The 2021/22 state legislative cycle ended with some big wins for the Jewish community. The success is the result of ramped up efforts by the Jewish Federation and Jewish Foundation of Nashville and Middle Tennessee, in collaboration with the three other Jewish Federations in the state. Eric Stillman, CEO of The Jewish Federation, says, “Through a concerted collective effort by the Jewish Federations in Chattanooga, Knoxville, Memphis, and Nashville, together with our professional lobbyists, we were able to make the case to the Administration and State Legislature of the urgency of these issues, especially given the sharp rise in antisemitism and antisemitic acts which are occurring.” The various pieces of legislation saw broad support from both chambers of the State Legislature. And according to Senator Bo Watson (R-Hixson), involvement from the Jewish Federations was a key factor in gaining that support. “The engagement from the Jewish community was very important. The number one responsibility of our government is to provide a safe environment for our citizens,” he says. And on the House side, Rep. Ryan Williams (R-Cookeville), Chair of the House Appropriations Committee, credits the Jewish community’s leadership with making a direct impact. “The Jewish community has always had a voice, but this time they really led the effort. As soon as the bill was filed, my phone began to ring with other legislators offering support.”
A top priority this year was securing an additional $500,000 in the state’s budget, to be allocated for security for houses of worship facing a dedicated threat, something that also provided the biggest hurdle. Stillman says, “Among the biggest challenges was our need to educate the key TN decision-makers about the scope of the problem and the limitation of funding from the Federal government.” Adam Bronstone, Director of Planning and Israel Partnerships for The Federation, is the lead staff support for security for the Nashville Jewish community. He helped the congregations and other Jewish buildings, along with other partners like the NAAACP Nashville Branch, in applying for and securing Federal nonprofit security grant funds. The effort was so successful that those funds were exhausted locally, which is what led The Federation to push for the additional state funds. Bronstone says it was important to look to other communities for examples, “I saw the trends around the country in other similarly sized communities, and I thought we should pursue similar funding because it was clear Homeland Security funds will just never serve all the needs.” The state’s security amendment, drafted with assistance from Senator Richard Briggs (R-Knoxville), will provide grant funding, above and beyond Federal allocations, for things like increased security personnel. Briggs says he was motivated by the recent spate of shootings at faith-based institutions, in particular the Colleyville, Texas hostage-taking. “I wanted to support this amendment because our society has become so divisive, almost violent in nature.” Briggs said he was also influenced by his father who in his later years, shared his experiences in World War II as an infantryman in the squad that liberated the Dachau concentration camp. “I want to make sure things like that never happen again,” he says.
The budget amendment also provided $175,000 to be directed to the Tennessee Holocaust Commission for additional antisemitism education programs. Larry Liebowitz, the Commission’s Chair, says he is pleased with the increased allocation. “These funds will give us more flexibility for programming in the schools for next year. We will be able to bring in speakers and educators not only from Tennessee, but from throughout the United States, and even internationally,” he says. The Tennessee Holocaust Commission is a hybrid organization that is both a 501c3 charity, and a state funded agency. Most of its annual funding comes from the state’s budget. The Commission works with public and private schools, colleges, and universities, to provide Holocaust education. Liebowitz says, “The teachers of Tennessee work with our Commission to develop programming, lesson plans and other curriculum. You’d be hard pressed to find anything in the arena of Holocaust or Antisemitism education that we do not touch.”
Members of The Jewish Federation provided testimony supporting two other Bills. Senate Bill 2684 and its companion, House Bill 2673, adopting the definition of “Antisemitism,” as used by the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance. Senator Paul Rose (R-Shelby) is one of the sponsors of the bill. He says this bill makes an important statement about where Tennesseans stand on antisemitism. “Antisemitism is as strong as ever. This bill defines it, so people understand what it means.” The bill works to provide a specific definition for antisemitism, particularly for K-12 schools and Local Educational Agencies to help assess the motivation behind an antisemitic incident. Deborah Oleshansky, Director of Community Relations for The Jewish Federation, provided testimony in committee hearings about the importance of the bill. “This bill will be another tool in the tool box for combatting antisemitism.”
A second bill sponsored by Senator Watson and Rep. Williams, is yet another tool that serves to combat antisemitism. SB1993 and its companion, HB2050, prohibits companies doing business with the State of Tennessee from participating in the boycott of Israel. An amendment adds language to include Israeli controlled territories. According to Watson, this bill makes a bold statement about Tennessee. “People in Tennessee acknowledge Israel has a claim and a right to the territories, and we have an obligation to protect it. It is also in the best interests of the United States to have a democratic ally in the Middle East.” Williams goes even further to suggest this bill draws a line in the sand for companies seeking government contracts in the state. “This is not just a model for other states, but it’s the strongest move so far in staving off antisemitism.” He says currently, Tennessee transacts approximately $71 million annually in Israel, and about $1.2 billion over 20 years. “Israel is the crossroads for industry, commerce, and research,” he says.
Both bills, and the new State Budget, take effect beginning July 1, 2022. The bills also received support from Lieutenant Governor Randy McNally and Governor Bill Lee. The Federation’s Eric Stillman says, “The four TN Jewish Federations are grateful to the Governor, Lt. Governor, and the General Assembly for providing both security and antisemitism education funding in the State of Tennessee budget for the fiscal year July 1, 2022 – June 30, 2023.”
While this year saw some significant successes, community leaders and Federation staff say there is still work to be done. Oleshansky says ongoing education will be at the top of next year’s list of priorities. “It is important to help elected officials understand that what they say has an impact on antisemitism. We want to address this lack of education about antisemitic tropes, in particular calls from the floor of the state legislature around not just banning books but burning books.” She says The Federation hopes to conduct some educational programming this summer in the lead up to the next session. Still, she says this was a good year. “We learned that through state wide effort and coordination we can make some progress on issues of concern to the Jewish community, but we still have a long way to go. We hope that through ongoing and consistent interaction and increased educational opportunities for our elected leaders, we can use the momentum gained this year for even more positive impact next year.”