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Vocal on Israel, DeSantis Is Challenged on His Silence on Neo-Nazis in Florida

As Israel’s war against Hamas has become an animating force in the Republican presidential primary, Gov. Ron DeSantis of Florida has cast himself as a staunch defender of the Jewish state, sending taxpayer-funded charter flights to rescue Americans stranded in Israel, calling for harsh measures against the civilians of Gaza and ordering pro-Palestinian groups on public university campuses in his state to disband.

Those efforts, as well as a series of bills he has signed to combat antisemitism in Florida in the past, have won him attention from the news media and praise from some Republican voters.

But Mr. DeSantis has earned fewer plaudits for his response to a series of neo-Nazi demonstrations that have taken place in his state over the last two years. The hateful displays have included masked men marching and chanting “Jews get the rope” and banners with swastikas hung from highway overpasses.

Unlike other prominent Republican politicians in Florida, the governor stayed silent after each incident, making no public statements. When pressed, he has said that he did not wish to draw attention to people he considered provocateurs, and claimed that those calling on him to denounce the groups were trying to “smear” him by association. But his adamant, ongoing refusal to condemn the public activities of neo-Nazis has angered and confused many American Jews while highlighting what critics say is his tendency toward obstinacy.

Now, as he challenges former President Donald J. Trump for the Republican nomination, his silence has also become a concern for some Republican donors. Two of them, who were granted anonymity to discuss sensitive and private discussions, said that they or their allies had reached out to Mr. DeSantis’s advisers after high-profile incidents of antisemitism in Florida, urging him to say more. One of the donors recounted being told that Mr. DeSantis did not want to speak out. There wasn’t an explanation as to why, beyond that the governor believed he had done enough already, the person said.

State Representative Randy Fine, a close ally of Mr. DeSantis’s and the only Jewish Republican in the State Legislature, broke with the governor after the attack on Israel.Credit…Octavio Jones/Reuters

Bryan Griffin, press secretary for the DeSantis campaign, said that Mr. DeSantis had shown his commitment to protecting both Israel and American Jews through his actions, calling him “a leader who acts and delivers.” He did not comment on the conversations with the donors.

This week, however, one of Mr. DeSantis’s closest Jewish allies, State Representative Randy Fine, broke with the Florida governor and switched his endorsement to Mr. Trump. Mr. Fine wrote in an opinion column that Mr. DeSantis’s failure to confront antisemitism more publicly had “broken my heart.” In an interview with The New York Times, he said he had been dismayed by Mr. DeSantis’s “lack of leadership” after the neo-Nazi marches.

“Look, if you can’t say Nazis are bad, which should be the easiest thing in the world to say, then what are you doing?” said Mr. Fine, who is the only Jewish Republican in the State Legislature and was publicly confronted by a neo-Nazi protester this month. “It’s important, because Jews are scared.”

Mr. Fine said the governor’s silence was both “stubborn” and “wrong.”

In response to a reporter’s question this week, Mr. DeSantis defended himself, calling the neo-Nazi demonstrators “knuckleheads” and asking why he would “elevate that nonsense” by drawing attention to them.

“I think some of them are fake,” the governor said at a campaign stop in New Hampshire. “I think they’re just trying to get media clicks.”

He also accused Mr. Fine, who is running for the State Senate, of playing “pure politics” with his endorsement.

In contrast to Mr. DeSantis, Senators Rick Scott and Marco Rubio, both Republicans, have condemned neo-Nazi activities in Florida.

After one incident last year, Mr. Rubio wrote on social media that antisemitism was a “dangerous poison” that must be condemned “everywhere & every time, even when it’s just a small group of attention craving losers” — a seeming rebuke of Mr. DeSantis.

Many leaders of prominent Jewish groups agreed with Mr. Rubio’s assessment. Sarah Emmons, the Florida regional director of the Anti-Defamation League, told The Times this week that “public officials should call out antisemitism and hate in all forms across the political spectrum, no matter the source.”

Both the governor’s office and his presidential campaign said he had responded to the incidents with deeds rather than words, pointing to legislation he has signed that bolstered religious anti-discrimination protections in schools, increased penalties for antisemitic harassment and financed security at Jewish day schools. The governor has also directed state law enforcement agencies to pursue neo-Nazis for illegal demonstrations.

“Action to protect the Jewish community and hold those who break the law accountable is more important to the Governor than giving these demonstrators the wall-to-wall coverage they (and the media) crave,” Jeremy Redfern, the press secretary in the governor’s office, said in a statement.

In one high-profile antisemitic incident that took place in February, Rabbi Yosef Konikov was surrounded by neo-Nazi protesters as he attempted to drive from the Chabad he leads in Orlando. The men shouted slurs and threats. Mr. Konikov described the encounter — which was caught on video and was not his first run-in with the group, he said — as “disturbing.”

But he said he believed the governor had been right not to speak publicly about what happened.

“I don’t want these guys to get more coverage than they are already getting,” explained Mr. Konikov, who said he has attended Hanukkah celebrations at the governor’s mansion. He also said that Mr. DeSantis’s office had called him privately to offer support.

Mr. DeSantis’s Jewish supporters believe the governor has made it abundantly clear where he stands through his legislative agenda and his full-throated backing of Israel.

Mr. DeSantis’s campaign said he responded to the antisemitic incidents with actions rather than words. Credit…Drew Angerer/Getty Images

“The argument that DeSantis is quiet against the white supremacists in Florida is an invention of the media and his political opponents,” said Gabriel Groisman, the former mayor of Bal Harbour, Florida.

Last month, the Florida Department of Law Enforcement arrested four people — three men and one woman — for hanging antisemitic banners along an Interstate 4 bridge in Orlando in June. The banners included swastika flags and racist messages. One of the three men was from Florida and claimed to be a member of an antisemitic extremist group , the F.D.L.E. said.

The four people were charged under a new state law that, among other things, prohibits people from displaying or projecting images onto a building, structure or property without permission.

In an interview on Friday, Mark Glass, the commissioner of the F.D.L.E., said the legislation had given police “more tools in the tool belt in order to protect the community.”

Mr. DeSantis enacted the law in April, while in Jerusalem. It was a response to the rash of antisemitic incidents reported across the state since 2022.

Last October, antisemitic messages were projected onto a stadium video board in Jacksonville on the day of the Georgia-Florida college football game. Other antisemitic messages were displayed that day in Jacksonville on banners hung over an Interstate 10 overpass.

In June of this year, about 15 people gathered outside Disney World holding Nazi insignia and signs supporting Mr. DeSantis. In July 2022, neo-Nazi demonstrators waved antisemitic flags outside a Tampa convention center. Other neo-Nazi rallies have been held this year in Jacksonville and Orlando. Neighborhoods in a handful of Central Florida counties have been papered with antisemitic fliers.

While some of the neo-Nazi marchers have claimed to back Mr. DeSantis, others have called him a “joke” in video footage, saying he was a Zionist.

Alongside his domestic efforts, supporters of Mr. DeSantis point to the assistance he has offered to both Israel and American Jews since the bloody terrorist attacks by Hamas this month, such as the charter flights that have returned nearly 700 Americans stranded in Israel to the United States. He has also arranged for medical supplies to be flown over.

This week the DeSantis campaign sent out fund-raising messages highlighting the governor’s efforts to aid Israel.

Nikki Fried, the chairwoman of the Florida Democratic Party, who has long called on Mr. DeSantis to denounce the neo-Nazi marchers, criticized those messages, calling them “completely inappropriate.”

“It shows that he doesn’t understand the moment that we’re in,” Ms. Fried, who is Jewish, said in an interview. “He’s making it all about him.”

Mr. Fine, the Republican state representative, agreed that the messages were “gross.”

Over the summer, Mr. DeSantis’s campaign also drew negative attention by producing an online video that included a symbol associated with Nazis, called a Sonnenrad.

The governor’s face was superimposed over the symbol.

Patricia Mazzei contributed reporting from Miami. Ken Bensinger contributed reporting from Los Angeles.

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