Legislation working its way through the state Legislature would prohibit Wisconsin businesses who sign on to the global Boycott, Divest and Sanctions (BDS) movement from receiving some state contracts.
And, unfortunately, Assembly Bill 553 and Senate Bill 450 are attracting bipartisan support because of a false conflation of BDS with anti-Semitism and discrimination.
But these bills are a mistake for Wisconsin at every level.
The bills would institute a level of bureaucracy in monitoring business negotiations in the state, constituting a dangerous erosion of democratic social control. If a company responded to a citizens’ BDS campaign to divest its interests, for example, that company would no longer be eligible for certain state contracts. And the several church synods that have elected to divest their pension funds would become ineligible to contract with the state to provide social services. These bills make the moral decisions of citizens and parishioners a barrier to free enterprise.
Historically, boycotts have been an important, nonviolent tool of dissent. A global boycott of South Africa, often compared in moral scope to the BDS movement, was decisive in ending the apartheid regime. The U.S. Supreme Court ruled decisively in NAACP v. Claiborne Hardware in 1982 that boycotts constitute protected speech, assembly, petition and association. Just last month, in the first federal test of anti-boycott laws at the state level, a federal judge ruled that Kansas’ anti-boycott law was an unconstitutional denial of free speech.
Why is the State of Wisconsin trying to pass a bill that has already been judged unconstitutional and whose true purpose is to shield Israel from criticism about legitimate human rights issues?
Introduced by state Sen. Leah Vukmir (R-Brookfield) and state Rep. Dale Kooyenga (R-Brookfield), the bills are a product of the right-wing American Legislative Exchange Council. Their bills are strikingly similar to many anti-BDS bills introduced or passed in more than half the states in the U.S. at the behest of ALEC. It makes sense, then, that politicians such as Vukmir and Kooyenga, deeply allied with ALEC and the billionaire Koch brothers, support this undemocratic legislation.
It is confusing that some progressive Democrats also support this bill. They do this because of a mistaken equivalence between BDS and anti-Semitism, equating nonviolent boycotts with disloyalty.
Support for BDS is not anti-Semitic. The Milwaukee and Madison chapters of Jewish Voice for Peace represent the growing population of American Jews who respond to the call from Palestinian civil society for a nonviolent boycott in support of the prospect of peace in the region.
These bills seek to undermine the power of people to work together nonviolently, in the interest of a just cause. No individual or company should be punished for exercising their conscience and supporting a nonviolent movement for peace and equality. As Jews and allies who say “not in our name,” we ask our fellow Wisconsinites, and state legislators, to reject AB 553/SB 450.
Sandy Pasch is a former state legislator. This commentary was co-authored with Daniel Maguire, a theology professor at Marquette University; Rachel Ida Buff, a history professor at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee; Jodi Melamed, an associate English professor at Marquette; and Tsela Barr, administrative assistant and graphic designer at Edgewood College in Madison.