Palestine Is a Proxy Fight in a Fractious DSA

With a sizable gap between the left’s demand for Palestinian liberation and the pro-Israel tack of national politics, Palestine takes center stage in arguments about discipline and electoralism.

Alex Kane
December 15, 2022

Democratic Socialists of America (DSA) at the March for Palestine in Charlotte, NC on May 22nd, 2021.

Wikimedia Commons

In August 2017, members of the Democratic Socialists of America, the country’s largest socialist organization, voted to endorse the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions (BDS) movement targeting Israel, a monumental shift for an organization that was once a redoubt for liberal Zionism. Two years later, DSA members voted to expand the organization’s BDS work by establishing a BDS and Palestine Solidarity Working Group (BDS WG). As DSA doubled down on its support for BDS, DSA members were capturing local, state, and national office, buoying the organization’s argument that fervent support for Palestinian liberation can be an integral part of a socialist politics that can win power.

But what was supposed to be a triumph for Palestine solidarity organizing in the American socialist movement has instead become the nexus of a bitter conflict that has roiled DSA over the past year, damaging the relationship between DSA and some of the leading Palestinian rights organizations in the US, while raising questions around internal democracy, dissent, and electoral strategy.

The conflict began when the BDS working group harshly criticized Jamaal Bowman, a DSA-endorsed congressman who raised hackles in the organization late last year after he voted to increase US support for Israel’s anti-rocket system, Iron Dome, by $1 billion, and participated in a trip to Israel/Palestine organized by the liberal Jewish group J Street, where he was photographed alongside right-wing Israeli Prime Minister Naftali Bennett. The DSA’s leadership body, the National Political Committee (NPC), voted not to officially censure or expel Bowman. Instead, they vowed to pressure him to move further left on Palestine in a statement released following the vote. In February of this year, Bowman withdrew backing for legislation supporting Israel’s normalization agreements with Arab states—a sign, in the eyes of many DSA members, that their strategy was working. But the BDS working group remained skeptical about Bowman’s commitments, and said so publicly in a series of tweets. The NPC responded by disciplining the working group. Initially, the body voted to disband the working group altogether, a move it quickly rescinded. It also voted to bar working group steering committee members from holding leadership positions in other DSA bodies, a decision that remains in place today. In August, six NPC members submitted a resolution to reverse the leadership ban, but the NPC voted to uphold it, doubling down on the punitive measures against the BDS working group.

The internal fight over the working group’s punishment has moved far beyond the specifics of the Bowman affair. The debate now centers on a number of thorny questions with no easy answers, including how much autonomy working groups and other DSA bodies should have from the group’s national leadership, and whether the NPC should have the right to penalize working groups that don’t comply. The dispute gets to the heart of a discussion over the kind of organization DSA should be: Is it a group that should act with the discipline of a political party, with the power to enforce a political line, or is it a big-tent organization that can encompass many different strands of leftist thought and activism, even if they clash? This question has implications for the direction of DSA’s electoral strategy and its relationship to members of Congress who also belong to the socialist group. And because the gap remains so wide between the left’s demand for Palestinian liberation and the pro-Israel stance that remains the default of national politics, debates around electoralism will likely continue to play out around Palestine—and Palestine will continue to act as a proxy for these debates.

Is DSA a group that should act with the discipline of a political party, with the power to enforce a political line, or is it a big-tent organization that can encompass many different strands of leftist thought and activism, even if they clash?

The seeds of the conflict between the NPC and the BDS working group were planted last December, when Bowman’s abrogation of BDS principles sparked controversy in DSA over whether and how the organization should respond. DSA members were split over whether to expel Bowman—who represents parts of New York’s Westchester County and the Bronx, and is one of the most prominent leftist legislators in Congress—from the organization. Ultimately, the relationship between Bowman and DSA did not come to an end, but it was weakened by the dispute: Unlike in 2020, when Bowman won the endorsement of the Lower Hudson Valley chapter of the socialist group and the national organization, Bowman did not pursue DSA’s endorsement this year, though he did endorse a local DSA candidate for New York State Assembly.

Bowman initially sponsored the Israel Relations Normalization Act, which directs the State Department to strengthen US support for normalization deals between Israel and Arab countries. He would later explain that he thought the normalization deals were “an opportunity to make progress toward justice and healing in the Middle East as well as a path to a two-state solution.” But Bowman ultimately withdrew his co-sponsorship after he returned from his J Street trip to Israel/Palestine, where he said he “became aware that the deals that this bill supports and seeks to pursue have included deals at odds with human rights and safety for everyday people in the region.”

While many DSA members celebrated Bowman’s withdrawal as a win, the BDS WG disagreed. Bowman did the right thing, they said, but it was far from enough; they pressed Bowman to endorse BDS. According to emails from the NPC obtained by Jewish Currents, the committee was particularly upset about three tweets in a thread posted by the BDS working group. One claimed that Bowman only took his name off the normalization bill following the redrawing of his district lines to a district without Riverdale, a Bronx neighborhood with a large Jewish community; another said that Bowman would continue to “normalize” Israel’s occupation, fund weapons for Israel, and oppose BDS. The NPC stated that both of these claims were inaccurate. A third tweet argued that DSA had only gotten “concessionary crumbs” from Bowman, which the NPC said was part of a pattern of “uncomradely accusations” that have created a “hostile environment.”

On February 18th, the NPC requested that the BDS WG immediately take down its Twitter thread. The group refused. One month later, the NPC, by a 9-8 vote, voted to discipline the working group with two measures. The first—to disband the entire body and transfer its work to the DSA’s International Committee—was rescinded the next week because members of the International Committee itself weren’t aware of the decision until it was announced, and thought such a transfer should only come about with the working group’s consent. The second measure, however, still stands: BDS WG steering committee leaders are barred from taking on leadership positions in other DSA working groups. The NPC said the punishment was necessary because the BDS WG misrepresented facts and made false accusations. “Those behaviors pose a serious threat to the reputation and trustworthiness of DSA, and can make it difficult for the organization and chapters to work with partners and enact political strategy,” the NPC wrote in a statement explaining their vote. (No NPC member who voted to punish the working group would agree to speak on the record with Jewish Currents.)

On the most immediate level, the battle lines over the resolution largely reflected the opposing sides in the Bowman debate: Those who had opposed expelling Bowman from DSA generally voted to punish the BDS WG, while those who’d supported the expulsion were against the punishment. Some DSA members said disciplining the WG reflected the NPC majority’s desire to maintain relationships with figures like Bowman. The NPC’s decision “reflected a higher level of concern for prioritizing the fantasy of access to Beltway politicians over the internal health of our organization,” said Ben Mabie, a member of DSA’s New York City chapter.

But the fallout from the DSA fight over the BDS Working Group has had additional consequences beyond forcing questions of organizational democracy and electoralism to the fore. It has sparked a boycott of DSA—a policy of no collaboration on events and protests—by six Palestinian organizations in the US, including the Palestinian Youth Movement (PYM), National Students for Justice in Palestine (NSJP), and the US Campaign for Palestinian Rights. “DSA made a huge mistake,” said Omar Zahzah, a member of PYM, producing a “very palpable sense of betrayal among supporters of Palestinian liberation.”

Young Democratic Socialists of America (YDSA)—the youth wing of the organization—say the NPC’s decision has had reverberations on the campuses where they organize. Members of at least a dozen YDSA chapters expressed dissent over the NPC’s decision, according to Jake Colosa, a YDSA co-chair and NPC member. The UC Davis chapter ended its affiliation with YDSA over what they called the NPC’s “undeniably undemocratic” decision. A June 2022 article in the YDSA publication The Activist stated that “young people who have signed up for the YDSA summer labor program have indicated that they are not interested in joining YDSA” because of the NPC’s decision to penalize the BDS WG. And when YDSA asked NSJP to help sponsor YDSA’s national convention, NSJP demurred because of their boycott of DSA, said Yumeen.

The BDS working group punishment led to “organizational damage and animosity,” said Charles. “The internal consequences have been heavy demoralization and demobilization of members,” with “more people quitting DSA after that decision came down than any other time since we’ve been tracking it.”

Some NPC members who support overturning the punishment say the continued dispute has become a distraction for the largest US socialist organization at a time of right-wing ascension. At the national level, DSA chapters in Pittsburgh, Jacksonville, Madison, Houston, and Connecticut passed resolutions criticizing the NPC over its actions against the BDS WG. “Everything around us is very bad, and we need to be looking outward, and strategizing around how we build a movement for a true democracy in this country,” said Justin Charles, an NPC member who initially voted to discipline the working group but came to regret that vote and to argue in favor of overturning the punishment. “But when we’re focused on our internal beefs, we’re not as effective at doing that external work, and I think we’ve really suffered over the past months from that.” The NPC members opposed to the ban say it has harmed internal cohesion and undercut local chapters’ ability to organize in coalition with other groups. The punishment led to “organizational damage and animosity,” said Charles. “The internal consequences have been heavy demoralization and demobilization of members,” with “more people quit[ting] DSA after that decision came down than any other time since we’ve been tracking it,” he added, though he noted that membership numbers increased again following a DSA membership drive.

Supporters of the punishment say that it was important to act against a working group that was undermining the decision of the DSA’s elected leadership. “When a social media account comes from an official arm of the organization, it carries the imprimatur of DSA. It’s deeply inappropriate to use an account like that to fight internal political battles,” said Renée Paradis, a member of the East Bay chapter of DSA who helped organize support for a letter calling on DSA not to expel Bowman. “I used to run the Twitter account for DSA’s National Electoral Committee, and I would live in terror that one of my tweets would be seen as factional. Part of working in a democratically run organization is respecting the divide between your personal politics and what you should tweet out from a national committee account.”

For members of the NPC who think the DSA should operate more like a political party, the vote made sense. Those members thought “it undermines the democratic nature of the organization to have a body that sees itself as autonomous waging an internal [battle through] the organs of the organization,” said Marv González, an NPC member who had not yet joined the committee when the March vote on the working group took place. But to other members of DSA, the decision looked like an effort to stamp out dissent from a working group that had continued its anti-Bowman campaign after the NPC’s decision not to expel the congressman. “This is a big tent organization,” said Olivia Katbi, a DSA member who co-wrote the resolution establishing the working group. “That means that we can have public disagreements. We air our dirty laundry, for better or worse.”

A member of the Palestinian Youth Movement leads a march in Washington, DC, to protest Naftali Bennett’s first visit to the White House as prime minister of Israel, August 26th, 2021.

Allison Bailey/Nur Photo/Alamy

The heated nature of the dispute reflects, in part, the coalescing of opposing political factions within DSA. One flank is interested only in backing candidates who align with DSA’s entire platform, including BDS, while the other supports aiding politicians who ally with DSA but stop short of fully endorsing the organization’s line, especially on electorally risky issues like Palestinian liberation. The electoralist camp also argues that DSA doesn’t have the support for their political platform among the electorate to enforce its “party line.” “If you’re only acting as a representative of the political group that you’re a member of, you run the risk of getting voted out of office because people don’t see you as a representative for the whole district,” said Chris Maisano, a member of DSA’s NYC chapter who supported the disciplining of the BDS WG. The camp demanding full adherence to DSA’s platform, predictably, opposed disciplining the BDS WG, while the other group, which is more forgiving of Democratic Party realities, supported it.

This strategic divergence became newly relevant in late November when Joe Biden pushed Congress to adopt a bill preventing rail workers from striking for paid sick leave, among other demands. Congressional Democrats attempted to soften the legislation by tacking on a measure that would have given rail workers seven days of sick leave. Some DSA chapters argued that DSA-endorsed members should vote against the Biden-backed measure, which only included one extra day of paid time off, in order to express opposition to Congress’s intervention in a labor dispute. DSA-endorsed Rep. Rashida Tlaib voted “no” for this reason (and “yes” for seven extra sick days), but Reps. Cori Bush and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez voted “yes” (as well as “yes” to seven sick days), to the consternation of many in DSA. “When socialists betray the working class, it leads to demobilization and distrust of the socialist movement,” the organization’s Seattle chapter said in a statement, which also called on the DSA’s NPC “to host a town hall discussion to determine how to proceed regarding the vote of the . . . DSA Congressmembers, including potential disciplinary action.” On December 4th, the NPC said that they were proud of Tlaib’s vote against the Biden agreement and for sick days, and “disappointed” by Ocasio-Cortez’s and Bush’s votes. “Any vote by Congress to impose a bad contract on workers sides with the boss, and contradicts democratic socialist values,” the group said.

Disputes over democracy, dissent, and electoral politics are not new for left-wing movements. “This is one of the oldest sorts of dilemmas on the socialist left going back to the inception of the movement, especially to the time when socialist parties and left-wing parties in Europe, and later in North America and elsewhere, make the decision to start contesting elections,” said Maisano, who has studied the history of socialist movements. When members of the Social Democratic Party (SPD) began to win office in Germany in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, disputes regularly erupted among socialists over whether SPD members should vote for budgets in order to help working-class people, or oppose them because they also included measures socialists opposed, such as military funding. Similar disputes arose in the US Socialist Party in the early 20th century. In 1912, for instance, the party voted to adopt a constitutional amendment allowing for expulsion of members who opposed participation in elections or advocated the use of “crime, sabotage or other methods of violence as a weapon of the working class”—a measure that was then used to remove “Big Bill” Haywood, a leader of the party’s revolutionary syndicalist wing, from its National Executive Committee, leading to a schism.

David Duhalde, a former deputy director of DSA and chair of DSA Fund, a nonprofit devoted to socialist political education, said the splintering of DSA into different factions increased in the wake of Bernie Sanders’s loss during the presidential campaigns in 2016 and 2020. Without the Sanders campaign as a focal point for organizing, DSA’s political direction is up for grabs. The organization has had to “reorient” around “the new situation, the post-Bernie situation,” he said. “So people have to have very clear orientations about what they want DSA to do, or what they don’t want DSA to do. The caucuses and factions are more coherent than they used to be.”

With the ban still in place preventing BDS WG steering committee members taking leadership in other DSA groups, the conflict threatens to carry into the DSA national convention in August 2023. Charles predicted resolutions that would seek to condition endorsements of elected officials on whether they take up the DSA’s political line, and to diminish the power of the NPC. Paradis, too, predicted “a fork in the road at next year’s convention: Do we build on the last few years of successful electoral organizing as essentially the left wing of the left wing, in a broader coalition that has the potential to seize state power, or do we angle towards ideological purity?” she said. “I sympathize with the allure of ideological purity, but for me, the threat of an increasingly violent right wing bent on instituting minority rule and the imminent catastrophe of climate change make it imperative to figure out a way to work within that broader coalition.”

Charles said he is worried that these types of internal clashes within DSA will lead to members disengaging from the organization. But González was more sanguine about the situation. “This is what democratic politics looks like,” he said. “It’s messy. People sometimes have an aversion to it because we do not have experiences in the US with real democratic outlets, but this is kind of what it is.”

Alex Kane is a senior reporter for Jewish Currents.