State Politics

Two days after deadly synagogue shooting, Florida Senate passes anti-Semitism bill

Two days after one person was killed and three others were injured in a shooting at a California synagogue, the Florida Senate unanimously passed a bill to address anti-Semitism in the state.

The California gunman killed one woman — Lori Kaye, 60 — and wounded three people, including the synagogue’s rabbi and an 8-year-old girl.

“He knew nothing about the victims, other than that they were Jewish. That was enough for them to die in his own mind,” said bill sponsor Sen. Joe Gruters, R-Sarasota. “Anti-Semitism is on the rise, and we have the ability to do something about it. No one is born with hate in their heart.”

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On Saturday, the last day of Passover, a gunman stormed into the Chabad of Poway in Southern California and began shooting using an AR-15-style gun. Police later arrested 19-year-old John T. Earnest.

The shooting comes only six months after another mass shooting at a synagogue.

In October Robert Gregory Bowers, 46, walked into the Tree of Life Congregation in Pittsburgh during a bris — a ceremony to mark the birth of a boy — and killed 11 members of the congregation. That attack is considered to be the deadliest attack on a Jewish community in modern American history.

Although AR-15-style guns were used in both shootings, guns, or what the state could do to address their usage in mass shootings, was never brought up, even by Democrats.

Both the House and Senate sessions Monday opened with prayers led by local rabbis in honor of the Jewish community in San Diego County and beyond.

The Senate bill was taken up out of the chamber’s Rules Committee, where it was tabled. The bill was brought up per the permission of Rules Chair Lizbeth Benacquisto, R-Fort Myers.

The bill would require that schools address anti-Semitic behavior the same way they address racial discrimination. The proposal defines anti-Semitic behavior as “accusing Jewish citizens of being more loyal to Israel, or the alleged priorities of Jews worldwide, than to the interest of their own nations.”

“We made a statement against hatred that will be part of our legacy,” Gruters said, thanking Benacquisto and Senate President Bill Galvano for waving the rules.

An identical House version of the bill passed unanimously earlier this month. Bill sponsor Rep. Randy Fine, R-Palm Bay, donned a yarmulke, or traditional Jewish head covering, in the House chamber Monday.

Sen. Annette Taddeo, D-Miami, said the way leadership allowed the chamber to take up the bill was an example of mitzvot, or good deeds.

“Let’s not think about bitterness. ... This is so much in the Jewish tradition to continue to do good,” Taddeo said. “Today we’re doing a mitzvah in passing this bill. Let’s continue to do mitzvot ... as it’s the best way to honor the victims of these acts.”

The Senate bill faced a bit of controversy last month, when Senate Minority Leader Audrey Gibson came under fire for opposing the bill. Gibson was the lone “no” vote on the bill, and said she thought it was “an intentional piece of legislation to divide.” She later clarified her stance in a statement, saying the legislation is well-intentioned, but “fights the wrong battle.” She later pushed back against claims that she was anti-Semitic.

Gibson signed on to co-sponsor the bill Monday.

“No one and no people should fear the practice of their religion or the exercising of their faith,” the Jacksonville Democrat said. “Nor should they fear that their places of worships should be targets of hate and terrorism.”

The identical bills will likely head next to the governor’s desk. The 2019 legislative session ends Friday.

Samantha J. Gross is a politics and policy reporter for the Miami Herald. Before she moved to the Sunshine State, she covered breaking news at the Boston Globe and the Dallas Morning News.