Feldman explained to the Jewish Telegraphic Agency (JTA) why: “They have a law in place that makes contracts with Arkansas dependent on your agreement not to boycott Israel.” Act 710 of 2017, known as the “anti-BDS bill,” prohibits the state of Arkansas from doing business with companies that boycott Israel and Israeli-controlled territories. “My Jewish upbringing and knowing—from the Holocaust—that we must stand against all injustice would not allow me to make such a pledge after learning that Israel was creating by making and keeping entire villages of peaceful non-Jewish families refugees from their homes.”
Anti-BDS Laws in the United States
Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions (BDS) is a non-violent, global campaign inspired by the South-African anti-apartheid movement that calls for justice and equality in Israel-Palestine. BDS involves withdrawing financial support and investments from Israel to pressure governments to end Israel’s apartheid system.
Tennessee was the first state to pass an anti-BDS law in 2015, and since then more than 30 states have adopted similar laws. Palestine Legal found that lawmakers have introduced 287 bills which target boycotts for Palestinian rights.
Anti-BDS legislation is also passing at the federal level. The Anti-Boycott Act of 2018 has made it illegal to “comply with, further, or support any boycott fostered or imposed by any foreign country, against a country which is friendly to the United States.” The Combating BDS Act of 2019 was included in Senator Marco Rubio’s Strengthening America’s Security in the Middle East Act of 2019 and passed. The Israel Anti-Boycott Act was introduced to the House in 2020 and prohibits entities and individuals from supporting boycotts imposed by international governmental organizations such as the United Nations.
Most decisively, the US House of Representatives passed a resolution 398-17 that rejects the BDS campaign and calls for increased security aid to Israel. Rabbi Brant Rosen has been outspoken in his disapproval, questioning why the resolution mentions rising anti-Semitism and not also “anti-Palestinian oppression and the threat of Islamophobia.”
Arkansas Times Fights the Anti-BDS Law
Feldman’s story was first reported by a newspaper which had also been victim to the anti-BDS law in 2018, the Arkansas Times. The University of Arkansas had declared to Arkansas Times publisher Alan Leveritt that the state-funded institution would only pay for advertisements if he signed the anti-BDS pledge. Leveritt told NBC News that he was not aware of the BDS campaign at the time: “We don’t have a dog in that hunt. We are a lot more interested in Medicaid expansion than we are in Jerusalem.”
However, Leveritt believed such a request in exchange for advertisement money violated the constitutional freedom of expression, American democratic ideals, and journalistic ethics. “These anti-boycott laws, allowing government to use money to punish dissent, will encourage the creation of ever more repressive laws that risk strangling free speech for years to come,” Leveritt argued.
This is why the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) successfully sued Arizona and Kansas for their anti-BDS laws and engaged in a lawsuit against Arkansas on Leveritt’s behalf. Arkansas Times’ legal battle has also become the subject of the 2021 award-winning documentary Boycott.
Feldman’s Case Against Anti-BDS Laws
Dr. Steven Feldman’s refusal to pledge not to boycott Israel was an easy one. He shared with Arkansas Times that after numerous visits to Israel and the West Bank in which he witnessed first-hand Israel’s mistreatment of Palestinians, he believes the anti-BDS law clashes with his religious and moral traditions.
He grew up believing that Israel was created in an empty land of deserts and swamps, and he collected dimes to plant trees in the Holy Land to make the desert bloom. Feldman told Forward that “later in life, I learned that those trees were being planted over the remains of Palestinian villages that we had destroyed.”
In an interview with Mondoweiss, Feldman explained how the anti-BDS law contradicts his Jewish faith: “My Jewish moral upbringing teaches me that it is wrong to treat non-Jewish Palestinian families any differently than we would want Jewish Israel families to be treated.”
He has taken what he has learned from his travels to Israel-Palestine and lessons in Israeli history to curate the online museum and traveling exhibit Promised Land: The Jewish Museum of the Palestinian Experience. Feldman told Mondoweiss: “I don’t have unrealistic hopes. I just hope and expect that Israel will invite Palestinian refugee families to return, to rebuild their homes and villages together, and to live together in peace, just as they used to do.”
Arkansas’ Attorney General Tim Griffin said he believed the anti-BDS law was improperly applied in Feldman’s case. Ultimately, the State of Arkansas relented and paid Feldman the $500 honorarium. Feldman is donating the $500 to Jewish Voice for Peace, an organization guided by a vision of justice, equality, and freedom for all people.