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US: Jewish doctor refuses pledge to not boycott Israel, doesn't get paid

'I actively support a boycott,' doctor says in response to Arkansas anti-BDS law
Protesters demanding an end to Israeli aggression against Palestine in New York City on 11 May 2021
Protesters demanding an end to Israeli aggression against Palestine in New York City, on 11 May 2021 (AFP)

A Jewish-American doctor has been denied payment by the state of Arkansas after he refused to sign a pledge to not boycott Israel following his speech at a public university. 

Steven Feldman, a dermatologist in North Carolina, spoke to medical students at the University of Arkansas in February on improving patient outcomes.

He then tried to set up a profile at the school’s online portal to collect his $500 honorarium. One of the boxes he needed to check off required him to promise not to boycott Israel, The Forward reported.

Feldman did not check the box. He soon received a note saying he hadn’t filled out the form correctly in order to receive the payment. 

“I replied, ‘No, I didn’t check the wrong box,’” Feldman told the Forward. “I actively support a boycott until Palestinian families are allowed to return to their homes, the homes from which we expelled them in the creation of the State of Israel.”

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Anti-Boycott Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) legislation currently only exists at the state level in the US, and there are over 30 states that have passed laws related to BDS.

The Palestinian-led Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement is a non-violent initiative that seeks to challenge Israel's occupation and abuses of Palestinian human rights through economic, cultural, and academic boycotts, similar to the successful boycott campaigns of apartheid South Africa.

Act 710 prohibits the state from contracting with, or investing in, companies that boycott Israel. It was enacted in Arkansas in 2017 and mandates that all public agencies not do business with contractors - in contracts worth at least $1,000 - unless they affirm they will not boycott Israel.

While Feldman's honorarium was only worth half that amount, he told The Forward that he was told he could not be added to the vendor list because of the possibility that any future contracts could put him over the $1000 threshold.

The Arkansas law states that contractors with the state must reduce their fees by 20 percent if they don't sign the pledge.

“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,” Feldman told the Jewish Telegraphic Agency. 

Legal battles on anti-BDS movements 

Earlier this year, the US Supreme Court declined to weigh in on a legal fight over Act 710.

The country's top court rejected a petition from the Arkansas Times, which was looking to challenge a lower court's ruling dismissing the newspaper's lawsuit that claimed the legislation violates the free speech protections guaranteed by the US Constitution.

The newspaper said the law was "abhorrent and a violation of the Bill of Rights".

US Supreme Court will not hear challenge to Arkansas anti-BDS law
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The Arkansas Times challenged the legislation in 2018 when a state college refused to continue paying for advertisements on the paper until it signed the anti-boycott pledge. 

After a federal appeals court ruled in June 2022 that the state was not infringing on constitutional free speech protections, the newspaper took the case to the Supreme Court, which has now ultimately closed the case.

Arkansas is just one of dozens of states in the US that has enacted some form of anti-BDS legislation. 

According to a tally conducted by Palestine Legal, a legal and advocacy group based in the US, more than 40 states have introduced some form of an anti-boycott bill in their state legislatures to varying degrees of success.

In some of these states, the law was struck down by courts as unconstitutional. However, in states like Texas, Kansas, and Arizona, the law was amended to narrow the requirement so it applied only to larger contracts.

Last year, US Senator Tom Cotton outlined a plan to introduce national legislation targeting the BDS movement. 

"We can fight the antisemitic BDS movement by passing a bill I plan to introduce this year to deny military contracts to any company that boycotts Israel," he said at the time. 

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