deputy National Security Advisor Elliott Abrams, who served under presidents George W. Bush and Donald Trump.
Outside the Tikvah Fund’s event at Chelsea Piers, protesters waved rainbow flags in opposition to DeSantis’ policies concerning the teaching of gender and orientation in public schools. “Every parent in the state of Florida has a right to send their kid to elementary school without having concepts like woke gender ideology jammed into their curriculum,” he said to dinner participants.
The event was dogged by controversy as it was initially slated to take place at the Museum of Jewish Heritage in downtown Manhattan. But in early May, the Tikvah Fund was told that it must either disinvite DeSantis or hold its event elsewhere. The venue cancellation was a moment of soul-searching for Jewish community leaders and educators, as DeSantis has been an outspoken supporter of Israel and the Jewish community, and at the same time seen as confrontational towards the LGBT community. It raised questions whether the museum was justified in rejecting DeSantis on the principle of tolerance, or welcomed him for his support of the Jewish community and as a matter of free speech.
Although Chelsea Piers management distanced itself from DeSantis’ views and promised to donate money raised from the Tikvah Fund’s dinner towards LGBT causes, Manhattan’s elected officials were not satisfied. “DeSantis is clearly trying to raise money here in New York City for that speculative presidential bid,” State Sen. Brad Hoylman said at the protest. “He’s stirring up a hateful set of the Republican Party, who want to see LGBTQ people erased from textbooks, schools, if not daily public life entirely.”
In a Wall Street Journal op-ed defending their honoring of DeSantis, Tikvah Fund CEO Abrams and Executive Director Eric Cohen wrote about the influx of Jews to the Sunshine State as proof of DeSantis’ leadership.
“Florida’s booming and low-tax economy is no doubt one of the attractions to young Jews seeking to build a prosperous future for themselves and their families. So is Florida’s educational system, which provides tax credits that assist many parents in sending their children to Jewish day schools.” Neither of the authors is Orthodox, but the last item certainly resonates with this sector of American Jewry, where education is the biggest expense. “We thought it would be interesting to invite Gov. Ron DeSantis to discuss how the ‘Florida model’ has contributed to the growth and vitality of Jewish life in his state.”
At this time, Orthodox Jews in America are fortunate to have mostly bipartisan support concerning the security of Israel, opposition to BDS, and combating anti-Semitism. But concerning social values, Orthodox voters feel that Republican candidates are less likely to push them on acceptance of lifestyles, orientations, and gender definitions that do not align with halachah.
Many of us have firsthand knowledge of this exodus, seeing our friends and family members relocating to Florida. But most Orthodox New Yorkers are not likely to make this move.
That’s where local advocacy makes the difference. Last month, hundreds of thousands of individuals wrote letters to the state Department of Education in opposition to legislation granting the state greater oversight to enforce “substantial equivalency” in secular education.
Yeshivos sent emails and letters to parents, urging them to submit their comments to the state. These appeals were sent not only by chareidi schools, but also Modern Orthodox yeshivos and day schools that teach secular subjects, participate in regents exams, and offer advanced placement courses. The fear that authorities could enforce teaching subjects that run counter to halachah inspired the high turnout of letters.
It may be a matter of time before normative halachah is declared by the arbiters of popular culture as transphobic or racist. We know better. We respect people of all faiths and walks of life, as long as they do not disrupt ours. As DeSantis’ speech had its detractors, we must be vigilant to preserve our values against a raging “cancel culture.”
By Sergey Kadinsky