DeSantis says Gillum comment ‘anti-Israel.’ Will it sway Jewish voters?

Democratic nominee for governor Andrew Gillum this summer rebuked President Donald Trump’s decision to move the U.S. embassy in Israel to Jerusalem in an interview — a comment his opponent is singling out in an effort to sway Jewish voters, a key demographic in a competitive midterm election.

The sharp criticism was aired June 30 in a 50-minute, wide-ranging interview on the podcast GHOGH. Gillum called the embassy move “a provocation by the president that was unnecessary.”

The title of the podcast is an acronym for “go hard or go home.” The podcast highlights a leader or influencer in technology, politics or economics in each episode.

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In the June interview, Gillum said he supports a two-state solution in Israel and Israel’s right to to defend itself against attacks.

The discussion turned more pointed after the host raised a confrontation the previous month in which Israeli soldiers opened fire on Palestinians attempting to cross the border fence separating Israel from Gaza, killing at least 58 protesters. Podcast host Jamarlin Martin called the act “murder” and asked Gillum if he condemns it. Gillum replied that he condemns “murder on all sides.” He then added that the embassy move was a setback to the ultimate goal of peace.

READ ALSO: Surge: Gillum won Palm Beach County after trailing in mail, early votes

At the time, Gillum’s comments got little attention. Polls then showed he trailed the field of five candidates — although he ended up winning the state’s Aug. 28 Democratic gubernatorial primary.

Now, though, his record and statements are drawing more scrutiny.

His opponent, Republican U.S. Rep. Ron DeSantis, said in a statement that the comments are “anti-Israel” and “consistent with Gillum’s radical, far left-wing ideology.”

DeSantis joined White House aides Ivanka Trump and Jared Kushner, the president’s son-in-law, in Israel for the embassy opening in May.

“I have been steadfast in my support for Israel, which is an unwavering ally,” he said. “I led the effort in Congress to convince President Trump to move the U.S. embassy to Jerusalem, and I was able to join the delegation to Israel for its official recognition ceremony.”

Gillum reasserted his support for Israel and a two-state solution in a statement to The Palm Beach Post on Thursday.

“I believe strongly in the special relationship between the United States and Israel, a relationship that should always transcend partisan politics because of our shared values, friendship, and commitment to democracy,” he said. “I believe a two-state solution will further the important and difficult work of building peace in the region, while ensuring Israel maintains its Jewish and democratic character with internationally recognized and secure borders.”

It isn’t surprising to see an early effort to sway Jewish voters in Florida, said Dr. Ken Wald, a political scientist at the University of Florida, who studies Jewish political behavior. Older, educated Jewish voters turn out in high rates during midterm elections and overwhelmingly vote for Democratic candidates during national contests.

“If (the interview) plays a role in the midterms, that’s because Republicans will make sure it does,” Wald said. “I can see the mailers right now.”

The national Jewish vote historically has gone to Democrats by a wide margin: 79 percent for Al Gore in 2000, 74 percent for John Kerry in 2004, 78 percent for Obama in 2008, 69 percent for Obama in 2012 and 71 percent for Hillary Clinton in 2016, according to the Pew Research Center.

An estimated 5 percent of Florida voters are Jewish, and nearly one-third are in Palm Beach County.

Shaving even a few points off Gillum’s support could make the difference in a close race. Quinnipiac University released a general election poll Tuesday that had Gillum holding a 50-to-47 percent lead with a 4.3 percent margin of error, making it too close to call.

While Gillum’s comments have the potential to dissuade some Jewish voters, most are paying attention to Florida issues not foreign policy, Wald said.

“Bottom line is Jewish voters are more focused on major issues, such as health care, education and immigration policy,” he said. “Israel is not the principal issue.”

Mark Alan Siegel, former chairman of the Palm Beach County Democratic Party, said Gillum’s seemingly strident comments may even drive support among young progressive Democrats, including those who are Jewish.

“Those voters are interested in justice and in peace in Israel. Moving the embassy, while it might have been symbolic to some, was seen as destructive to the long-term goal of peace,” Siegel said.

Siegel personally understands how controversial comments on Israel can ricochet through the political realm. He resigned in 2012 as party chairman after brash on-camera comments that pro-Israel Christians want policies that are antithetical to Israel’s existence and want to see Jews “slaughtered.”

But Gillum’s comments were not so controversial, Siegel said.

“He supports peace and virtually all Jewish voters support that,” he said.

Former Democratic U.S. Rep. Ron Klein, a Boca Raton attorney who chairs the Jewish Democratic Council of America, said the comments are unlikely to move Jewish voters — and Jewish voters are less likely to support DeSantis, backed by Trump in the primary.

“I think the reality is that this is the governor’s race, an office that doesn’t touch on foreign policy,” Klein said. “Most American Jews are concerned about our country and what’s going on. They’re concerned about anti-Semitism and the rise of white nationalism.”

A frequent criticism of Trump — and the candidates he backs — is that he has buoyed the white nationalist movement with anti-immigrant rhetoric.

Just days after the primary, a racist robo-call to Floridians — paid for by an anti-Semitic and white supremacist group — targeted Gillum. DeSantis’ campaign decried the robo-call.

But the overt racism early in the race is more likely to rally Jewish voters in Gillum’s favor than his comments on Israel are to deter them, Klein said.

“Jewish people generally understand that an attack on one minority is an attack on all minorities,” he said.

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