Politics / October 19, 2023

Ron DeSantis Reminds America That Harvard and Yale Graduated An Ignorant Bigot

The GOP candidate’s anti-Palestinian hate-mongering is as dangerous as it is disqualifying.

John Nichols
Republican presidential candidate Florida Governor Ron DeSantis speaks to guests during a campaign event at Refuge City Church on October 08, 2023 in Cedar Rapids, Iowa

Ron DeSantis campaigning in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, on October 8, 2023.

(Scott Olson / Getty Images)

Ron DeSantis got his BA from Yale, and his law degree from Harvard. But these credentials have not stopped the Republican presidential contender from spewing out a toxic slurry of ignorant bigotry regarding the Palestinian men, women, and children who have been forced to flee from Israel’s “complete siege” of Gaza.

In a CBS Face the Nation interview regarding the conflict, which has seen thousands of Israelis and Palestinians die since the October 7 Hamas attack on Israeli kibbutizim and a music festival, DeSantis refused to say—as a former Navy Judge Advocate General Corps legal adviser—that he’d advise that Israel’s massive assault on Gaza should be doing more to distinguish between legitimate military targets and civilians. He declined to call for the Israeli military to avoid attacking essential infrastructure for the 2.4 million Palestinians living in Gaza. And he declared that, because Hamas is holding Israeli and American hostages in Gaza, “I don’t think [the Israelis are] under an obligation to be providing water and these utilities while those hostages are being held”—despite the fact that the denial of food, water, and electricity has created a humanitarian crisis that’s recognized by the United Nations, aid agencies and many responsible Israelis. Asked about the devastating impact of Israel’s bombing of civilian targets in Gaza, which has now left an estimated 1,000 children dead, DeSantis said, “It’s not a collective punishment.”

It is impossible to deny that life in Gaza, a place that even conservatives such as former British Prime Minister David Cameron have described as the world’s largest open-air “prison camp,” is a living hell right now. But DeSantis seems determined to avoid that reality. He has also made it abundantly clear that he has zero sympathy for innocent families who are trying to survive in Gaza—or who are trying to get out. On the campaign trail in Iowa last week, the governor announced, “We cannot accept people from Gaza into this country as refugees. I am not going to do that. If you look at how they behave, not all of them are Hamas, but they are all anti-Semitic.”

Face the Nation moderator Margaret Brennan pressed DeSantis on the intellectual and practical dishonesty of his statement. “I’m sure you know, all Arabs are Semites,” said the chief foreign affairs correspondent for CBS News when she spoke with the candidate on Sunday. “But how can you paint with such a broad brush to say 2.3 million people are anti-Semitic?”

Instead of acknowledging that Brennan had called him out on a basic reality of the region about which he was ranting and raving, DeSantis simply pressed ahead. “Well, first of all, my position is very clear,” he said. “Those [from] Gaza are refugees, Palestinian Arabs should go to Arab countries. The US should not be absorbing any of those.” Why? “[They] elected Hamas, let’s just be clear about that.”

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Let’s unpack these statements from DeSantis.

First, as Brennan pointed out to the governor, Palestinians, like other Arabs, are Semites. The Encyclopedia Britannica staff explains that “Semite” is the “name given in the 19th century to a member of any people who speak one of the Semitic languages, a family of languages spoken primarily in parts of western Asia and Africa. The term therefore came to include Arabs, Akkadians, Canaanites, Hebrews, some Ethiopians (including the Amhara and the Tigrayans), and Aramaean tribes.”

Indeed, in the 1950s, a small group of Israelis and Palestinians formed Semitic Action, an organization that for many years argued for Arabs and Israelis to unite in opposition to the colonial powers of Europe. (It has been revived in recent years by younger activists.)

One of the leading figures in the original group was Uri Avnery, who went on to serve three terms in the Israeli Knesset and famously met with Yasser Arafat in 1982. At that historic meeting, Avnery told the chairman of the Palestine Liberation Organization, “Our two peoples will in the end find a solution.” Ultimately, said Avnery, “There will be a Palestinian state and there will be a state of Israel and the two people will peacefully live together in two states that slowly become not only good neighbors but more than this.”

Many Israelis and Palestinians still keep the faith that a path to peace might be found. Polling in Gaza from July of this year found that 62 percent of Gazans favored a continued cease-fire with Israel and at least half of Gazans agreed that “Hamas should stop calling for Israel’s destruction, and instead accept a permanent two-state solution based on the 1967 borders.” That doesn’t mean there aren’t people in Gaza who entertain anti-Semitic thoughts about Israeli Jews, just as there are anti-Semitic haters in the United States. But it does suggest that there are people on all sides of the divide between Israel and Palestine who want peace and justice.

Avnery recognized that reality in 1982, a year when Israel invaded southern Lebanon and tensions flared throughout the region. And he kept the faith until his death in 2018 at age 94.

That was because he believed, as an Israeli, that there were Palestinians he could talk with, negotiate with, and ultimately develop peace agreements with. It is still the case that there are Israelis and Palestinians who are ready to pursue peace. And it is still the case that there must be Americans who support that pursuit.

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That’s what makes DeSantis’s sweeping claims so troubling. He wants Americans to imagine that Gaza and Hamas are pretty much synonymous—hence the line: “They elected Hamas.”

The problem with the governor’s false premise is that “they”—the vast majority of the people who are being bombed, denied water, and collectively punished in Gaza—didn’t elect Hamas. The last elections in Palestine took place in 2006, when Hamas won 44 percent of the vote. Under the complex election system that had been devised, Hamas took a majority of parliamentary seats. But there have been no elections since then. Roughly half of Gaza’s population is under the age of 18, and the overwhelming majority of Gazans are under the age of 35. None of them voted for Hamas or any other political party in 2006.

So Desantis was off the mark when he said “They elected Hamas.” And it would be equally off the mark to assume that they would elect Hamas in a new election. For most of the last decade, polls have shown that the vast majority of Gazans—70 percent in the most recent Washington Institute poll—would prefer that the Palestinian Authority, which governs the West Bank, take charge of Gaza. Moreover, the basic idea that civilians can be legitimate targets of war based on whom they voted for is not one that should be seriously entertained.

You would think that someone seeking the presidency would be up to speed on the basic realities of the Middle East. But DeSantis is either actually ignorant or willfully promoting ignorance. So much so that his fellow Republican contenders recognized the absurdity of the Floridian’s remarks, even as they generally embraced his anti-refugee politics. “I don’t think that they’re all anti-Semitic. I just can’t tell you who’s who,” said South Carolina Senator Tim Scott. Former president Donald Trump, no friend of refugees, proposed “ideological screening” of immigrants in order to prevent Hamas supporters from entering the country. Former UN ambassador Nikki Haley brought a more moderate line to the debate, saying, “America’s always been sympathetic to the fact that you can separate civilians from terrorists. And that’s what we have to do.”

DeSantis doesn’t seem to mind being the most extreme candidate on the question. He’s struggling to maintain a presidential bid that was once seen as a serious threat to Trump’s front-runner status—but is now so diminished that polls from the first primary state of New Hampshire have him trailing Haley.

This wouldn’t be the first time that DeSantis has tried to ride bigotry and lies to political success. But we’re in a moment where his ignorance—whether sincere or feigned—is “incredibly destructive and dangerous,” as US Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.) put it.

Referencing the killing of Wadea Al-Fayoume, a 6-year-old Palestinian-American boy who was stabbed to death on Saturday by a Chicago-area landlord—who authorities said targeted the family because they are Muslim, spurred by the Hamas attack—AOC said, “We just had a 6-year-old boy stabbed 26 times this morning because of rhetoric like that” peddled by DeSantis.

“It is dangerous, it is unacceptable, it is reckless,” said Ocasio-Cortez, “and no leader in the United States of America should be amplifying a message like that.”

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Editorial Director and Publisher, The Nation

John Nichols

John Nichols is a national affairs correspondent for The Nation. He has written, cowritten, or edited over a dozen books on topics ranging from histories of American socialism and the Democratic Party to analyses of US and global media systems. His latest, cowritten with Senator Bernie Sanders, is the New York Times bestseller It's OK to Be Angry About Capitalism.

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