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Jewish community backs Florida House bill that would make antisemitic acts a felony

Third grader Jeannie Bobroff can vividly recall an antisemitic act directed at her family.

Her parents had just put her and her two brothers to bed. As her parents headed to bed, they saw a bright light from outside their house. They walked to their front window and saw a 6-foot cross burning on their front lawn.

Bobroff, a lifelong Gainesville resident, has many stories like this one.

“I come from a background of antisemitism,” Bobroff said.

Antisemitism, discrimination against Jewish people as individuals and a group, did not begin in the Nazi era, nor did it end with the close of World War II, according to the Anti-Defamation League. 

Acts of hatred toward the Jewish community have increased around the world recently.

According to the Anti-Defamation League, the number of antisemitic incidents reached an all-time high in the United States in 2021, with a total of 2,717 incidents  of assault, harassment and vandalism.

But a new Florida House bill proposes to make antisemitic acts punishable by up to five years in prison. 

On Jan. 19, Republican Rep. Mike Caruso (West Palm Beach) filed House Bill 269, which says that people who take actions such as damaging religious cemeteries, interrupting an assembly of worship or projecting images of religious “animus” onto a property without consent can be charged with a third-degree felony, or it could be considered a hate crime.

The punishment for a third-degree felony ranges from a $5,000 fine and five years probation to five years in prison.

Bobroff, 67, said she is thrilled this bill is being proposed, but she thinks it is long overdue.

“I don’t understand why this has to wait to be done or to go into law,” she said. “I think it should go into effect immediately because the longer you wait, the more time people have to do things that are devious.”

University of Florida student Marissa Back, 20, said she is skeptical about how the bill would work.

“Sometimes I feel like it can be really hard to identify the instances of antisemitism,” she said. “I feel like there can be barriers and misunderstandings of what is antisemitism and what isn’t.”

In January, Caruso said in a Tweet that the bill is in response to recent acts of antisemitism in Florida.

“I will not stand here and do nothing,” he said. “I will not be complacent, and I will not sit around.”

At this year’s Florida-Georgia game, an antisemitic message referencing rapper Kanye West was seen scrolling outside of the TIAA Bank Field in Jacksonville.

“Hearing about anything that happens having to do with your school is really upsetting,” Back said.

Back said she has also experienced antisemitic acts growing up in Putnam, New York, which doesn’t have a large Jewish population, she said.

“Growing up in a town like that, a lot of people had one-sided views on religion and politics,” she said. “A lot of people tended to make very racist, antisemitic comments.”

In middle school, she said kids would make jokes about Hitler and the Holocaust, and in high school, people would form Jewish stars with their arms.

But Back said she found a sense of community while attending UF.

“For me, it wasn’t really until I got to UF that I started opening up about being Jewish more because there is a larger Jewish population at UF,” she said.

While the Florida-Georgia game incident was scary for UF’s Jewish population and other Jewish people across the country, Bobroff and Back said they believe UF always stands behind the Jewish community.

“In terms of UF, I know they actively post, speaking out against it and saying how terrible it is,” Back said.

Bobroff said UF sees what is going on and it wants to help.

“I think that UF is doing everything that they can,” she said. “I think that they are behind not only the Jewish community but all races, religions and persons.”