NEW YORK—When the Tikvah Fund invited Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis to be a keynote speaker at the annual Jewish Leadership Conference, they could not have imagined the series of challenges that ensued.
On Sunday, the conservative pro-Israel organization was relieved that only a few dozen activists showed up to protest, chanting “Shame” against the governor who banned gender identity lessons for children in kindergarten to third grade, as well as to everyone who hosted him or came to listen to his speech.
“They can’t cancel me, I’m going to speak my mind,” DeSantis said at the beginning of his remarks. “You know, I saw that there was a little opposition to me coming here. All I can tell you is this: When the Left is having a spasm, that just tells you that in Florida we are winning.”
The road leading to this speech began with a surprise cancellation by the original venue that was supposed to host the conference, the Museum of Jewish Heritage, citing “lack of space” and complicated “security arrangements” after DeSantis was announced as a keynote speaker. The event was moved to Chelsea Piers.
Conference organizers Elliott Abrams and Eric Cohen argued in a Wall Street Journal op-ed that the museum’s decision was purely political.
"A lot of people dislike Mr. DeSantis, and the museum staff must have asked: What if there are protests? What if our progressive donors complain?” they wrote.
DeSantis, himself, mocked the decision, noting that the Museum of Jewish Heritage refused to host a governor that introduced new Holocaust-education standards in his state last year.
“We have enacted, robust Holocaust education requirements and standards in Florida schools. We enacted a moment of silence required in every school so that students have the opportunity to reflect,” he said. “Now, that's a pretty good record apparently. That's the type of record that'll get you banned from speaking at a Holocaust museum.”
The new venue for the Jewish conference, Pier 60, also faced pressure throughout the week leading up to the event from left-wing and LGBTQ organizations who demanded the event be called off.
Chelsea Piers management said in a statement that “Pier Sixty has never controlled the content, program, or speakers” at the numerous events it hosted. They also vowed to donate the money it received from the event to “groups that protect LGBTQ+ communities, and foster and amplify productive debates about LGBTQ+ issues' to show support for the gay community.”
But for the activists, that was not enough. Despite rain on Sunday morning, activists screamed at hundreds of conference attendees as they arrived at the entrance.
When DeSantis spoke in the afternoon, the sun finally came out.
The popular conservative governor said that pro-Israel sentiment runs high in his state.
“One of the things you learn about Florida, we've got a lot of diverse regions, but I can tell you, if you look at issues like when we moved the American embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, you probably had as high or higher support in the panhandle of Florida, than you did in the more Jewish-heavy areas of South Florida. So, this is something that everybody across our state is very supportive of.”
One of DeSantis' first moves as governor was to put Airbnb on its anti-Boycott Divestment Sanctions list after the vacation rental company removed listings of Jewish homes located inside the West Bank – which the governor referred to as Judea and Samaria.
“We immediately put them on our anti-BDS list. And you know what? Airbnb backed down and we were able to win on that fight,” DeSantis said.
DeSantis also touted his state’s model for religious practice and said both observant Jews and Christians are empowered to practice their faith. During the pandemic, DeSantis described how he told religious institutions: “We need you in the fight because people are going to need this more than ever.”
“We said, 'You're protected,'” DeSantis told the Jewish audience, highlighting Florida’s anti-lockdown policies during COVID. “We would have our health people talk with rabbis and priests and pastors about ways to mitigate.”
“I was somebody that said you've got to give people something... You've got to have to space it out or go outside or if you do online – that's your choice. But don't just close down.”
In addition to his anti-lockdown policies during COVID, DeSantis highlighted Florida's decision to not require masks for toddlers, parental rights in education and other freedoms that fly in the face of a “woke” ideology.
“We are proud to be the leaders in this country – when it comes to empowering parents – to make the best, educational decisions that they can for their kids,” he stated. “We have said that the state of Florida is not going to be overrun by woke ideology. It’s just not going to happen. I think it’s a cancer. I think it will destroy this country if it’s able to get more of a foothold than it already has.”
Tal Heinrich is a senior correspondent for both ALL ISRAEL NEWS and ALL ARAB NEWS. She is currently based in New York City. Tal also provides reports and analysis for Israeli Hebrew media Channel 14 News.