Jamaal Bowman’s Trip to Israel Sparks Debate in DSA Over Electoral Strategy

The congressman’s divergence from DSA’s line on Israel/Palestine has led the socialist group to reexamine its approach to endorsements.

Alex Kane
December 7, 2021
Rep. Jamaal Bowman walks down the steps of the Capitol after a House vote in June.
AP Photo/Bill Clark

On December 2nd, the Democratic Socialists of America (DSA) released a long-awaited statement on New York Congressman Jamaal Bowman. A DSA member who was elected in 2020 after being endorsed by the organization, Bowman has quickly become one of the most prominent leftist legislators in the US, a popular Black politician who is working with DSA on one of its signature issues, a green infrastructure overhaul for public schools. But in recent weeks, the National Political Committee (NPC), DSA’s highest-ranking elected body, was asked to consider whether to expel him from the organization.

The drumbeat of calls to censure Bowman began in late October, after his “yes” vote to send Israel additional military funding to restock its Iron Dome anti-missile system. The calls intensified after Bowman agreed to participate in a trip to Israel/Palestine organized by J Street, a liberal Jewish lobby that supports US military aid to Israel and opposes the right of return for Palestinian refugees. These actions were overtly at odds with DSA’s support for the Palestinian civil society-led movement to boycott, divest from, and sanction Israel (BDS), which the socialist organization endorsed in 2017. After the Madison, Wisconsin DSA chapter called for Bowman’s expulsion on October 30th, the demand was quickly echoed by other DSA chapters around the country and by DSA’s BDS and Palestine Solidarity Working Group. In a statement responding to those calls, the NPC emphasized that it “strongly condemns” Bowman, calling his actions “egregious”—though it also explained that it had decided not to strip the congressman of his DSA membership because the organization had seen “considerable movement” from Bowman on Palestine.

The NPC’s statement may have resolved the immediate issue of what to do about Bowman, but it left significant questions unanswered. The NPC announced that it would not “re-endorse Bowman unless he is able to demonstrate solidarity with Palestine in alignment with expectations we have set,” raising the possibility that DSA might not intercede in a re-election fight—by knocking doors and organizing phone banks, for example—in which he may face tough primary challengers. On a broader scale, the controversy has pushed the NPC to “reevaluate our national endorsement process,” as it explains in the statement. In practice, that will likely mean the NPC taking a more robust role in determining who will get a national endorsement by, for example, setting up its own interviews with candidates endorsed by local chapters. The reevaluation also has implications for candidates beyond Bowman, like Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, who has also been endorsed by DSA’s national body but has not endorsed BDS, and who was criticized by DSA when she voted “present” on the bill to give Israel extra military aid for Iron Dome. (Of the four elected officials endorsed by DSA at the federal level, only one—Rep. Rashida Tlaib—endorses BDS.)

The question of endorsements cuts to the core of an internal divide within DSA, and the broader left, over how to balance involvement in electoral politics with other forms of organizing, including engagement with movements like BDS that have yet to find traction on Capitol Hill. The Bowman debacle has renewed an ongoing discussion about whether endorsements should be reserved for candidates who are active DSA members, with deep ties to the group and a commitment to upholding all its positions, or also used to boost the electoral hopes of a broader range of candidates whose politics largely align with those of the organization.

Some members believe DSA should continue to back a relatively wide range of candidates, arguing that electing as many ideological allies as possible is the most direct path to power. David Duhalde, a former deputy director of DSA and vice chair of DSA Fund, a nonprofit devoted to socialist political education, argues that requiring elected officials to vote in lockstep with the organization will limit DSA’s impact. “I just don’t find that to be realistic,” he told Jewish Currents. “People represent constituents who have a variety of different interests, and they have to balance those.”

But others argue that tying the organization to a wider range of legislators could make DSA look weak if its endorsed officials don’t adhere to its central tenets. “Power is having a DSA leader in office, making decisions based on the will of the organization, being a vessel for the organization,” said Olivia Katbi, a member of Portland DSA who is also part of the BDS and Palestine Solidarity Working Group. Whereas electeds who were recruited from within DSA’s ranks are more likely to support the entirety of its platform, she claimed, those who approach the organization for an endorsement mid-campaign are more likely to pick and choose positions based on electoral considerations. “Putting our stamp of endorsement on external candidates who generally have overlapping interests with us doesn’t help us build power,” she said. Bowman, by this metric, perhaps represents a complicated case: He became a DSA member only in 2019, shortly before asking the group for an endorsement, but has subsequently become closely associated with the group through his work with DSA on building environmentally responsible schools.

These questions are likely to continue surfacing around the issue of Palestine: In a political environment where Democrats almost uniformly support sending billions of dollars in military aid to Israel, and denounce the BDS movement as an antisemitic crusade, many candidates who support other DSA priorities may see backing BDS as politically unfeasible. As DSA clarifies its policy toward elected officials who fall short of its expectations on BDS, its decisions will likely also inform its approach to candidates who diverge from the organization’s stance on other polarizing issues, such as defunding the police. Given DSA’s role as the largest socialist organization in the US, its evolving approach to endorsements is likely to take on outsize importance, driving thinking on the broader left about how to build electoral power while trying not to compromise on core principles.

DSA’s endorsement process begins with local chapters, which employ a wide variety of approaches to decide which candidates to back. If a local chapter endorses a candidate, the NPC must then decide whether to throw the weight of the national organization behind the campaign. Though it’s not yet clear how DSA will revise its endorsement process, NPC member Justin Charles told Jewish Currents that local chapters will still have autonomy to make their own endorsements. At the same time, DSA’s national political body needs “to take more of a hands-on role,” including adopting “our own criteria for a national endorsement” and conducting separate interviews with candidates before deciding to endorse, he said.

DSA’s large New York City chapter prides itself on a rigorous approach to endorsements. Candidates must fill out a detailed questionnaire and attend multiple meetings, where members interview them about their platform and assess their potential path to victory. But the chapter sometimes struggles to come to consensus. In the past, NYC-DSA has been unified in its decision to rally behind “cadre”—candidates who were dedicated to the organization before they ran for office, like Zohran Mamdani, who recently won a seat in the New York State Assembly representing Queens. But in federal races, like Bowman’s, candidates often seek DSA’s endorsement only after they’ve announced a campaign and secured the support of other progressive groups. Such candidates often ask less of DSA in the way of organizational muscle, since their campaign infrastructure is already established. But in turn, DSA receives less in the way of influence if and when the candidates win office. “Our federal-level endorsements have looked a little bit like a paper endorsement,” said Charles.

“We’re in a lose-lose situation. Either we continue to work with Bowman and he continues to violate BDS and not care about our organization, or we disaffiliate from Bowman and lose the marginal amount of leverage [we have] with his office.”

Faced with the question of whether to sacrifice what influence they do have over Bowman by severing his official tie to DSA, some members, like Lower Hudson Valley DSA’s Andrew Basta, feel that “we’re in a lose-lose situation. Either we continue to work with Bowman and he continues to violate BDS and not care about our organization, or we disaffiliate from Bowman and lose the marginal amount of leverage [we have] with his office.”

The controversy has become an important case study, then, in the risks of endorsing an external candidate: Despite his many areas of alignment with DSA, Bowman’s positions on Palestine made a clash almost inevitable. The socialist organization had endorsed BDS in 2017, with an overwhelming 90% of membership voting to support the call from Palestininan civil society. (The vote marked a stark change for a group whose founder, Michael Harrington, supported US military aid to Israel.) Bowman, however, represents the 16th Congressional district in the Bronx and southern Westchester County, which is majority-Black and Latino, but includes large Jewish communities with generally supportive views toward Israel in places like Riverdale and Scarsdale. When Bowman, a Bronx middle school principal, announced his candidacy in 2019, the district had been represented for 30 years by Eliot Engel, the ranking Democrat on the House Foreign Affairs Committee and one of the top Israel hawks in the party.

From the first stages of his campaign, Bowman—who ran on bread-and-butter issues of the Democratic Party’s new left flank, like the Green New Deal and Medicare For All—waded into the Israel debate carefully. His positions on Palestine were by no means in lockstep with the mainstream Democratic consensus: He came out in opposition to Israel’s military occupation of the Palestinian territories, and argued that the US should condition aid to Israel on the basis of the latter’s treatment of Palestinian children. At the same time, he said repeatedly that he opposed the BDS movement and underscored his support for military aid, emphasizing “the right of Israelis to live in safety and peace, free from the fear of violence and terrorism from Hamas and other extremists.”

If Bowman’s statements didn’t fully satisfy the pro-Palestine left, they were sufficient to alarm the Israel-supportive right. Seeing that one of their champions was endangered, Pro-Israel America PAC donated about $230,000 to Engel, while Democratic Majority for Israel spent about $2 million attacking Bowman. The candidate weathered the onslaught with the backing of a wide coalition of progressive groups including Justice Democrats, which rose to prominence after helping Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez defeat Joe Crowley in 2018. But DSA contributed little to his eventual victory. Even at the time, the NYC-DSA chapter declined to endorse Bowman, in part over his views on Israel/Palestine. In early June, just weeks before his primary, he won the endorsement of the Lower Hudson Valley Chapter and then the NPC, which praised the candidate for his commitment to “funding schools, healthcare, and jobs instead of bombs and bullets.”

“The extreme pro-Israel groups knock doors, phone bank, set up meetings with diverse stakeholders in the district, organize fundraisers—the basic grunt work of organizing. BDS activists have not really done that level of constituent organizing for the various demands they are making.”

Some members who now support expelling Bowman say DSA never should have endorsed him to begin with. “The fact that Bowman got endorsed in the first place, when he has been vocal about being in disagreement with some of our values, is not great for the organization,” said Katbi. But others argue that DSA needs to do more to support candidates like Bowman in order to create space for them to move left on Palestine. “Groups like Justice Democrats and The Jewish Vote set up a robust political and financial ecosystem to withstand attacks from more extreme pro-Israel groups and make room for Bowman’s anti-occupation stance in such a Jewish district,” said one consultant who helped with Bowman’s primary campaign and requested anonymity to protect their job. “The extreme pro-Israel groups knock doors, phone bank, set up meetings with diverse stakeholders in the district, organize fundraisers—the basic grunt work of organizing. BDS activists have not really done that level of constituent organizing for the various demands they are making.”

Since arriving in Congress
, Bowman has continued to try to balance the demands of his more conservative Jewish constituents against his opposition to Israel’s human rights abuses. He was one of the first members of Congress to call on Israel to provide Palestinians with access to coronavirus vaccines, and was one of only 30 to co-sponsor Rep. Betty McCollum’s bill to bar US military aid from being used by Israel to detain Palestinian children, demolish Palestinian homes, or annex Palestinian land. That move sparked an outcry from Jewish leaders in Bowman’s district, with five rabbis drawing up a petition that called on him to withdraw his sponsorship, and claimed that the McCollum bill “falsely and outrageously demonizes Israel.” In May, during Israel’s assault on Gaza, Bowman co-sponsored Rep. Ocasio-Cortez’s landmark resolution to block the sale of $735 million in bombs to Israel.

Bowman’s defenders within DSA argue that, despite the challenges posed by his district, the congressman has done more than most Democrats in the House to challenge the status quo on Israel. “You now have a member of Congress who has a large Jewish population [in his district] and who is a key leading voice on this issue. He is not the person to be attacking,” said one progressive aide who requested anonymity to protect their job. “[DSA] has done very little to support him when he did things like [cosponsor the bill by] McCollum. But they’re very quick to rush to punitive judgement.”

At the same time, Bowman has supported measures that upheld or even increased Israel’s large allotment of US military aid, most notably voting to approve additional funding for Iron Dome, which he explained by saying that “this was an issue that was very important to many people in my district.” He has also kept an open line to Israel-advocacy organizations. In May, during an interview with the head of the Jewish Community Relations Council of New York, Bowman angered some DSA members by reiterating that he does “not support the BDS movement.”

So when Bowman decided to join J Street’s trip to Israel/Palestine last month and was photographed alongside right-wing Israeli Prime Minister Naftali Bennett, some saw it as only the latest in a long line of offenses. Many DSA members view J Street as a force for normalizing Israeli apartheid, and refer to its delegations as “propaganda trips.” J Street lobbies in support of the $3.8 billion in US military aid that Israel receives every year while also advocating for restrictions that would prevent US dollars from funding human rights abuses. Its junkets clearly violate the call to boycott Israel, but also include time spent in the West Bank, where members of Congress are confronted with the conditions of Palestininan life under Israeli military occupation—a marked contrast with junkets organized by more conservative Jewish lobbying groups, such as AIPAC. During a J Street U town hall last month, Bowman credited the trip with opening his eyes to the immorality of Israel’s military occupation. “I learned about the level of settlement expansion and annexation,” he said. “How do we get to a two-state solution if annexation is continuing unabated?”

The week after Bowman’s J Street trip to Israel/Palestine, the DSA’s BDS and Palestine Solidarity Working Group joined local DSA chapters in condemning Bowman, and called on the NPC to expel him if he didn’t endorse BDS. That call has garnered the support of some prominent groups in the Palestine solidarity movement, including National Students for Justice in Palestine and the Palestinian Youth Movement, though many other groups—particularly those who work more on the Washington politics of the issue—haven’t weighed in.

Members of the Palestine Solidarity Working Group argue that no censure short of expulsion is adequate. “Expulsion demonstrates solidarity with Palestinians everywhere by exercising meaningful discipline in the face of the harm Bowman has inflicted,” said one member of the steering committee, who requested anonymity because they feared being placed on anti-Palestinian blacklisting sites or bringing harm to family living in Palestine. Any other course of action “gives Bowman a blank check to carry on in his material support of Israel while giving crumbs to the left in the form of liberal rhetoric and piecemeal legislation.” The steering committee member also argued that expulsion “sets a precedent for how DSA builds electoral power that is accountable to our anti-capitalist, anti-imperialist, socialist principles.”

The Palestine Solidarity Working Group steering committee member argued that expulsion “sets a precedent for how DSA builds electoral power that is accountable to our anti-capitalist, anti-imperialist, socialist principles.”

While the working group member argued that the NPC had been too lenient with Bowman, others within DSA contend that the organization has already gone too far. Bowman’s status as one of DSA’s most prominent Black elected officials has contributed to the disagreement. His defenders point to Israel advocates’ long history of coming down hardest on the state’s Black critics. The NPC statement cites this dynamic as a reason to avoid expelling Bowman, arguing that chasing him out of DSA would only play into the hands of the Israel lobby, which “works to neutralize the leaders they know are best positioned morally to speak out against the injustices of apartheid,” such as elected officials of color.

DSA members who oppose expulsion also point to Bowman’s willingness to meet with pro-Palestine activists. “Bowman is willing to be pushed and to get better on this,” said one Palestinian member of DSA who requested anonymity to speak frankly about an internal debate of which they are a part. “It would be a very different scenario if the office of a DSA elected official was like, ‘Actually, I don’t really care what you think.’ It’s very clear they are taking us seriously.”

For now, DSA will continue working with Bowman, but the future of the relationship is far from clear. The Lower Hudson Valley chapter, which will be the first to make a call on the question of re-endorsement, is concerned that if Bowman doesn’t shift left on Palestine, he may leave them in a difficult position. Already, at least one declared primary opponent seems ready to run to Bowman’s right on Israel, and some members of the local chapter argue that Bowman should retain their endorsement if he faces a more conservative candidate.

The NPC, on the other hand, has made it clear that Bowman will not receive an endorsement from the national organization in 2022 if he doesn’t move toward DSA’s positions on Palestine. Charles, the NPC member, hopes that this ultimatum will give the organization some leverage over the congressman. “We know that he’s going to have a hard time in 2022,” Charles said. “We know that while he does have the support of J Street, he’s going to need a bigger coalition to secure re-election.”

This article originally stated that the US Campaign for Palestinian Rights hadn't weighed in on the DSA debate over Jamaal Bowman. In fact, the group tweeted about it.

Alex Kane is the senior reporter at Jewish Currents.