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Apartheid is a red line

A letter to River Valley DSA

Leandro Herrera argues why socialists cannot afford to compromise on solidarity with Palestine.

In light of the recent controversy surrounding Congressman and Democratic Socialists of America (DSA) member Jamaal Bowman for voting to fund Israel’s Iron Dome missile defense system and going on a J-Street sponsored trip to Israel, ten DSA Chapters have joined calls for Bowman to be censured or expelled from the organization. In addition, the Palestine Solidarity Working Group has released a statement calling for Bowman’s expulsion if he fails to meet their demands to uphold solidarity with Palestine.

By contrast, the River Valley Chapter of DSA in Western Massachusetts voted 30-29 against a resolution to endorse the Palestine Working Group’s statement.

Here, we republish a letter submitted by Tempest member Leandro Herrera denouncing the chapter vote and outlining its consequences in the struggle for Palestinian liberation.

On Wednesday, November 17, the River Valley Chapter of  Democratic Socialists of America (DSA) held their general meeting to discuss, among other things, a resolution to support a statement by the Madison DSA Chapter calling for the expulsion of Congressman Jamaal Bowman from the organization. The decision was reached, after significant debate from both sides, to not support the resolution. While everyone present maintained their support of the BDS (Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions) movement and Palestinian liberation, the points raised in opposition to the resolution reveal deep and problematic inconsistencies with such a position. In this letter, I would like to examine the positions of the opposition point by point and argue that in essence, the outcome of this vote puts the River Valley Chapter on the wrong side of anti-imperialism, self-determination of oppressed nations and peoples, and basic democratic accountability on a fundamental issue within the socialist movement.

Accountability of Elected Officials

To start, there were a set of arguments raised concerning procedural issues with calling for Bowman’s expulsion. One argument posited that since the Lower Hudson Valley Chapter, of which Bowman is a member, had not addressed the issue with him directly, a call for expulsion by a separate chapter does not constitute good process. A related argument is that DSA’s national convention rejected a proposal to impose strict adherence to the national platform on elected officials who were members of DSA, so this vote would set a bad precedent. Similarly, opponents argued, this was a judicial matter and that the National Political Committee (NPC) has the sole authority to decide whether to expel a member in this case, making any chapter statements moot.

There is certainly a case to be made that due to the lack of national accountability standards, let alone democratic forums where members can voice or exercise any sort of discipline over members who hold national office outside of convention, any process is due to be haphazard, unprecedented, and not sanctioned by bylaws or existing structures. This is precisely why proposals were made during convention to make electoral candidates accountable to DSA’s national platform, to institute a referendum process accessible to all members, and to implement minimal criteria for endorsement of national candidates. All of these proposals were rejected by significant margins by convention delegates. The net effect is that when situations come up where a member holding political office violates core political positions of the national organization, it is up to rank and file members and chapters to call on the NPC to exercise its political authority, regardless of the position of a local chapter. Additionally, Jamaal Bowman’s actions as a national figure reflect on the entire organization, not just the chapter that originally endorsed him.

What does the argument for refusing to exercise political discipline on electeds actually accomplish? For starters, it dodges addressing the fundamental political issue at hand. By hiding behind procedural concerns, members can avoid having to argue on political grounds whether to hold an endorsed politician accountable for approving the funding of Israeli apartheid and military subjugation of Palestinians. Inaction in the face of this kind of betrayal is a tacit acknowledgement that no principle is so important that it can’t be set aside under the right circumstances. To riff off of a Marxist concept, there exists a fetishization of procedure, hiding the underlying political problems that give rise to procedural arguments.

It is perfectly within the spirit of democratic practice for members of a democratic organization to voice their collective dissent against the actions of other bodies and members in positions of power. Contrary to the argument that this is just a judicial matter, it is within everyone’s right to pressure the NPC to take specific action, especially when the action is more than justified in light of the actual context. What legitimizes the NPC, or any rules, bylaws, and structures is the consent of the people who operate by those bounds. This is precisely why the Supreme Court changes its positions based on public pressure—for it to have any legitimacy, people have to agree that it does, a fact the Women’s Movement of the 1970s understood and exercised to great success by winning the right to legal abortion. Institutions and structures should serve the people that operate within them, not the other way around.

A final consequence of failing to hold DSA’s electeds accountable is that it renders the national platform effectively toothless, and any talk of accountability is devoid of any real social weight. In turn, this compromises credibility with our Palestinian comrades inside and outside of the organization, given the very obvious disconnect between supporting BDS and doing nothing to get members holding political office to commit to that support.

Political Principles, Organizing, and Pragmatism

With the flaws of procedural arguments out of the way, we can move on to the more substantive political arguments. These arguments revolved around organizing concerns and the realities of the working class, and the contradictory ideas people have. On the former, opponents argued that a resolution to expel Bowman does nothing to actually advance Palestinian solidarity work on the ground. It takes years of hard work, difficult conversations, sustained campaigning, protests, and so on to shift public opinion on such issues, so, in their view, expelling Bowman ultimately contributes nothing to that work. The latter argument was based on the supposition that the working class has mixed consciousness, and that we have to patiently meet workers where they are at. That means getting politicians into office who can create the space for shifting the national conversation to the left, even if it means that those politicians may have problematic stances here and there. A corollary to that argument, and one that came up multiple times in the debate, was that the resolution for expulsion was motivated by a desire to preserve ideological purity. I’ll address both sets of points in their respective orders.

When it comes to the day-in and day-out of regular organizing work, it is true that there is no substitute for shifting political consciousness through hard conversations, sustained campaigns, etc. I would argue, further, that it is struggle that builds the very foundations of trust—of solidarity—and trains people through experience to see who their comrades are, shaping their political worldview in the process. The struggles of the BDS movement have paved the ground for shifting broader consciousness on the question of Palestinian self-determination, and in the process, have transformed hundreds of thousands of activists in their political consciousness and convictions. The earlier groundwork of Palestine solidarity activists is part of why there is greater support for Palestine today. More importantly, it was their refusal to budge from their position in the face of Zionist opposition that has changed the terrain we find ourselves on, not the moderate positions advocated by politicians to the right of the issue. I am sympathetic with comrades who have been actively engaged in those struggles. However, counterposing expulsion to sustained ground work distracts from the heart of the argument. No one was arguing that we should not continue actually doing any of the organizing work it has taken to advance the BDS movement beyond a fringe position.

May 2021 protest against Israel’s bombings of Gaza. Credit: Haley Pessin.

At the heart of the argument is the statement our actions send to our comrades in the movement. What does it say to our Palestinian comrades locally, nationally, and globally that we failed to hold one of our own members, a sitting member of the U.S. Congress, accountable to our clearly stated positions on Palestine? Why would anyone in the BDS movement take DSA seriously with such an obvious contradiction? By failing to take action consistent with our stated positions on Palestine, we drive away the very people we aim to work with. In turn, failing to hold Jamaal Bowman accountable drives a wedge into our movement rather than building solidarity. So I argue in turn: how does that advance the movement on the ground?

I also ask comrades to consider the people who are best positioned to lead our work inside the organization: the BDS and Palestine Solidarity Working Group. The working group issued demands and set an ultimatum that Bowman’s failure to agree to them should result in his expulsion. So does the opposition think that our comrades most invested in the work are incorrect? Are they wrong to stand up for their own principles in the face of Bowman’s betrayal? Considering the conversation surrounding multiracial organizing that happened right before the debate; it is highly ironic that comrades in the chapter would argue, in their very next breath, to disregard the position of Palestinians and their collaborators in the working group. Contrary to popular belief, there really is no mystery to multiracial organizing. It starts with having a commitment to political principles that uphold and amplify the struggles of oppressed peoples the world over. With those principles established, you then demonstrate them in practice, centering the demands and voices of the very people we want to build solidarity with. Failing to do so undermines our ability to unite the working class – a multiracial, multi-ethnic, multi-gendered, multifaceted and international working class.

That last point also gets to the notion that the calls to expel Bowman are about preserving ideological purity, and that we need to meet workers where they are at. Such a position begs the following questions: which workers are we trying to meet by disregarding our own political principles? Do Palestinians not count? Do we ignore the issues that affect minorities, despite knowing the strategic importance to the ruling class of oppressing said minorities for advancing imperialist projects? Do we believe the mainstream media pundits, and even some of our own comrades, who promote the false notion that we should ignore issues they claim aren’t of interest to all workers based on a narrow definition of who constitutes the working class? Such positions are antithetical to socialism, to building solidarity with the working class in its entirety. It is opportunist, class-reductionist, and, frankly, obtuse in light of the subject matter. As many other comrades eloquently argued during the debate, this is not a question of maintaining political purity. It is about truly understanding what it takes to unite the working class, no matter how unpopular some political positions might be. Socialists should be tribunes of the oppressed, not apologists for a man who actively voted for sending $4 billion dollars towards Israeli apartheid. This is a massive material contribution to imperialism and genocide, levied on the backs of the entire working class.

Furthermore, I urge members to consider what price they are willing to pay in order to advance their electoral aims. When it comes to the systematic murder of Palestinians, of genocide, where do you draw the line? Is it a matter of purity to turn a blind eye to the actions of a member in a position of power merely because the vote concerns Brown people being murdered outside of our borders? It should be obvious that this is not a negotiable political principle for committed leftists. At the end of the day, this is not about Jamaal Bowman. If we had an elected who was progressive on many questions but failed to take the cause of Black liberation, defunding the police, and ending the carceral state seriously, would we turn a blind eye there, too? What about politicians who are progressive, but have credible rape allegations levied against them?

We have seen time and again what happens when socialists, social movements, and even the labor movement fail to stand up for basic political principles. From the betrayal of the German SPD (Social Democratic Party) under the Second International in supporting imperialist war, to the failures of the U.S. labor movement in overcoming racism and organizing the South, to the ongoing silence from many progressive movements towards the plight of refugees and immigrants at the U.S. border and globally, history is littered with examples where sectional interests were prioritized over the struggles of oppressed groups, leaving these movements open to divisions that render them weak. The utter political bankruptcy that informs this conception of politics, including the electoral versions of it, is a dead end for socialism. We either move forward by unequivocally standing firm in our support of oppressed groups and nations, or the movement dooms itself to irrelevance to the burgeoning radical consciousness taking shape in the U.S. and across the globe.

Featured image credit: Modified by Tempest.

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Leandro Herrera View All

Leandro Herrera is an antifascist and abolitionist activist based in the Northeast U.S.