A REPORT FROM CHICAGO
by Jacob Plitman
DURING THEIR CONVENTION in Chicago last weekend, the resurgent 25,000-member Democratic Socialists of America (DSA) endorsed the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement by a resounding majority. The bill and vote have been misconstrued and misrepresented by some in our Jewish community in an effort, intentional or otherwise, that keeps our community away from solidarity with a renewed left. In fact, the BDS bill passed isn’t antisemitic in word or spirit, and Jews cannot afford to let discomfort with it keep us from fighting for healthcare, housing, or justice for all.
Founded in 1992 as a merger between two other groups, DSA surprisingly finds itself in many ways the locus of the Trump-era resurgent left, particularly among young people. Members come to DSA for many reasons, including support for Bernie Sanders and widespread rage at the Democrats for their failure to beat Trump. Since the election, DSA’s membership has skyrocketed from around 8,000 to over 25,000. At last weekend’s convention, almost 700 delegates from across the country came together to steer the organization. The energy was high. DSA dreams big: its stated goals include universal health care, criminal justice reform, and far more.
Prior to the convention, DSA had already endorsed a “partial boycott” in a January statement that characterized DSA’s position on the Israeli/Palestinian conflict. “DSA has always supported the right to self-determination and democracy for both the Palestinian and Jewish peoples of historic Palestine,” it said. ” . . . The ultimate resolution of (a negotiated) process — whether it be two states, a confederation, or one state –must guarantee full political and civil rights for all people and be supported by a majority of the members of both communities.” The BDS resolution passed at last week’s convention escalated by “fully supporting BDS,” but did not challenge the above language on final peace outcomes. Here it is:
Whereas, on July 9, 2005 all major Palestinian civil society groups, including all major trade unions, issued an open letter calling for “Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions against Israel Until it Complies with International Law and Universal Principles of Human Rights (BDS Call);
Whereas, July 9, 2005 marked the first anniversary of the International Court of Justice finding that Israel’s construction of a wall annexing Palestinian territory in the West Bank to be illegal;
Whereas, the BDS Call noted one year later, Israel continued “construction of the colonial Wall with total disregard to the Court’s decision;”
Whereas, according to the BDS Call “all forms of international intervention and peace-making have until now failed to convince or force Israel to comply with humanitarian law, to respect fundamental human rights and to end its occupation and oppression of the people of Palestine;”
Whereas, in light of this failure, Palestinian civil society has asked for global civil society and people of conscience to boycott, divest from, and sanction Israel until it recognized the basic human rights of the Palestinian people by: ending its occupation and colonization of all Arab lands and dismantling the Wall, recognizing the fundamental rights of the Arab-Palestinian citizens of Israel to full equality; and; respecting, protecting and promoting the rights of Palestinian refugees to return to their homes and properties as stipulated in UN resolution 194;
Whereas, Palestinian trade unions are unanimous in their support of BDS and all three major Palestinian trade union federations are part of the Palestinian Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions National Committee (BNC);
Whereas, DSA would be joining other US-based groups and unions in supporting BDS, including the United Electrical Workers, the Connecticut AFL-CIO, UAW Locals 2865, 2110, 2322, AFT Local 3220, the National Lawyers Guild, the American Studies Association, the African Literature Association, the Native American and Indigenous Studies Association, the Association for Asian American Studies, Jewish Voice for Peace, among others;
Whereas, since 1948 Israel has denied the right of return to Palestinian refugees;
Whereas, today there are five million refugees registered with the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees;
Whereas, since 1967 Israel has militarily occupied the West Bank, East Jerusalem, Gaza, and the Golan Heights;
Whereas, Israel has engaged in a program of rapacious colonization (“settlements”) of the Occupied Palestinian Territories,
Whereas, Israeli settlers in the West Bank are given the rights of Israeli citizenship, subject to civilian law, and are permitted to drive on roads barred to Palestinians;
Whereas, Palestinians in the West Bank are not Israeli citizens, are subjected to military law, including being tried in military courts with a 99% conviction rate, are forced to drive on different roads, go through military checkpoints, are subjected to collective punishment, such as house demolitions, and have their land annexed and colonized to build settlements in which they are forbidden to live;
Whereas, there are today at least 50 laws that discriminate against Palestinians with Israeli citizenship;
Whereas, all of the aforementioned constitutes apartheid;
Whereas, since 2007 Israel has maintained a ruthless siege of Gaza, home of 1.9 million Palestinians, including 1.3 million Palestinian refugees, limiting access to food, electricity, and other basic materials, restricting movement, and transforming Gaza into an open air prison;
Whereas, Israel has since the blockage engaged in three wars against Gaza, which included sustained aerial bombing and the use of white phosphorous;
Whereas, since Gaza, is one of the most densely populated areas on Earth any widespread bombing is by its very nature a war against civilians;
Whereas, Democratic Socialists of America has condemned Israeli settlements and its bombings of Gaza;
Whereas, Democratic Socialists of America already supports “partial BDS” (boycotts of settlement goods);
Whereas, Democratic Socialists of America has endorsed the Movement For Black Lives Platform, which includes support for BDS;
Whereas, Democratic Socialists of America and Young Democratic Socialists played an important role in the historic international movement against South African Apartheid, upon which the BDS call is based;
Whereas, BDS is an inclusive, anti-racist human rights movement that is opposed on principle to all forms of discrimination, including anti-semitism and Islamophobia;
Whereas, Israel is the largest recipient of US military aid, making the US complicit in Israel’s violations of Palestinian human rights;
Whereas, socialists have a responsibility to side with the oppressed and are committed to their unconditional liberation:
BE IT RESOLVED:
1. Democratic Socialists of America declares itself in solidarity with Palestinian civil society’s nonviolent struggle against apartheid, colonialism, military occupation and for equality, human rights, and self-determination.
2. Democratic Socialists of America responds to Palestinian Civil Society’s call by fully supporting BDS.
3. Democratic Socialists of America affirms that any political solution to the ongoing crisis must be premised on the realization of basic human rights, including all rights outlined in the BDS call.
4. Within 30 days after passing, a copy of this resolution shall be sent to the BNC.
ON SATURDAY, aside from a fruitless procedural effort to delay, the BDS voting session began in earnest. The first act was an amendment to condemn the recent anti-Boycott law. He slammed the efforts of the bill “to ban free speech.” The crowd waved their hands in support (oddly, clapping was strictly forbidden throughout the convention). The amendment passed enthusiastically without opposition.
Next, the first speaker in favor of BDS approached, a Palestinian member of DSA. He spoke passionately about realities of the Israeli occupation, including growing settlements, lack of water and electricity. Many more hand waves.
Speakers against the BDS motion followed. One of them, claiming that BDS held Israel to an antisemitic and unfair standard, was hissed. The hissing against these arguments was the only hissing I heard during the convention. It was quickly shushed, and the vote was called. Over 90 percent of those present voted for BDS, and the hall exploded into pro-Palestinian chants, including — as widely reported by alarmed Jewish media — “from the river to the sea, Palestine will be free.”
After the vote, I talked to Amelia Dornbush, a Jewish NYC DSA member and supporter of the motion. I asked why the result of this particular vote elicited so much joy. She said DSA members, including many Jews, celebrated the bill because “Palestinians called for solidarity, and we gave them solidarity. We’re socialists and that’s what we do.” Dornbush said that if any other marginalized people had been calling for a similar resolution, DSA would act exactly the same way. I asked about the hissing. Dornbush said that she understood that it wasn’t “comradely,” but that she and other Jewish members “found it deeply offensive that support for BDS would be labeled antisemitic.”
GENERALLY, disagreement on the resolution occurred along generational lines. In the Nation, Activist Jesse Myerson interviewed longtime DSA members like Maxine Phillips, who said she was disturbed by “this thing with the chanting and screaming and stuff,” and chants of “free, free Palestine.” In honesty, I, too, experienced some discomfort when BDS was fully endorsed. Where does this leave the Israeli working class? What of Israeli dissenters who ruin their lives fighting alongside Palestinians? Would an Israeli leftist ever be able to join hands with the DSA’s other internationalist guests? I know many of each of these types. Leftist forces in Israel need DSA’s help. The argument has been made that BDS pressure will empower them. One can only hope that it’s true.
Unsurprisingly, the liberal Jewish community has not taken DSA’s decision well. JTA ominously reported that an “anti-Israel BDS” resolution had been passed (and oddly mentioned activist Linda Sarsour, who was not present). Going further, writer Paul Berman accused DSA in Tablet of perpetrating an antisemitic sneak attack by passing the bill on shabbat, thereby precluding Jews from voting.
However, no one I spoke to in DSA knew of any complaint regarding the Saturday vote by any member of DSA who would have been precluded from voting for religious reasons. Convention press officer Max Crema told me that no delegate of DSA who filled out the pre-convention accessibility survey claimed that they could not participate in Saturday activities for religious reasons. Had that been the case, he noted, observant delegates could also have instructed proxies to vote for them at any point.
Of course, the lack of shomer shabes delegates is a solid piece of evidence that DSA has not reached enough observant, leftist Jews. This isn’t just an issue for DSA; as much as everyone else, Jews, observant and otherwise, need a base for their activism to win wide-ranging social safety programs, a reduction in student debt, decent and affordable health insurance, accessible housing, and much more. That’s why need to resist efforts to divide us from the movements that are fighting for the social policies we need.
In truth, the DSA resolution is not even anti-Zionist, let alone antisemitic. In its greyness regarding a final peace outcome, it should only offend those who cannot tolerate a frank recitation of Israeli government actions against Palestinian rights and self-determination. Even so, the DSA vote will make some in the Jewish community uncomfortable. Hopefully, this discomfort will not be an exit pass for Jews and their organizations from the struggle for American’s future. People of color, women, LGBTQ, and other marginalized groups routinely encounter and challenge much worse in leftwing spaces, and fight on. We can and must do the same.
Jacob Plitman will start working as associate editor of Jewish Currents at the end of August. He is a former organizer with the Hotel Workers Union and with J Street. He tweets at @jacobplitman.