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CAIR-Florida, Arab-American and other civil rights groups miffed over DeSantis trip to Israel

By Jeffrey Schweers, For Tallahassee Democrat, On 26 May 2019, Read Original
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An Arab-American coalition is objecting to Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis holding a state cabinet meeting at the U.S. Embassy in Jerusalem next week. 

“Hosting a Cabinet meeting in a highly secure overseas embassy, where most Floridians would be unable to attend” violates both the Florida Constitution and its Sunshine Law, said members of the American-Arab Anti-Discrimination League, a 10-member coalition that includes Arab, Jewish and Immigrant rights organizations.

And they said, it may "expose members of your cabinet to criminal penalties."

DeSantis and the three members of the Cabinet are on the trade mission —  Agricultural Commissioner Nikki Fried, Attorney General Ashley Moody, and CFO Jimmy Patronis.

The group urged DeSantis to “uphold the Florida Constitution, comply with Florida Sunshine Law and protect your administration by hosting your cabinet meetings in Florida, where Floridians can exercise their right of public access to government proceedings.”

DeSantis is leading a 96-member delegation on a business and academic mission to Israel Saturday. In his latest news release, the governor repeatedly touted the trip's “bold agenda” full of historic firsts, “providing Florida with a unique opportunity to strengthen the economic bonds between Florida and Israel.

The agenda includes a Cabinet meeting on Wednesday his staff have described as "ceremonial" and "informational."

"This meeting of Florida cabinet members is not considering board or agency business; it will be an information gathering meeting where they will listen to Israeli best practices on issues of mutual interest for Florida and Israel, such as water resources and security," DeSantis Spokeswoman Helen Ferre said.


But Barbara Petersen of the First Amendment Foundation said there is no such thing as a "ceremonial" Cabinet meeting under Florida Statutes. Any meeting of the Cabinet at which public business is to be transacted or discussed must be open and noticed to the public, she said. 

DeSantis repeated his campaign goal to be the most pro-Israel governor in the United States and mentioned that while a member of Congress he led the successful charge to move the U.S. Embassy from Tel-Aviv to Jerusalem, and advocated for U.S. recognition of Israeli sovereignty of the Golan Heights. 

Immediately after taking office, DeSantis pledged to increase security funding for private Jewish day schools, something started by his predecessor, Gov. Rick Scott. DeSantis also opposed the Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions movement and led a vote of the State Board of Administration to prohibit state employees from using Airbnb after it launched a policy to pull listings in the occupied West Bank.

Airbnb has since rescinded its West Bank policy, but Florida has not reversed its ban on Airbnb or lifted its status as the first business under a “scrutinized” list of businesses that boycott Israel.

“We don’t think Florida needs to be having any business out of state in any country, not just Israel,” said Wilfredo Ruiz, director of communications for the Council on American-Islamic Relations-Florida. “All state business should be conducted in Florida.”

Furthermore, Ruiz is worried that the trip to Israel is a continuation of state policy that focuses on protecting one religious group while ignoring others. When Scott and DeSantis increased funding for Jewish day schools, they didn’t provide money for extra security to Florida mosques or Muslim schools, Ruiz said.

“They are ignoring Muslim worship centers and those of other religions that are targeted with hate crimes.”

The same goes for the anti-semitism bill DeSantis plans to sign in Jerusalem at the U.S. Embassy on Wednesday, he said. While it laudably adds religion to the list of categories that cannot be discriminated against, it also requires Florida public schools to specifically treat incidents of anti-semitism the same as racism.

The bill's House sponsor, Rep. Randy Fine, of Melbourne Beach, is one of the trade mission's delegates. Arab-Americans and some Jewish groups objected that it didn’t include discrimination against Muslims and other religions. They also said the bill goes too far in including criticism of Israel without also mentioning other countries, focusing on peace or human rights investigations only of Israel, saying those infringed on the First Amendment.

Again, Ruiz said, the Legislature and administration are ignoring the attacks on other religions, including the burning of two mosques in Florida within six months and dozens of other hate crimes across the state.

Ruiz noted that Florida is home to at least 500,000 Muslims, about the same number of Jews who live in South Florida.

“When a government is continuing to protect one religion over others it becomes troublesome,” Ruiz said.

[*Picture: Gage Skidmore from Peoria, AZ; Wikimedia Commons]

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