Capital Clicks

Iowa bills would codify definition of antisemitism, prohibit state funds for companies that boycott Israel

By: - February 23, 2022 4:56 pm

Sunrise at the Western Wall in Jerusalem, Israel. (Photo by Getty Images)

Iowa lawmakers on Wednesday voted to define antisemitism in Iowa Code, bringing a previously controversial bill to a bipartisan vote in the House.

Lawmakers later clashed over a separate bill aimed at companies that boycott Israel.

Defining antisemitism

House File 2220 defines antisemitism in Iowa code and instructs the state to consider antisemitism in the investigation of a discriminatory act. State employees would also undergo training on antisemitism.

“Defining antisemitism is necessary to be able to combat it,” Rep. Sandy Salmon, R-Janesville, said.

The bill would define antisemitism by the language adopted by the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance in 2016, including a list of contemporary examples of antisemitism. 

“Antisemitism is a certain perception of Jews, which may be expressed as hatred toward Jews. Rhetorical and physical manifestations of antisemitism are directed toward Jewish or non-Jewish individuals and/or their property, toward Jewish community institutions and religious facilities.”

– International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance

Rep. Ako Abdul-Samad, D-Des Moines, proposed an amendment to broaden the scope of the bill. Rather than focus on antisemitism, the amended bill would define a “hate group” and instruct the state to consider the involvement of hate groups in criminal acts.

“It also includes not only antisemitism, it includes other ethnic groups and other religious groups,” Adbul-Samad said. “It opens the door for us to be inclusive to everyone, not just creating a special chapter for one group.”

Abdul-Samad said the amendment would give the law “more teeth.”

“It gives us a point for us to work together, to work bipartisan – to be able to show and to tell everyone that hey, we care about you,” he said. 

House Republicans voted down the amendment, arguing it was not germane to the bill.

Democrats raised the same issue in 2020 when House Republicans proposed a similar version of the legislation. House File 2504 would have defined antisemitism with the same International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance language.

The bill also included a lengthy declaration that antisemitism is a “persistent, pervasive and disturbing problem in contemporary American society.” The 2022 proposal does not include the declaration.

House Democrats in 2020 argued the bill would unfairly prioritize antisemitism over other forms of discrimination against minorities. Debate lasted nearly two hours, and the House passed the proposal along party lines. The Senate never took up the proposal.

No Democrats spoke on the 2022 bill after Abdul-Samad’s amendments failed Wednesday. The bill passed the House with bipartisan support, 65-31, marking it eligible for consideration in the Senate.

Democrats say divestment change would target Unilever, Ben & Jerry’s

House lawmakers also voted to amend a 2016 law that prohibits the state from investing in companies that boycott Israel. That law, signed by Gov. Terry Branstad, was a response to the widespread Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) Movement.

“I think it sends an important and very clear signal that we are not going to do business with people who boycott Israel,” Branstad said at the bill signing. “We think that is wrong, and we think that is a prejudicial position that some countries and some companies have taken and we will take a stand on the side of what is right and good.”

House File 2373 would change that 2016 law to define “company” as a “wholly owned subsidiary, majority-owned subsidiary, parent company, or affiliate of such business or business entity.”

“This bill will ensure that our public investments are not funding companies that participate in the Boycott, Divestment and Sanction of Israel movement,” said Rep. Carter Nordman, R-Adel.

Democrats said the change specifically targets Ben & Jerry’s, a Vermont-based ice cream maker and a wholly-owned subsidiary of British company Unilever. Ben & Jerry’s announced in 2021 that it would stop selling ice cream in the Occupied Palestinian Territory, as defined by the United Nations.

“This bill is bullying, in my opinion,” said Rep. Mary Wolfe, D-Clinton. “It’s to bully a company — a small, American company that’s owned by a British company — for making a choice to refuse to participate in what they feel, and what the U.N. has declared, is an illegal occupation of Palestinian territory.”

Wolfe also noted that Unilever has collaborated with Iowa farmers on anti-erosion projects, and that Unilever-owned Hellmann’s uses Iowa soybeans for soy oil in mayonnaise.

Nordman disagreed that the choice was purely a policy decision, arguing the sole purpose of the BDS movement was to “economically destroy and cripple the state of Israel.”

“If these companies are only going after policies, then why are they not pulling out of China or Russia? Or Georgia or Texas?” Nordman said. “All of these states or countries, they have policy disagreements. But yet they’re only choosing to pull out of Israel.”

The bill passed by a vote of 61-35. It will need to pass the Senate before being signed into law.

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Katie Akin
Katie Akin

Katie Akin is a former Iowa Capital Dispatch reporter. Katie began her career as an intern at PolitiFact, debunking viral fake news and fact-checking state and national politicians. She moved to Iowa in 2019 for a politics internship at the Des Moines Register, where she assisted with Iowa Caucus coverage, multimedia projects and the Register’s Iowa Poll. She became the Register’s retail reporter in early 2020, chronicling the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on Central Iowa’s restaurants and retailers.