Fateful moments arise in the lives of all political organizations. As with individuals, so too with organizations: critical choices can set a trajectory that defines a life-history.
So it is with the Democratic Socialists of America (DSA) in the United States at the moment. It is perhaps not surprising that the issue is Palestine—the defining question of global justice today. After all, questions of imperialism have often marked turning points on the international left. And today DSA risks violating its anti-imperialist responsibilities by betraying the worldwide movement for Palestine liberation.
The sorry episode in question can be boiled down to the following essential facts. In July of this year, Jamaal Bowman, a DSA member elected to the House of Representatives from New York, voted in favor of $3.3 billion in direct aid to the apartheid state of Israel. Five weeks later, he voted for another $1 billion for Israel, this time for its “Iron Dome” military project. Most recently, in November, Bowman defied the global solidarity boycott on travel to Israel and joined a delegation that met with both the Israeli Foreign Minister and Prime Minister Naftali Bennett. The latter, who succeeded Benjamin Netanyahu earlier this year, is the most extreme right-wing leader in the country’s history, having bragged about personally killing Arabs and continuing to advocate unilateral annexation of the Occupied Territories.
That this visit came in the aftermath of Israel’s most recent murderous attacks on Gaza makes it doubly offensive. All of this, as the National Committee for Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions (BDS) put it, makes Bowman “complicit in whitewashing Israel’s regime of military occupation, settler colonialism, and apartheid.”
Palestine as Litmus Test
Palestine is the litmus test for anti-imperialism in the world today, particularly for socialists in the United States. Unlike previous generations, today’s young radicals have no illusions in the “socialist” character of Israel nor do they buy into the dubious claim that it provides a haven against anti-Semitism. DSA officially adopted support for BDS at its 2017 national convention. This is both a clean break from the organization’s previous collaboration with the Zionist regime, and a clear sign that this new generation of organizers understands the imperialist, racist, and settler colonial character of the Israeli state.
The Israeli occupation of Palestine is the centerpiece of US strategy for dominating the oil-rich Middle East. That’s why the US government arms and finances Israel to a greater degree than any other state on the planet. Israel’s settler colonial occupation of Palestine is the pivot of American empire. Commitment to the liberation of Palestine is thus an obligation of all anti-imperialist politics today.
The great South African anti-apartheid campaigner Archbishop Desmond Tutu once observed, “If you are neutral in situations of injustice, you have chosen the side of the oppressor.” For Jamaal Bowman or any other DSA elected official to have remained neutral on Palestinian liberation would be bad enough. But Bowman has consistently chosen the side of the oppressor. He has aligned himself with US empire, Israeli apartheid, and their war machine against the people of Palestine.
To align with the oppressor is to break in any meaningful sense with the socialist project. That is why, rightly in our opinion, dozens of DSA chapters and youth groups have condemned Bowman and called for the revocation of his DSA membership. In so doing, these DSA groups have honored similar calls from major Palestine solidarity organizations.
Of course, the left has seen capitulation to imperialism before. In the face of the outbreak of World War I, social democratic parties across Europe violated their professed policies by backing their own governments’ imperial war designs. Thankfully, a left internationalist current—represented by the likes of Rosa Luxemburg in Germany and the Bolsheviks in Russia—held to an uncompromising anti-war position. In so doing, they preserved the dignity of international socialism.
Logics of Electoralism
As Spectre’s editors have argued on many occasions, the dilemma that confronts DSA at the moment grows out of the logic of electoralism. (See, for example, the link at the end of this article.)