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Florida governor DeSantis under fire for refusal to condemn Orlando neo-Nazi rallies

Spokesperson for governor questions whether demonstrators waving swastikas and yelling ‘Heil Hitler’ at Jews were actual Nazis — and not Democrats trying to make him look bad

Neo-Nazi demonstrators with swastikas and 'National Socialist Movement' banners, stomping on an Israeli flag, in Orlando, Florida on January 29, 2022. (screen capture: Twitter/Luke Denton)
Neo-Nazi demonstrators with swastikas and 'National Socialist Movement' banners, stomping on an Israeli flag, in Orlando, Florida on January 29, 2022. (screen capture: Twitter/Luke Denton)

Antisemitic rallies were held near Orlando, Florida, on Saturday and Sunday, with some two dozen people in neo-Nazi gear waving swastikas, stomping on Israeli flags, and yelling antisemitic epithets at passersby.

While various officials in the state condemned the protest, Florida Governor Ron DeSantis came under fire as his spokesperson expressed doubt over whether the demonstrators were actually antisemitic, and raised the possibility that they were in fact Democrats trying to make the governor look bad.

In videos and pictures shared on social media, the demonstrators can be seen waving Nazi flags and banners, calling someone filming them a “devil” and a “fucking kike” and making Nazi salutes.

A video of the Orlando rally that spread on social media on Monday showed protesters standing on a highway overpass in front of banners of swastikas. One audibly yells “Heil Hitler.”

Another video showed the demonstrators attacking a passerby in his car.

The rallies were held near the campus of Central Florida University, which has a large Jewish student body, and near Disney World.

The Orlando Sentinel reported that the group shouted other antisemitic slurs, and an array of Florida officials, including Republican Senator Rick Scott and Democratic House Rep. Val Demings, condemned the gathering.

“Anti-semitism and hatred are not welcome in this community,” Orlando mayor Buddy Dyer said in a tweeted statement.

Orange County sheriff John Mina also tweeted that hate has no place, though his office told Newsweek that the demonstrators were within their First Amendment rights.

However, a spokesperson for DeSantis declined to speak out against the rallies, saying that they may be liberal plants, in a since-deleted tweet.

“Do we even know they are Nazis,” Christina Pushaw wrote, according to Floridapolitics.com.

Despite deleting the tweet, she continued to retweet those who agreed with that position, and she later stuck to her guns, telling Newsweek that she only deleted the tweet “because it was attracting trolls and abuse.”

Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis speaks to supporters and members of the media after a bill signing in Brandon, Florida, on Nov. 18, 2021. (Chris O’Meara/AP)

While she tweeted that DeSantis would always condemn hatred and antisemitism, she indicated that she did not know what the “National Socialist Movement” is and was waiting for law enforcement to investigate, while fending off what she said were attempts to tie DeSantis to the rallies.

“In my tweet, I deferred to law enforcement to determine who was behind the protest, because frankly, I didn’t know anything about the group. But I can guarantee it wasn’t the governor. Attempts to tie the protest to his policies are disgusting political smears,” she said.

Among those to condemn Pushaw was Fred Guttenberg, an anti-gun campaigner, whose daughter was killed in the Parkland school shooting.

The Florida rallies were not the only antisemitic incidents in the United States over the weekend.

On Sunday afternoon, a Jewish school and synagogue in Chicago’s West Ridge neighborhood were vandalized.

Debra Silverstein, a local alderman whose office is located next to the synagogue, said police were still investigating the incidents. “No official pronouncement has been made on a possible motive, but these have all the hallmarks of hate-based crimes,” she said.

In Washington, DC, police arrested a 34-year-old man named Geraldo Pando, who was suspected of spraypainting several swastikas around the entrance to Union Station, an Amtrak station near Capitol Hill, early Friday morning. Washington mayor Muriel Bowser responded to the incident in a tweet.

“This symbol of hate displayed in our city is both shocking and unsettling, particularly on the heels of International Holocaust Remembrance Day,” she wrote.

The turbulent weekend — which also included a rally in Ottawa against COVID-19 vaccine mandates that featured swastikas — comes just a few weeks after the hostage situation at a Texas synagogue left American Jews feeling vulnerable in their synagogues.

The highway overpass location of the Florida rallies resembled similar demonstrations in Austin, Texas, in October in which a group called the Goyim Defense League hung a sign that said “Vax the Jews” from an overpass.

JTA contributed to this report

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