Gabriel Groisman (Image credit: PR Photo)
Gabriel Groisman, the mayor of Bal Harbour, Florida, is active in the community on various fronts, speaking regularly to groups about fighting anti-Semitism. He is also active in the areas of international commercial litigation and counseling, international anti-corruption and anti-money laundering compliance, international trademark law, and complex commercial litigation.
With the “Anti-Semitism Definition Act,” Bal Harbour has become the first city in the United States to codify a uniform definition of anti-Semitism. It is a very important step in the fight against discrimination and hatred against Jews - a phenomenon that is spreading again throughout the West. The law became effective on the 14th of December and was approved unanimously.
The Anti-Semitism Definition Act creates a village code that permits law enforcement to consider anti-Semitism as a motivation for criminal offenses, in order to ensure the safety and well-being of its Jewish community. Campus security and police departments can consider this definition when investigating crimes, consistent with the federal and state hate crime statutes
Mayor Groisman, could you explain how did the idea for this new law came into being, how was it originally thought up, and how you and your staff developed it?
An act of anti-Semitism in Miami months ago opened my eyes to the difficulty of American enforcement in identifying and intervening against this type of hatred crime. Police had no idea what BDS was, about the boycott against Israel, nor of anti-Semitism crimes involving business activities and connections with Israel. But how could law enforcement intervene without any precise definitions of this crime of hatred? So I realized that we would have to define the crime of anti-Semitism and provide the police with an executive tool to fight it directly. In 2016, the federal government tried to pass a similar law, which defined anti-Semitic crimes, without success, as it happened in South Carolina. I just took the text of the state law that was not approved in South Carolina and converted it into a good city ordinance.
How is the situation of anti-Semitism and racial hatred against Jews in Florida and the United States? Can we compare it to the European one?
Anti-Semitism has increased significantly in the United States over the past 6 or 7 years. In the last two years, anti-Semitic attacks have increased by 67% in the United States. More than 50% of the crimes of racial hatred in the country are perpetrated against Jews, and the situation worsens from day to day. Although I believe the United States is still a safe place for Jews, the temperature has never been so high. As for Europe, I notice that the major European capitals are afflicted by an unprecedented rate of anti-Semitism, but for now the situation of the United States is less worrying than the European one.
Your commitment to fighting BDS is famous throughout the United States, but not so much in Europe, as the boycott appears to be backed by the European Union. In 2015 Bal Harbour Village became the first place in the country to pass an anti-Boycott, Divest and Sanction (BDS) ordinance. This ordinance prohibits the municipality from contracting with any business firm unless the contract includes a statement that the business firm is not currently engaged in, and will not engage in, the boycott of a person or an entity based in, or doing business with, a country or jurisdiction with which the United States has free trade or other kind of agreements. In short, those who want to trade with the municipality of Bal Harbor must necessarily dissociate themselves from the BDS. Why was an anti-BDS law necessary in your city?
When the United Church of Christ, the most important American Protestant church with more than 900,000 members in 5,032 congregations, began to support the BDS by disinvesting in Israeli companies or companies affiliated with Israel, I learned that the church seat in Bal Harbour did not oppose this decision. I thought this was an opportunity to fight the spread of BDS. Bal Harbour was born in 1947 and the church was built before the houses, as it is still the center of our community in which an important and numerous Jewish community has also grown. We could not just stand and watch.
Technically how does this law apply to Florida? Are there clashes between state law and city law? And, furthermore, do you think that it could become a law inside the entire state of Florida in the future?
The law passed in the city of Bal Harbour and it only concerns the contracts that involved the municipality. Nowadays there are 24 states in the US that have applied it, and more than 50 cities. A similar law has also been approved at state level, so we have it in Florida. The only flaw is that it only applies to contracts that exceed one million dollars. We are working to expand it even to “less important” agreements.
So what happened with the United Church of Christ?
A few months after the approval of the law, the church planned to expand itself and in order to do so they would have had to sign an agreement with the city. Obviously, by supporting BDS, they could not have signed. At that point I decided to meet them and to talk, just to explain how BDS promotes injustice. In the end, we wrote a letter all together, signed by the pastor, in which they refused the boycott of Israel and in which they manifested the intention to withdraw the donations. Once they made this decision, we started finally to speak about the contract. Anyway they moved to another city in Florida. Even in that city, however, we brought a similar order against BDS. We helped to create a nice discussion inside the United Church of Christ, and that was what we wanted to achieve.
Do you believe that the BDS movement is limited to activism or that it is leading to something more dangerous? For example, do you believe that its members support terrorism and violence against Israel and against American Jews?
I do not give much credit to BDS activists. I believe they are not so well organized. The major financiers and creators of the movement, however, are dangerous anti-Semites and what we must fight is their infiltration into American social groups, such as churches, universities, and private companies. They can manipulate minds by pushing people to believe their lies.
Unfortunately, episodes of anti-Semitism are increasing in the United States, especially inside campuses and colleges. Which are the instruments with which we can fight them?
I think this is the worst and most dangerous part of BDS because in 10-15 years the United States could be full of doctors, lawyers, businessmen, and politicians who have suffered anti-Israeli propaganda in the most important years of their formation. We must not ignore this phenomenon, but provide American students with the opportunity to understand the truth. The biggest problem of Jewish communities today is not those who attack them but their own apathy, which hampers them in the fight against these phenomena.
The European Union does not consider BDS illegal. What measures should Europe adopt to fight anti-Semitism and anti-Zionism?
Europe should look at its own history. It should start dealing with anti-Semitism before it is too late. A proactive approach is needed.
Do you think that US President Donald Trump’s decision to recognize Jerusalem as the capital of Israel was the right thing to do? What effects do you think it will have on Israeli reality and on the Jewish communities around the world?
It was absolutely the right thing to do, we should have done it since 1967. As for the effects, I believe that all the US Jews are grateful. Even those who do not directly support the president, they have nevertheless supported this decision. It is an honor for the American Jewish community and for all Jewish communities in the world.
We met for the first time during the ISGAP (Institute for the Study of Global Anti-Semitism and Policy) conference held in Rome. During the meetings, the importance of an organization like ISGAP, which allows experts and people involved in the fight against modern anti-Semitism from all over the world to meet and share their experiences, became clear. Do you believe that the connection and union between activists, politicians, academics, and journalists through the commitment of ISGAP can help the fight against BDS?
I think the fight against BDS starts right here. We must join forces, talk about anti-Semitism, confront ourselves, and bring the issue on institutional plans. History teaches us that the threats that are ignored only get worse over time. After all, “never again” should not be a mere hope, but a real strategy.
This article, reprinted with permission of the author, previously appeared as “Gabriel Groisman, the Mayor who defeated BDS.” L'Informale, 14 Jan. 2018.