ORLANDO, Fla. — Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis this week directed the state's universities to make it easier for out-of-state students facing antisemitism and other religious harassment in the wake of the Israel-Hamas war to transfer to Florida campuses.
DeSantis’ directive on Tuesday piggybacks on blowback some Ivy League leaders have faced in response to how they’re handling antisemitism and anti-Israel protests on their campuses. The governor’s office said there has been an increase in inquiries about transferring, without providing any numbers to back that up.
"With leaders of so-called elite universities enabling antisemitic activities, rather than protecting their students from threats and harassment, it is understandable that many Jewish students are looking for alternatives and looking to Florida," DeSantis, who is campaigning for the 2024 GOP presidential nomination, said in a statement.
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The order referred to all students facing religious harassment, and when asked if it included Muslims, Christians and others, a spokeswoman for the board governing Florida’s university systems, said Wednesday it covers any student fearful of religious persecution following the Oct. 7 Hamas attack on Israel. However, neither she nor the governor's office said how many students had made inquiries about transferring.
Democratic state Sen. Lori Berman said she knows of Florida students at Harvard who are concerned about antisemitism on campus, but has also heard from a student at the University of South Florida in Tampa, adding that antisemitism is a problem in many places and DeSantis' directive is doing little to prevent it.
"It's kind of interesting that we're offering our Florida schools when I'm not sure that our Florida schools are any different than what's going on elsewhere in the nation," said Berman, who is Jewish.
The lawmaker from South Florida also noted there have been Nazi and antisemitic demonstrations and activities in Florida that DeSantis has said little about.
"He didn't condemn that at all. He did not condemn any of the neo-Nazi ideology that we've seen," Berman said, adding the governor's latest move seems to be more aimed at voters than to solve the problem of antisemitism on college campuses.
"It’s a political talking point right before the Iowa caucuses."
DeSantis has waded into the political side of the Israel-Hamas war previously, including organizing flights that brought dozens of U.S. citizens in Israel back to Florida in the conflict's early days.
Shortly after that, the governor and the state board that oversees public universities sought to kick off Florida campuses chapters tied to the national Students for Justice in Palestine organization. The governor claimed their expressions of support for Hamas equated to backing a terrorist organization. The University of Florida chapter and others sued the governor in federal court in November, claiming they have First Amendment rights to advocate and speak out on the issue. That case remains pending in a Tallahassee court.
College campuses across the U.S. have been roiled by protests since the start of the Israel-Hamas war, and university presidents have been caught in the crosshairs, criticized for how they've responded to antisemitic and anti-Muslim acts on and off campus, as well as their public statements on the war. The leaders of Harvard and the University of Pennsylvania resigned recently in the wake of criticism over their testimony at a congressional hearing where they were unable to say unequivocally that calls on campus for the genocide of Jews would violate the schools' conduct policies, citing free speech rights.
Under an emergency order signed by the chancellor of the Florida university system on Tuesday, an out-of-state student who has demonstrated "a well-founded fear of persecution" based on religion would have certain requirements, application deadlines and out-of-state tuition waived.
"I think it would be wonderful if it were all religious discrimination. I hope it reads that broadly," said Rabbi Rachael Jackson in Orlando, who reviewed the order.
Just under 10% of the U.S. Jewish population of 7.6 million people live in Florida, the third-highest state after New York and California, according to the American Jewish Population Project at Brandeis University.
Rabbi David Kay in Orlando said while he hasn't heard of any out-of-state Jewish students wanting to transfer to Florida campuses he knows Jewish students who decided not to enroll at Florida universities because of efforts by DeSantis and Republican lawmakers to weaken professor tenure, eliminate diversity initiatives and the takeover by DeSantis appointees of New College, a traditionally progressive school in Sarasota.
The order may backfire by appearing to give Jewish students special treatment, he added.
"It may have the opposite effect," Kay said, with other students thinking, "Why is discrimination against Jewish students being singled out, instead of Muslim students, Hispanic students and Black students?"
Associated Press writers Brendan Farrington in Tallahassee, Florida, and Curt Anderson in St. Petersburg, Florida, contributed to this report.