Dr. Steve Feldman, pictured on a trip to the West Bank. Feldman was denied payment from the state of Arkansas for refusing to sign a pledge promising not to boycott Israel. (Courtesy of Steve Feldman)
Dr. Steve Feldman, a dermatologist, delivered a Zoom lecture to University of Arkansas at Little Rock medical students in February, for which he was entitled to a $500 honorarium from the state. But Feldman said that the state is withholding payment because he refused to sign a pledge, required for public contractors under Arkansas law since 2017, to commit to not boycotting Israel.
“They have a law in place that makes contracts with Arkansas dependent on your agreement not to boycott Israel, which I think is wrong,” Feldman, who is a professor at the Wake Forest University School of Medicine in Winston-Salem, North Carolina, told the Jewish Telegraphic Agency. “To me, growing up Jewish, the very strong lesson of the Holocaust that I learned is it’s wrong to mistreat other people.”
Arkansas is one of dozens of states that have passed laws aiming to combat the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement targeting Israel. The laws either bar the state from investing in companies that boycott Israel or, as in Arkansas’ case, mandate that state contractors promise not to boycott the country. Most of those laws have been struck down by courts, but Feldman’s lecture took place the same month the U.S. Supreme Court declined to hear a challenge to Arkansas’ law. His case is the latest example of how such laws are affecting what would otherwise be ordinary state business transactions.
Feldman has close relatives who live in Israel. But he said the pledge conflicted with his religious and moral views. In addition to his medical work, he is a pro-Palestinian activist who created the online-only Jewish Museum of the Palestinian Experience. The website says that the Jewish commitment to fighting injustice should lead Jews to stand up for Palestinian rights. Feldman said he does support boycotting Israel.
“I think the only thing that will lead to Israel allowing Palestinian families to return to their homes, so that everybody can live together peacefully, will be some kind of boycott,” he said.
While the Arkansas law, passed in 2017, applies only to contractors earning more than $1,000 from the state, Feldman said he was still refused his $500 payment. The justification, he said, was that being added to the state’s vendor system would make him eligible for future assignments that could add up to more than $1,000.
Feldman told JTA he is exploring his legal options and wouldn’t rule out a lawsuit against the state as a means of advocating for Palestinian rights and challenging last year’s federal Eighth Circuit Court ruling that the law was constitutionally protected. “I would love to sue and have the Circuit Court either retract what they said, or go to the Supreme Court in order for people to see things that they didn’t know,” he said.
Arkansas Attorney General Tim Griffin, a Republican, has said the law combats discrimination on the basis of nationality. Following the Supreme Court’s decision not to hear the case, he told the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette that he works to “ensure that taxpayers aren’t required to pay for anti-Israel and anti-Israeli discrimination.”
Feldman’s story was first reported by the Arkansas Times, a publication that has itself become entangled in the state’s anti-boycott law. The paper’s publisher, Alan Leveritt, challenged the law in court after he was asked to sign the anti-boycott pledge so that the paper could run advertising from a state university. The suit, which is the one that reached the Supreme Court, argued that the law was a violation of the publication’s First Amendment rights and attracted support from progressive Jewish groups, as well as opposition from some pro-Israel groups. Leveritt argued that he doesn’t have strong feelings about Israel boycotts but that his paper does not take political positions in exchange for advertising.
Since the inception of state-level laws prohibiting Israel boycotts, some state lawmakers have used them as a template for legislation barring other types of divestment campaigns, such as those targeting fossil fuels or the firearms industry.
Feldman mused that he could have signed the pledge, taken the money and then engaged in an Israel boycott to see how the state would react, but concluded, “I can’t lie on a form. That also goes against my Jewish moral character.”