SURFSIDE, Florida (AP) — On a recent balmy South Florida night, dozens of people gathered at a synagogue along a palm tree-lined road to talk about the war going on thousands of miles away.
Located just north of Miami Beach, the Shul of Bal Harbour is in the heart of South Florida’s Jewish community. Its rabbi is a well-known supporter of Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, a Republican who has long supported conservative priorities on Israel and spoken at the Shul.
But in potentially unfriendly territory for Democrats, several people who attended the meeting said they were pleased President Joe Biden’s support of the Israeli offensive against Gaza.
“I think he has sent a strong message, and that is very important,” said Georg Lipsztein, a member of the congregation. “Israel is going to do what it has to do.”
This swath of South Florida used to be a Democratic stronghold but has moved to the right, helping former President Donald Trump win the state in 2020 and DeSantis coast to a huge re-election win last year and flipping Miami-Dade County, long key to Democratic strength in the state. If Florida is to regain its status as a perennially competitive state, how Jewish voters perceive Biden’s handling of the Israel-Hamas war will be critical.
Hamas’ Oct. 7 attack killing more than 1,400 Israeli civilians evoked feelings of deep frustration, grief and anger among American Jews.
“The comfort and the resolve that he’s demonstrated has been really critical at a time when people are really just desperate,” said U.S. Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz, a Biden surrogate who represents suburbs south of Fort Lauderdale. “I’ve never seen in my 30 years of public service this magnitude of pain, shock and anger burning in the hearts of all Jews.”
In 2016, Democrats had about 327,000 more registered voters in the state. The GOP now has about 626,000 more registered voters.
In South Florida, rabbis and community leaders are pushing their congregations to call their lawmakers and insist they back Israel as it ramps up its offensive. In Michigan, another swing state, many Arab-American and Muslim communities are angry about the Biden administration’s response as Israel’s offensive has resulted in thousands of Palestinian deaths. And some Democrats are concerned about younger voters who polls show have greater sympathy for Palestinian concerns than the party’s older and more centrist voters.
The administration is having to strike “a delicate balance of showing support for Israel rhetorically and militarily but trying to prevent the humanitarian crisis in Gaza from getting out of control,” said Eric Lob, a Florida International University professor and non-resident scholar at the Washington-based think tank Middle East Institute.
About 43% of Florida’s Jewish voters supported Donald Trump in the 2020 presidential election, compared with 30% of Jewish voters who supported him nationwide, according to AP VoteCast. Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis won 45% of Jewish voters in his re-election, when he flipped traditionally Democratic Miami-Dade County while also winning a majority of Latino voters statewide.
An estimated 525,000 Jews live in Miami’s metropolitan area which includes Fort Lauderdale and Pompano Beach, according to the American Jewish Population Project at Brandeis University.
Jacob Solomon, president of the Greater Miami Jewish Federation, said South Florida has a large Orthodox community along with immigrants from Central and South America for whom English is not a first language. South Florida’s Jewish population includes Cubans and Venezuelans who closely follow U.S. relations with their countries of origin and generally support Republicans.
“We are among the most pro-Israel Zionist communities in North America,” he said, adding that he thinks it is the community with the strongest connection to Israel in the U.S.
On her trips to Israel, Lauren Book, the top Democrat in the Florida State Senate, uses an app that warns Israelis about incoming rockets from Hamas. But even back in Florida, the alert still goes off sometimes awakening her 6-year-old twins.
“I keep it on, just so I know what’s happening and so my children understand that if we were in Israel, you don’t have the luxury of turning it off,” she said in an interview.
Elected to the state senate in 2016, Book is a vocal opponent of DeSantis on most issues and was arrested near the state Capitol earlier this year in a protest against a ban on abortions after six weeks that he eventually signed. But she told The Associated Press last week that she was thankful for his sending charter planes to Israel to transport people seeking evacuation.
“We are all deeply, deeply connected and only one or two degrees separated from all of the things that have happened there,” Book said.
Rabbis and community leaders are holding Zoom calls with survivors of the Hamas attack.
Many leaders oppose a ceasefire. Israel has launched a total blockade of Gaza; airstrikes have flattened buildings and homes, killing civilians and forcing hundreds of thousands to evacuate as it prepares for a possible ground invasion, vowing to destroy Hamas.
Rabbi Andrew Jacobs, who leads a synagogue in Fort Lauderdale, Ramat Shalom, says he encourages members of the congregation to stay informed and reach out to leaders and thank them for standing by Israel. He said he warns congregants to be prepared for voices to change “when the ugliness of war comes out” as Israel, with support from the United States, continues to bombard Gaza.
“We have to be vigilant to all calls and cries for ceasefire or putting blame on Israel right now because this work needs to be done once and for all to bring peace to that region,” Jacobs said. “President Biden has expressed very strong support for Israel and those of us who support the Jewish state are going to continue to expect him to keep doing the same thing.”
Many are worried that anti-Israel sentiment is growing, particularly in universities. In California, an incident was reported at Stanford University in which a lecturer singled out Jewish students in an undergraduate class asking them to stand in a corner and told the room that was what Israel does to the Palestinians. In New York, threatening statements about Jews were shared on an internet discussion board at Cornell University, prompting officials to send police to guard a Jewish center and kosher dining hall.
At the University of Miami, vigils and rallies have been held by both students mourning the loss of Israelis and calling for the return of hostages as well as those grieving the loss of Palestinians in the war. The university’s president, Julio Frenk, issued a statement in solidarity with Israel.
One Miami student, 20-year-old Nicole Segal, says she is hoping for continuing support from the administration, but has been disheartened by what she sees as a lack of support from other progressive groups.
“It’s very shocking that not enough non-Jewish people are standing up for Israel. I feel as if when there were other political matters, they stood up,” she said. “It’s upsetting.”