Palestine solidarity and the future of the DSA – on the Bowman crisis

In recent months the Democratic Socialists of America (DSA) has been wracked with arguments over Palestine. DSA is formally committed to supporting the call for boycott, disinvestment and sanctions (BDS) against Israel, but one of their leading supporters in the House of Representatives has publicly opposed this. The DSA leadership’s response to the ensuing arguments has been to shut down their BDS working group. Shireen Akram-Boshar and Joel Reinstein, two members of the working group, explain the background to the crisis and argue for a principled resolution. This article first appeared in Spectre Journal – our thanks for permission to reprint it.

Crowd with Palestinian flags
Palestine Solidarity demo Chicago 2021

The Democratic Socialists of America (DSA), which has rapidly become the largest socialist formation in the US, has faced serious questions and contradictions since its explosive growth in the wake of Bernie Sanders’ 2016 campaign. Mushrooming from fewer than ten thousand members to over ninety thousand members in just five years, the organization has restored hope for many that a fighting Left may return to the “belly of the beast.” However, the DSA has struggled with issues of internal democracy as well as of political principles. The primary contradiction embedded in the fabric of the DSA is its prioritization of electoral politics and the Democratic Party over grassroots mobilization and socialist principles. This is evident in the fact that its growth has recently stagnated and begun to fall, as the strategy of riding Sanders’ presidential campaigns is no longer available.

This contradiction has emerged most visibly in a dispute over U.S. Congressman and DSA member Jamaal Bowman. The attempt by DSA’s National Political Committee (NPC), the primary political leadership of the organization, to dissolve DSA’s national BDS and Palestine Working Group has been the latest turn in the months-long struggle within the organization around the question of accountability to the Palestinian BDS picket line. The BDS working group had galvanized a rank-and-file demand for U.S. Congressman and DSA member Jamaal Bowman to be expelled following his repeated, active support for Israeli apartheid.

Instead of disciplining Bowman, the NPC retaliated against its activist base. Although there has been widespread outrage, the conflict remains unresolved and points to the fundamental contradiction in the DSA between electoral expediency and socialist principles.

The crisis

In a decision by its NPC-appointed National Electoral Committee, the DSA endorsed US Congressman and DSA member Jamaal Bowman for his 2020 congressional run. However, in 2021 Bowman voted to send additional military funding to Israel to the tune of $4.4 billion, before taking part in a propaganda tour of Israel with J Street, a liberal Zionist organization. Bowman has consistently stated, as in a May 2021 interview, that he opposes the Palestinian-led Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions (BDS) movement and does not align himself with organizations supporting it—which, ironically, includes the DSA. In 2017, DSA endorsed the BDS movement at its national convention, the highest decision-making body of the organization, in a vote by hundreds of delegates representing chapters around the country.

Bowman’s actions came shortly after a mass uprising, the Unity Intifada, took place across historic Palestine against Israeli ethnic cleansing and repression, as well as a massive Israeli bombing campaign on Gaza. This period of uprising and repression in the spring and summer of 2021 witnessed a high level of solidarity across the US as well, with mass protests and a level of attention and support for Palestine not previously seen in this country. “Block the Boat” efforts successfully prevented the offloading of cargo from an Israeli shipping company, and for the first time teachers unions crafted solidarity resolutions. Mass protests accompanied renewed attention to BDS and generated an overall improved standard for solidarity with the Palestinian struggle.

The contrast could not be more stark between these popular efforts on one hand and, on the other, the continued bipartisan US political and military support for Israel, and the actions of DSA member and congressional representative Bowman in particular. It is no surprise then that the DSA’s BDS and Palestine Working Group was alarmed by Bowman’s comments distancing himself from BDS in May 2021. The working group reached out to his office shortly thereafter, beginning a months-long process of fruitless efforts to change his position.

By October, many DSA members were beginning to call for Bowman to be disciplined, first with a petition for his censure signed by members across a range of chapters, then with calls for his expulsion by local chapters. After all, how could a member of a socialist organization continue to diametrically oppose its core principles, supporting weapons funding for an apartheid regime? In fact, the BDS and Palestine Working Group only joined in the demand to expel in November 2021, after ten chapters had already called for his expulsion.

Dozens of chapters joined in the demand, as accountability to solidarity with Palestine galvanized a rank-and-file revolt within the organization. This widespread dissent was a challenge to the NPC’s electoralist vision for the DSA. While a set of members also rejected the expulsion demand, signing onto a “Unity, not Unanimity” letter that equivocally framed Bowman’s support for apartheid as a mere disagreement, the demand for accountability to the BDS picket line was clearly supported by a broader swath of the organization’s members.

DSA’s leadership eventually declared that they would do nothing to discipline Bowman, but would “hold him accountable” by meeting privately with him and his staff. At no point were the specific agenda and results of this meeting shared with the broader membership of the DSA. Future DSA endorsements, they wrote, would depend on Bowman making unspecified changes.

The NPC’s attempt to remove the BDS Working Group came soon after. In February, Bowman withdrew his support for the Israel Relations Normalization Act, a bill aiming to further normalization between Israel and the Arab regimes begun with the 2020 Abraham Accords.  NPC members claimed a victory, arguing that their support for Bowman and closed-door meetings had changed Bowman’s stance.

When the BDS working group pointed out that Bowman had only done so when it was electorally expedient, and that his active support for Israeli apartheid remained the same, the NPC demanded that the working group censor this criticism.

When the working group refused to accept this censorship, the NPC voted 9-8 to dissolve it entirely, suspending its leadership from holding any national DSA leadership positions for one year. The backlash was immediate, not only from DSA members and entire chapters, but from Palestine solidarity movement organizations. The US Campaign for Palestinian Rights, Palestinian Youth Movement, National Students for Justice in Palestine, Samidoun Palestinian Prisoner Solidarity Network, and Falastiniyat joined several DSA chapters in demanding the reinstatement of the working group and its leadership, refusing to work with the DSA until the decision was reversed. Even within the DSA, only a scant minority supported the NPC’s decision, with many times more coming out in opposition.

While the working group was soon reinstated, the suspension of its leadership continues.

Politics, not process and personalities

The NPC has been supported in their decisions by those in the organization most closely wedded to electoralism and the Democratic Party, or what might be called the right wing of the DSA. Together with the NPC, they have done everything they can to obscure the fundamental conflict in principle at the heart of the crisis. The NPC rationalized their attempt to shutter the working group on the grounds that the working group’s political criticism was “misinformation” and that it violated DSA’s code of conduct that debates be “conducted with civility and respect.” As a dissenting minority on NPC pointed out, this was a flimsy pretense for obvious retaliation against political opponents.

Instead of disciplining Bowman, the NPC retaliated against its activist base.

At its core, this crisis has been a conflict over political principles: will DSA put electoral expediency before its stated support for Palestinians? Are DSA’s electeds accountable to members and the democratically decided politics of the organization, or is it the other way around?

Ignoring the broad support the working group has organized behind its demands, DSA’s right wing has tried to paint the working group as a small group of posturing sectarians, “wreckers” who care more about being righteous on social media than “getting their hands dirty” and “building power.” Some, including members of the NPC, have even ludicrously implied that the working group represents some kind of infiltration plot to destroy the DSA.

These have been desperate attempts to isolate, divide, and confuse what is clear and broad opposition to DSA’s leadership. Instead of an inscrutable faction fight, this has been a conflict over principles: one that has galvanized a broad layer of DSA activists and organizers in a way that electoral strategies simply cannot. Yet, the DSA leadership and the right wing of the DSA attempt to maintain electoralism as the primary strategy within DSA. Not to be confused with the practice of simply using elections as a tactic for the socialist movement, which can sometimes have value, by “electoralism” we mean the focus on relationships with Democratic Party politicians and electing so-called progressive Democrats as the primary arena of struggle. This assumes that the road to socialism runs through the Democratic Party ballot line and the slow accumulation of socialists winning electoral seats on the Democratic ticket. It conceives of power for our side as coming from above and substitutes elected leaders for popular movements.

But the debate at hand was never about processes or personalities, but about Palestine, and is not complicated. If a member of the DSA can vote in Congress to fund Israeli weapons, does the DSA support BDS? If the democratically decided stances of DSA can be disregarded when convenient for politicians, then is the organization really run by its members?

The DSA right’s rhetoric and responses have worked to confuse the power dynamics at hand, painting the situation as one of the NPC and BDS Working Group both having committed wrongs in an interpersonal conflict. In reality, the NPC has enabled liberal Zionism for the sake of electoral expediency, shutting down the dissent of Palestinians and their supporters.

Undermining BDS, supporting apartheid

Socialists must recognize that Zionism, the support for an exclusively Jewish state in historic Palestine, is a racist and colonialist movement. It requires the ongoing violent expulsion of indigenous Palestinians, and denial of their most basic rights.

Liberal Zionism purports to support peace and equality while distorting the basic facts and causes of the oppression of Palestinians. Liberal Zionists, including the lobbying group J Street, to which Bowman is attached, present Israel’s apartheid rule over Palestinians as if it were a symmetrical conflict, with both sides having to compromise for the sake of peace.

While they claim to oppose the “excesses” of Israeli violence and the “overreach” of the occupation, liberal Zionists put a progressive veneer on the false promise of a “peace process” designed to continue the violent dispossession of Palestinians and denial of their basic rights and freedoms. In this way, liberal Zionism opposes actual Palestinian-led movements for freedom and self-determination.

BDS has served as an effective counterweight to this confusion, providing a vehicle for grassroots organizing around the basic demand “that Palestinians are entitled to the same rights as the rest of humanity.” Palestinian civil society organizations, representing every corner of Palestinian society, have laid down what the overwhelming majority of Palestinians agree are the bare minimum requirements for their self-determination.

BDS demands not only an end to Israel’s brutal military occupation of the Gaza Strip and the West Bank including East Jerusalem, but an end to dozens of laws discriminating against Palestinians with Israeli citizenship, and recognition of the right of millions of Palestinian refugees to return to the homes from which Israel violently expelled them. Through BDS, Palestinians have defined support for their self-determination as respect for their boycott.

For a socialist organization to say that it supports BDS, while one of its most prominent elected leaders actively supports Israeli apartheid, undermines the movement. DSA “unequivocally supports BDS” while a member in Congress votes for billions of dollars in funding for Israeli weapons. It amounts to crossing a picket line and obscuring what Palestinian self-determination actually means in much the same way as liberal Zionism.

Two visions of socialism

The current crisis over Bowman and the BDS Working Group is not, as some have claimed, simply a Twitter debate, but rather stems from a fundamental contradiction within the DSA: that of prioritizing electoralism and connection to the Democratic Party over socialist principles and mass, multi-racial, working-class organizing. Behind this conflict are two wildly different conceptions of power and where power comes from, as well as how to achieve socialism and liberation. This crisis raises a pivotal question about the direction of what is currently the largest socialist organization in the US, as well as the future of the broader Left in this country.

It’s no coincidence that this contradiction boiled over in a crisis around the issue of Palestine.

The right wing of the DSA prioritizes relationships with these politicians, subordinating the needs of the organization and socialist principles to the political calculations of these politicians, rather than the other way around—and imposes this strategy undemocratically upon the DSA as a whole. The NPC and DSA’s right wing have shown that they’re willing to alienate—and even push out—large swaths of members to maintain this electoralist line.

The contradiction in the DSA between electoralism and mass organizing has been bubbling under the surface for quite a while. It can be seen in the fact that the organization’s growth has stagnated during the Biden presidency, and that the path forward in the current period has been unclear for the organization. While DSA was phone-banking for the PRO Act and boasting about flipping Joe Manchin, Starbucks and Amazon workers were organizing largely without organized DSA engagement. DSA also failed miserably to engage with the Black Lives Matter revolt of 2020, the largest anti-racist rebellion of our era.

It’s no coincidence that this contradiction boiled over in a crisis around the issue of Palestine. Palestine fundamentally challenges the two-party system to which electoralism attaches itself. The Democratic Party—a capitalist and, therefore, imperialist party—cannot shift its stance on Palestine or break its relationship with Israel: it relies on Israel as an outpost of U.S. imperialism in the Middle East to maintain a favorable status quo for U.S. capital.

Under capitalism, the state is not neutral terrain. It is an instrument of the rule of the capitalist class, a fact made most clear in outbreaks of struggle against racist violence and imperialism. It is for this reason that electoralism’s contradictions are most acute on these questions, and DSA’s electeds are most inconsistent when it comes to funding for policing and war.

Palestinian liberation requires mass movements from below—not only in Palestine, but also in the U.S.—to challenge this imperialist two-party system, and across the Middle East to end regional powers’ support for Israel. An irrevocable contradiction, then, emerges for socialists trying to support Palestine while retaining ties to the Democratic Party, as made clear through the Bowman debacle. Wrangling Democratic politicians to shift their position on Palestine is an attempt to take shortcuts that will ultimately lead to dead ends. Subordinating our activism to members of Congress can only pull us to the right on questions of imperialism, most notably on Palestine.

Instead of focusing our energies on politicians and a party that does not have socialist or Palestinian liberation at its heart, socialists must work towards building organizations that are democratic, multi-racial and anti-racist, mobilizing wide sections of the working class to independently assert pressure no matter who is in office, and build for a future outside of the two-party system.

Instead of top-down bureaucratic structures, the Left needs organizations that foster healthy political discussion and debate, and in which leaders are accountable to members and recallable by members. Our organizations must take questions of oppression and imperialism seriously, and look to build working class power around these struggles.

Looking forward

After a bitter, acrimonious fight, many DSA members will understandably want reconciliation and unity, and a refocusing on fighting “the real enemy.” But while the leadership of the BDS working group is still suspended, and DSA members can still vote in Congress for billions of dollars in funding for Israeli weapons, what does “reconciliation” mean?

A leadership that has shuttered its opposition on spurious grounds of “misinformation” and “uncomradely behavior,” and that has implied that its opponents are infiltrators trying to wreck the organization, is still in charge of the DSA. Their actions have made clear that they have no interest in reconciliation or debate: real debate would fit with the vision of a democratic organization run by its membership, not a satellite of the Democratic Party in which “members” are little different from donors to an advocacy group. Unity for unity’s sake will just mean going along with this electoralist vision, with liberal Zionism, and with a withering DSA moving against its supposed principles.

The DSA is at a crossroads and there are two paths forward. Down one path, it continues to push for an electoralist strategy that alienates socialists eager to challenge oppression and imperialism. The other path is an organization run by its members that stands by socialist principles, understands that support for BDS and Palestine must be a tenet of the socialist movement in this country, and looks towards the working class itself as the agent of its own liberation.


Shireen Akram-Boshar is a member of DSA’s BDS Working Group, and a Spectre editorial board member.

Joel Reinstein is a labor organizer and a member of DSA’s BDS Working Group.

brian bean contributed to this article.

 

 

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