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Palestine, Bowman, and the DSA

The meaning of democratic, socialist

Following the long-awaited meeting between Representative Jamaal Bowman and the DSA—which sought to call Bowman to account for his material support for the Israeli military and violations of BDS— brian bean argues for continuing to demand both the expulsion of Bowman and a renewed principled commitment to BDS from DSA and the entire U.S. Left.

The Palestinian movement has unequivocally called for the boycott, divestment, and sanctioning (BDS) of Israeli settler colonialism and the companies that collude and profit from this project. Supporting this call is a primary task for those internationally who would stand in solidarity with Palestine and the Palestinians who suffer the apartheid, ethnic cleansing, and war crimes of the Zionist state.

It was with this understanding that in 2017 the Democratic Socialists of America (DSA) made great steps in voting to support BDS. This was reaffirmed in 2019 and subsequently added to the DSA platform in the summer of 2021, expressing the group’s intention to do more active work campaigning to boycott, sanction, and divest from Israel.

Jamaal Bowman is a DSA member, elected to the United States House of Representatives out of New York. DSA endorsed his campaign and volunteered on his behalf with their “Socialist Slate” of electoral candidates. He is thus an ostensible representative of the organization in the halls of Congress.

On July 28, Representative Bowman voted for H.R. 4373 to invest $3.3 billion in direct military aid to Israel. Again on September 3rd, he voted on an appropriations bill to invest another $1 billion to fund and replenish Israels ‘Iron Dome’ military interceptor battery. Most recently, at the beginning of November he participated in a delegation to Israel that met with the Foreign Minister Yair Lapid and had a photo-op with far-right war criminal cum Israeli prime minister Naftali Bennet. That is a lot of support delivered to settler colonialism in just over three months time.

In total, the $4.3 billion overall of U.S. taxpayer dollars, directly invested this fiscal year to fund the racist crimes committed against Palestinians, is the largest amount that the U.S. has given to Israel in direct military aid in at least forty years.

For these reasons, Tempest agrees with the multitude of calls from various DSA chapters, individuals, and the DSA BDS & Palestine Solidarity Working Group, asking for the DSA National Political Committee to take strong action. Any kind of socialist organization that stands in solidarity with Palestine should not accept a member who has so flagrantly lent material support (votes) and political credibility to Israel—an entity whose project is the literal elimination of Palestinians. Expulsion is necessary.

A life or death issue

Expulsion is not a moral question. Some have argued that to revoke Bowman’s membership in a socialist organization is a “performative act” purely about the “messaging” around justice for Palestine. That might be the case if this is only about a political idea held by Bowman. But this is not about what Bowman thinks or says. Bowman has—on multiple occasions—voted to lend material support to the tune of a record amount of U.S. money for arms for Israel. This is not a mere squabble, part of some obscure ideological Left debate. This is about Bowman being directly complicit in the violent dispossession and ethnic cleansing of Palestinians. All done from the halls of power internationally where the question of Palestine is of central importance due to the unique U.S. role as the most powerful financial and political backer of the Zionist entity, and the concomitant, central role of Israel as the key ally of U.S. imperialism.

The call for expulsion is not about whether Bowman has made sympathetic statements about the occupation, or what level of soft-Zionist he may be. It is not about his words but about his deeds. His participation in the J Street delegation to Israel has been characterized by the BDS National Committee—the largest coalition of Palestinian civil society—as “complicit in whitewashing Israel’s regime of military occupation, settler colonialism, and apartheid.” The metaphor they used for these visits is crossing the picket line. The word in our tradition for someone who crosses the picket line is a scab. Socialists shouldn’t scab. We don’t scab, we don’t support scabs, and we don’t arm the enemy.

The DSA statement issued immediately after the Iron Dome vote blamed Bowman’s vote on the weakness of “working class power.” While certainly it is the power of movements that are the motor of social change, this argument is deployed to absolve Bowman of responsibility.

Bowman himself argued along these lines in his interview with the Intercept. He claims to have voted for record funding for Israel because he got more “vote yes” calls from constituents. But, according to Bowman, we need not worry because he is still going “to be strategic” in order to “fight to end the occupation.” What kind of strategy seeks to fight to end the occupation by funding it and being complicit with whitewashing it? This is not to deny the fact that Bowman has issued support for other pro-Palestine legislation like Betty McColoms HR 2590. But the fact is that on the main question—U.S. direct military funding and normalization—Bowman capitulated. This is not a product of five dimensional strategic brilliance, but a failure and a cause to shift course.

The concern of members of a national organization about one of their few members acting on the national stage in Congress is completely valid and well within the rules of DSA bylaws, as pointed out by a recent piece by Connor Wills. The arguments for “localism” have become a fashion in some DSA circles, but are essentially a way to dodge the political question.  U.S. support for the Zionist entity is not a local issue. We are not talking about the funding of a community center for the north Bronx or potholes in Yonkers, we are talking about the federal funding of the U.S. state being invested in the Zionist project of ethnic cleansing.

There are no grounds to claim Bowman made a difficult choice in a complicated situation. The vote for Iron Dome was simple: a single line item to buy arms for Israel. Other DSA representatives voted “no”, save for Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (AOC), who abstained.  Yet Bowman chose to sacrifice Palestinians in order to ingratiate himself to elements of the Democratic party apparatus and his constituency.

The long shadow of imperialism

Two key political questions are highlighted here:  the first is that of the party question;  and the second is that of a Left electoral strategy, both in relation to the weight of U.S. imperialism.

The inconsistency of a socialist organization standing in principle for the rights of Palestinians while one of its elected representatives acts in a way complicit with the oppression of Palestinians is a tension that has to be addressed. This tension is a product of the untenable alchemical approach to electoral politics. Rather than pursuing an electoral strategy of independence, DSA continues to operate within the Democratic party without a clear strategy other than the utopian incrementalism of slow accumulation of allied Democrats.

Thus, Bowman and others, from the federal to the local level, are not DSA candidates per se but politicians who are endorsed by DSA and also happen to be members. This creates a situation where some of DSA’s most visible representatives are not really “representing” DSA but rather representing the variety of local apparatuses (like the Justice Democrats in the example of AOC), and the maze of local constituencies. This means that rather than operating together to push for a socialist strategy and program, the approach is much less clear. Bowman’s yes vote on Iron Dome (and AOC’s abstention) is but one reflection. Rather than operating together to push for a socialist strategy and program, this approach appears to prioritize the symbolism of having self-described socialists in office over actually fighting for socialist politics.

Organizationally unable to maintain discipline on members who are not only most visible but most important for an electoral strategy, the position towards candidates is that DSA “pushes”, “pressures”, or “uses leverage”, to exert influence on them. This approach is indistinguishable from the general attitude that trade unions and NGOs often have towards politicians of varying political stripes where they seek to “push them left”to advocate a vote or stance. But unlike trade unions and NGOs, the candidates that DSA endorses are often “members” and thus reflect the profile of the organization. This sets up a situation where DSA can tail its elected members who are “non-representative” representatives of the organization, acting as the face and voice of an organization to which they are—in the end—unaccountable.

With this approach, with politicians who are not representatives of a party held to discipline, socialist electoral strategy is relegated to the same approach of a NGO or a trade union that attempts to maneuver for influence as opposed to firmly projecting and fighting around a clear and consistent socialist platform. At some point the labor movement, DSA, and other Left organizations need to talk about running their own candidates and holding them accountable to a democratically determined set of political demands. We need a political party that is internally democratic, membership-based, which fields its own candidates and can hold them accountable.

Second, and relatedly, this situation demonstrates the need to have a firmer approach to building a movement, and a linked electoral strategy, to resist U.S. imperialism. One of the chief projects of the U.S. ruling class under Joe Biden is a reassertion of the U.S. imperial order. It is a central priority for the U.S. capitalist class to “reassert U.S. hegemony of the world state system.” Support for Israel is—as it has been for decades—key to this process. Biden has praised and aims to continue the normalization process between Israel and the Arab states that was accelerated by Donald Trump and is essential to securing an economic and political order in the Middle East under the thumb of U.S. capital.

These issues are not secondary ones to the U.S. ruling class.  Building a movement against U.S. imperialism cannot be seen as secondary. Being able to contend in the streets is essential. Holding a firmer line against the breadth of U.S. imperialism is likewise essential. This needs to be pursued as seriously and stringently as domestic demands like health care and jobs, and understood as inseparable from those demands or from the fight for environmental justice. Split votes among socialist politicians and mixed messages undermines our ability to build a hardened political pole championing anti-imperialist politics and standing up to the entrenched bipartisan political support for the Israeli apartheid state.

Strengthen the movement

Insisting on Bowman’s adherence to DSA’s principled support for BDS and justice in Palestine, including the call for his expulsion, actually makes our movement stronger. It is one step to express that the platform around issues like this are not secondary issues. It clearly communicates support for BDS, and holds a line that is continually under bipartisan fire in U.S. politics. This is a practical expression that unity around this question is needed to resist and fight. Any political cracks or weakness from our side on these questions will be ruthlessly exploited by our ruling class enemies as the numerous split votes and abstentions this summer have shown. An expulsion of Bowman will not resolve the party question but politically raises the question in a practical way.

It seems unlikely that expulsion will be the result. Sources have confirmed that the DSA’s National Political Committee (NPC) met with Bowman on Friday. They put forward the need for him to recommit to the three demands of the DSA BDS and Palestine Solidarity Working Group including agreeing to never vote in the future for pro-Israel legislation. His conclusion was he would “think about it” and consult with his staff. If he is not expelled, will the NPC even expect Bowman to publicly commit to support BDS in the future and stop voting to arm Israel?

For the DSA participants, including the NPC, a public report back, open to questions, would be welcome.  But It is unlikely there will be a clear conclusion. Delay and obfuscation seems to be the path of action actively pursued by the right wing of DSA. This represents the failure of a socialist organization like DSA to raise a banner  as a firm and uncompromising defender of Palestinians and consistent opponent to U.S. imperialism. What is encouraging is the fight within the organization to hold the line, and scores of chapters demanding a different approach to standing in solidarity with Palestine.

It is unquestionably the case that Bowman’s egregious support for Israel would not have even been an issue had this initiative not pushed on the chapter level. Whatever happens, important political questions on electoral strategy, Palestine, and imperialism have been forced onto the stage despite the persistent tendency for political debates to be buried. Building a socialist movement clear on questions of Palestine and imperialism demands they be reconciled.

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brian bean View All

brian bean is a socialist organizer and writer based in Chicago, a member of the Tempest Collective, a part of the Rampant Magazine editorial collective, and an editor and contributor to the book Palestine: A Socialist Introduction from Haymarket Books.