As more states pass bills targeting the movement to boycott Israel, analysts believe such measures could backfire.
Wisconsin has become the latest US state to target the Palestinian-led Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement, amid an ostensible crackdown on the activism.
State Governor Scott Walker signed an executive order on Friday night that prohibits state agencies from contracting a business that is “engaging in a boycott of Israel”.
“We stand firmly against discrimination in any form and we wholly support our friends in Israel,” Walker said in a statement after signing the order.
The Wisconsin governor also expressed his support for a bill, introduced earlier this month by a pair of Republican legislator, State Senator Leah Vukmir and State Representative Dale Kooyenga, that would forbid companies that engage in boycotts of Israel from obtaining state contracts.
“Boycotts of Israel must be fought because they do not just attack the Jewish state. This propaganda campaign is also the basis for newly emboldened and destructive anti-Semitic attitudes,” Vukmir said in a press release. “We must support our ally, Israel.”
Although the bill is still being considered, it follows a string of similar legal measures imposed by at least 22 other states across the country.
Rights groups, such as the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), have blasted these measures as unconstitutional and repressive.
On Monday, Maryland Governor Larry Hogan signed an executive order that similarly bans firms that boycott Israel from state contracts.
Last week, the city of Dickinson, situated in Texas, sparked widespread condemnation from rights groups when it conditioned hurricane relief aid on promises that the recipient is not engaging in, and will not participate in, a boycott of Israel. The city later voted to remove the Israel language from the application for private citizens, but will still require companies it contracts to state they do not boycott Israel, local media reported.
Omar Barghouti, cofounder of the BDS movement and a founding committee member of the Palestinian Campaign for the Academic and Cultural Boycott of Israel, said crackdowns on boycott advocates are a kneejerk reaction to the movement’s growing success.
“After losing so many battles for hearts and minds against the fast-growing BDS movement for Palestinian rights,” he told Al Jazeera, “Israel and its massive lobby are desperately trying to stop the movement from above, by passing draconian, unconstitutional laws that evoke the worst memories of McCarthyism.”
Barghouti cited a growing number of churches, unions and university campuses divesting from Israeli banks and international companies that operate in Israel and its Jewish-only settlements throughout the occupied Palestinian territory.
Started in 2005, BDS is a global campaign that draws from the anti-Apartheid struggle in South Africa and calls for grassroots pressure to hold Israel accountable for violations of international law and human rights.
Enjoying broad support from Palestinian civil society, the movement urges boycotting, divesting from and sanctioning Israel until it ends its decades-long occupation of Arab land, provides Palestinian citizens of Israel with full equality and allows Palestinian refugees to return to their homes.
In response, Israel and its advocates have pushed measures that target BDS activists at home and abroad, including espionage and a tactic it calls “legal warfare”.
Earlier this year, Israel imposed an entry ban on BDS supporters. In July, that ban was put into action when five American activists were blocked from boarding a Tel Aviv-bound plane owing to their political views.
In 2016, Israel allotted $26m to fighting BDS by gathering intelligence on activists online.
The Israel Group, a US-based organisation that opposes BDS, has been a leading participant in efforts to marginalise the boycott movement.
The group has lobbied school districts, universities and other institutions that host panels discussions and other events promoting BDS.
Jack Saltzberg, founder and executive director of The Israel Group, dismissed claims that anti-BDS legislation violates free speech, arguing that many of the laws have “virtually no teeth” and do not prevent individual expressions of support for the boycott.
Nonetheless, Saltzberg believes that anti-BDS legislation can be “harmful to the pro-Israel cause”.
“It creates a false sense of security,” he told Al Jazeera, “and, as nice as city, state, and federal anti-BDS legislation is, the pro-Israel community is badly losing the BDS war, and [that] will not change until we alter our decades-old strategies and paradigm.”
Support for BDS, including sanctions, will only rise as a result.
The Israel Group has recently criticised California public school districts for hosting Palestine-focused educational seminars, including in Orange County and Los Angeles County.
In March, the federal Israel Anti-Boycott Act – a bill that seeks to criminalise boycotting Israel – was introduced in the US Congress.
For his part, Barghouti argued that the crackdown on BDS is bound to backfire.
“Israel’s policies of ethnic cleansing of Palestinian communities, incessant construction of illegal settlements, home demolitions and siege of Gaza, coupled with Israel’s association of late with the xenophobic far-right in the US and elsewhere, is shredding to pieces its fake mask of democracy,” he said.
“Support for BDS, including sanctions, will only rise as a result.”