Like the state and nation, St. Petersburg continues to see a rise in antisemitic incidents; a local synagogue received a bomb threat during its Sept. 10 service.
City Councilmember Gina Driscoll introduced a resolution to formally establish a definition of antisemitism Sept. 14, on the eve of Rosh Hashanah (the Jewish New Year). The council approved the measure to help identify, measure, monitor and combat antisemitism – after Councilmember John Muhammad abruptly left the dais.
The “non-legally binding working definition” states, “Antisemitism is a certain perception of Jews, which may be expressed as hatred toward Jews. Rhetorical and physical manifestations of antisemitism are directed toward Jewish or non-Jewish individuals and/or their property, toward Jewish community institutions and religious facilities.”
The resolution received overwhelming support from the council and public speakers. Mike Igel, chairman of the Florida Holocaust Museum, said its approval would show residents that council members are “upstanders” rather than “bystanders.”
Igel said he spoke on behalf of the museum, the six million people who died in the Holocaust and his grandparents, who survived. He also spoke on behalf of St. Petersburg residents like Helen Kahan, an Auschwitz concentration camp survivor who recently celebrated her 100th birthday.
“This gives us a tool,” Igel said. “You can’t solve a problem until you identify the problem.”
Eric Passman, president of the B’nai Israel Men’s Club, noted that his synagogue’s recent bomb threat underscored a persistent problem. The city resolution states that crimes against the Jewish community accounted for 80% of the state’s religiously motivated incidents in 2020.
The document adds that antisemitic incidents increased by 50% in Florida from 2020 to 2021. Passman said a synagogue in California received an identical bomb threat on the same evening.
“There was a time in the late 1990s, early 2000s, that I thought antisemitism was finally behind us,” he said. “I’m not sure when it changed, but we now seem to be in an ever-growing cycle of hate.”
Muhammad noted he approved a resolution honoring Holocaust victims “without hesitation.” As a Muslim, Muhammad said he understood what it was like to live under threat in the aftermath of 9/11.
Muhammad stressed that he made new friends and strengthened previous relationships within the Jewish community through his 11 months on the dais. However, he took issue with the resolution and definition’s “overbroad” language.
“We have to protect the rights of those who have unpopular or controversial views – within the bounds of civility,” Muhammad said. “As long as they are not explicitly advocating for discrimination, persecution, hurt, harm or danger …
“Another concern with the definition is that its subjective nature determining what constitutes hatred towards Jews leaves room for differing opinions and interpretations, potentially leading to the misuse of the definition and suppression of legitimate free speech.”
That was the last of multiple monologues from Muhammad, as Councilmember Copley Gerdes interjected and motioned for a vote. Despite speaking at length during the routine presentation, Muhammad asked to add another comment.
Council Chair Brandi Gabbard denied his request. Muhammad left the dais.
Earlier in the meeting, Muhammad asked Jewish leaders to define what makes someone Jewish. Igel called the question complicated and said it includes ethnicity, religion and culture.
“I think it’s safe to say it’s all those things,” he added. “Hitler and Nazis didn’t ask if you believed in God or went to synagogue before they murdered someone.”
Muhammad also noted the resolution acknowledges that the Jewish community has enriched St. Petersburg “through their leadership and contributions to the arts, business, academia and government. While he called that “phenomenal,” Muhammad said someone could misconstrue highlighting their achievements as antisemitic.
The International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance provided the definition. The organization listed the myth that Jews control the media, government and other societal institutions as antisemitic.
Igel said there is a distinction between “control” and “success.”
Before leaving council chambers, Muhammad said his concerns stemmed from people falsely accusing him of antisemitism due to his religion and affiliations. “And so, this is somewhat personal to me,” he said.
Muhammad said the term “working definition” implies that it could evolve. “May be expressed as hatred,” he added, also raised a red flag.
Muhammad questioned who would decide if a public comment was antisemitic. While the definition is not legally binding, he said authorities would still use it to identify antisemitism in court hearings and investigations.
“I take my responsibility to protect those principles of free speech – and address the issue of rising antisemitism seriously,” Muhammad added. “The First Amendment is the saving grace of our democracy.”
The council unanimously approved the resolution, with Councilmember Richie Floyd and Muhammad absent. After the vote, Gabbard said, “We see people in positions of power, specifically, inciting this hate both publicly and behind the scenes.
“It is dangerous, it is irresponsible, and quite frankly, it disgusts me.”