By Joanne Bregman
With the combined efforts of the Israeli-American Coalition for Action, Professor Mark Goldfeder, Rabbi Mark Schiftan, Pastor Lyndon Allen, community activists Bernie Pargh and Joanne Bregman, two pieces of landmark legislation that send a message about Tennessee values and help protect our state’s Jewish communities have become law.
Early in this year’s legislative session, Senator Bo Watson (R-Hixson) and Rep. Ryan Williams (R-Cookeville), sponsored a bill to combat the antisemitic Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions Movement against Israel (BDS). Tennessee’s state government is now empowered to reject subsidizing such blatant discriminatory activity with public funds. The bill authorizes the state government to decline contracts with parties who engage in commercial discrimination against Israeli owned or affiliated companies. To date, 36 states have adopted laws, executive orders or resolutions that are designed to discourage such discriminatory boycotts. Like those other states, Tennessee’s bill, signed into law by Governor Lee earlier this month, applies strictly to commercial activity. It is restricted to government speech, and in no way impairs anyone’s constitutionally protected speech.
Rabbi Mark Schiftan testified before the House committee emphasizing the importance of explicitly including the Israeli-controlled territories in the bill’s language defining the State of Israel consistent with the Trade Promotion Act signed by President Obama in 2015. The “territories” language was purposefully formulated to confront "settlements only" boycotts, similar to recent attempts by AirBnB and Ben & Jerry’s. The importance of Tennessee’s bill should not go unnoticed if for no other reason that in 2020, state exports to Israel totaled over $71 million dollars. This is not just about supporting an ally and standing up against discrimination, it is also very much about protecting the state of Tennessee.
The anti-BDS bill passed both the House and Senate with overwhelming GOP support. Unfortunately, only three House Democrats chose to vote for the bill, while Senator Heidi Campbell was the lone no vote in the Senate.
A second bill sponsored by Senator Paul Rose (R-Shelby) and Rep. Jerry Sexton (R-Bean Station), makes Tennessee an early leader in codifying a uniform definition of antisemitism into state law. The International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance (IHRA) working definition of antisemitism is already utilized by various branches of the U.S. government including the State Department and the Department of Education. According to a recent study by the Combat Antisemitism Movement and Tel Aviv University, the IHRA has been adopted by more than 865 key entities worldwide, including over 200 in the past year.
Mark Goldfeder, a former constitutional law professor and Director of the National Jewish Advocacy Center, authored the model statute that the bill is based on, and helped educate several individuals working on the initiative. Goldfeder has published what many consider among the most comprehensive law journal articles on the IHRA in which he explains the necessity of defining antisemitism, as well as the benefits for all state agencies, K-12 school systems and institutions of higher education when state government adopts the IHRA as a standard to help them assess the motivation behind unlawful discriminatory anti-Jewish behavior.
Bernie Pargh was instrumental in bringing the IHRA model bill language to the attention of House Speaker Cameron Sexton (R-Crossville). The bill has passed both chambers. Governor Lee’s Holocaust Remembrance Day proclamation endorsed using the IHRA as a definitional standard, and, as he is a staunch supporter of the Jewish community, it is expected that he will also sign this bill into law when it reaches his desk.