The state of Arkansas has paid $500 it had promised to a Jewish doctor, after withholding the payment for months because of the doctor’s refusal to sign a pledge promising not to boycott Israel.
The payment came after public pressure on the state to process the payment. The doctor, a longtime pro-Palestinian activist, plans to donate the money to the anti-Zionist group Jewish Voice for Peace.
Steve Feldman, a dermatologist at the Wake Forest University School of Medicine in North Carolina, was entitled to the honorarium from the state after delivering a Zoom lecture in February to the University of Arkansas, Little Rock medical school. But Arkansas state law requires all public contractors to sign a pledge acknowledging they will not boycott Israel, which Feldman said conflicted with his religious and moral values.
The legality of Arkansas' actions
The Arkansas law applies only to public contractors earning more than $1,000 in payments from the state, but officials had initially told Feldman that the mere act of adding him to the state’s vendor system would make him eligible for possible future payments that could bring his total beyond that number.
But in May, Arkansas Attorney General Tim Griffin said he believed Feldman was entitled to the payment.
“The law does not apply to Mr. Feldman as this was an honorarium, not a contract, and it doesn’t meet the $1,000 threshold even if it were a contract,” he said in a statement to Newsweek. “In any event, he should be paid.”
Feldman told JTA he believes Griffin’s position on the issue helped expedite his payment, as he received an invitation to join the state’s vendor system shortly afterward. “Shortly after the news about it came out, they must have figured out that what they were doing was illegal,” Feldman said.
The execution of his payment was announced June 1 in a joint press release by Jewish Voice for Peace and the Council on American Islamic Relations.
“We are so grateful for Dr. Feldman’s generous donation to our work – and will use it to continue our efforts toward a future of justice, equality and freedom for Palestinians, and for all people,” Stefanie Fox, executive director of Jewish Voice for Peace, said in the press release. Fox also praised Feldman for exercising “his constitutionally protected right to boycott.”
Anti-BDS laws in the United States
Arkansas’ law is one of dozens of state laws enacted in response to the Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions movement targeting Israel. Earlier this year, the law survived a legal challenge brought by the Arkansas Times, a local publication, when the US Supreme Court declined to hear the case. Similar laws in other states have been struck down by the courts for violating the First Amendment.
The laws’ supporters, including several pro-Israel groups, frame them as anti-discrimination laws that protect Jews and Israelis from being targeted for their religion or national origin. Some state legislators have borrowed the laws’ framework to bar state contractors from participating in other kinds of divestment campaigns, including against fossil fuels and the firearms industry.
Feldman added that his payment “hasn’t changed the mistreatment of Palestinian families yet, so I don’t feel very strongly about it one way or the other.” He gave his money to Jewish Voice for Peace because, he said, “I love those people. It’s one of those few Jewish organizations that, on this issue, is really following Jewish morality.”