Iowa governor signs bill targeting Ben & Jerry’s over Israel, adopts controversial antisemitism definition in state

This week Iowa’s GOP Governor Kim Reynolds signed two bills into law related to Israel. One targets companies outside the United States that “boycott” Israel. The other adopts the controversial International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance (IHRA) working definition of antisemitism across the state.

“Today we express Iowa’s enduring support for the State of Israel and our categorical rejection of anti-Semitism,” said Reynolds, who signed the legislation during a meeting with Israeli Consul General to the Midwest Yinam Cohen. “Together, these bills send an important message: Iowa continues to stand shoulder to shoulder with the State of Israel, one of America’s most important and reliable allies while fighting all forms of religious and ethnic discrimination.”

In 2016 Iowa’s former Governor Terry Branstad signed an anti-BDS bill into law that prohibits state funds from being used by companies that boycott Israel. However the new legislation, HF2373, expands the measure to include subsidiaries, parent companies, and affiliates.

HF2373 is clearly aimed at Ben & Jerry’s, as the ice cream company announced it would stop doing business in illegal Israeli settlements last year. Ben & Jerry’s statement made it clear that they will continue to operate in Israel and don’t support the BDS movement, but this hasn’t stopped state lawmakers from targeting it’s London-based parent company Unilever. A coalition of attorney generals are pushing for the company to keep operating in the settlements, while states divest from Unilever or threaten blacklisting.

While HF2373 made its way through Iowa’s House earlier this year, State Rep. Mary Wolfe explained its function succinctly: “As far as I can tell, the sole purpose of this bill is to amend Iowa Code so that Iowa is able to crack down on Unilever for allowing Ben & Jerry’s to refuse to sell their ice cream in the occupied Palestinian territories.”

HF2220 makes Iowa the twenty-third state to adopt the IHRA working definition of antisemitism. The definition, which has been embraced by the Biden administration, includes some criticisms of Israel. The definition “brands critics of Israel and advocates for Palestinian rights as anti-Jewish blurring the important distinctions between criticism of Israel as a nation-state and antisemitism,” reads a Palestine Legal explainer from 2020. “In fact, Jewish people and the Israeli state are not one and the same. Over half the world’s Jewish population lives outside of Israel. Over twenty percent of Israel’s population is not Jewish. The inaccurate assumption that the Israeli government represents Jewish people worldwide is itself antisemitic because it necessarily attributes Israeli government policies and practices to all Jews.”

Even the lead author of the definition, Kenneth Stern, has cautioned against using it in schools. “The definition was intended for data collectors writing reports about anti-Semitism in Europe,” he explained in a 2016 New York Times op-ed. “It was never supposed to curtail speech on campus.”

The American Jewish Committee (AJC), which helped draft the original IHRA text, put out a statement celebrating both bills. “We thank Governor Reynolds for signing into law a measure that directs Iowa to recognize the globally recognized definition of antisemitism from the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance…which sends an important message that Iowa will take a zero-tolerance approach to anti-Jewish hatred,” it reads. “We are also grateful that Governor Reynolds signed legislation that restricts the ability of companies that boycott Israel to do business with state agencies. Governor Reynolds has been to Israel and has worked to create lasting partnerships with companies there. This measure affirms the state will not tolerate ethnic and religious discrimination and will strengthen the strong bonds between Iowa and Israel.”

Critics of the measures have also voiced their displeasure. Earlier this month the American Association of University Professors (AAUP) issued a statement warning about the implications of these bills. “These new laws…expand the definition of antisemitism to encompass political speech, with several discriminatory effects,” it reads. “Political critiques of Israeli state actions—including discrimination and violence against Palestinians—become subject to the charge of antisemitism, skewing the social and legal meaning of equality and obscuring other prohibited forms of discrimination.”

“By signing this unconstitutional anti-boycott bill into law, Governor Reynolds has violated the free speech rights of Iowa residents who want to express support for Palestinian human rights,” said CAIR National Deputy Director Edward Ahmed Mitchell in a statement. “This doomed and un-American law is just as unconstitutional as anti-boycott laws struck down by courts in other states.”

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