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You are here: Platypus /Sins of the fathers? DSA and anti-Zionism

Sins of the fathers? DSA and anti-Zionism

Tom Canel

Platypus Review 146 | May 2022

THE GOAL OF THIS ARTICLE is to examine the evolution of one sector of the American Left (the Democratic Socialists of America (DSA)) regarding issues of (anti-)Zionism. I seek to show how different the standard response of my own generation of DSAers (incorporating those coming of age in the late 1970s and 80s) was on the issue of (anti-)Zionism from that of the contemporary DSA. I try to delineate in what ways DSA’s internal “Overton Window” regarding Zionism has shifted, not to argue for or against any particular orientation. (If the reader feels that it would be useful nevertheless to know my personal perspective, they can assume that I am very much a creature of my own generation.)

The DSA is a convenient focus for me, because the organization (and its predecessor group the Democratic Socialist Organizing Committee (DSOC)) are the site of my experience as a young activist in what Platypus has labelled the ‘post-political’ Left. (In Platypus’s periodization of the history of the American Left, the post-political Left is sandwiched between the New Left and the Millennial Left.) I will rely on memories of my own involvement in these organizations’ Youth Sections from 1979 to about 1986. Recent debates within DSA, especially those on whether to expel congressional representative Jamaal Bowman from the organization as punishment for his recent undercutting of the Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions (BDS) movement, provide the data for analyzing the perspectives dominant in today’s DSA. There has been a change, I argue, with respect to whether liberal/Left Zionists have a place within the democratic socialist movement (or the Left at all). I want to raise the question of how this evolution impacted the way that avowed democratic socialists understand their own Leftism and to what extent Leftism and liberalism are seen as incompatible by avowed democratic socialists.

DSA itself formed out of a merger in 1982 between DSOC and the New America Movement (NAM). The question of the Israeli/Palestinian conflict was salient in the merger negotiations. Many in the former organization shared sympathies for liberal Left Zionism with prominent DSOC figures such as Michael Harrington and Irving Howe. Consisting largely of small-“d” democratic elements of the New Left and older non-Stalinist defectors from the Communist Party, NAM saw itself as being more sympathetic to the Palestinian cause. An integral part of the merger agreement was that the newly formed DSA supported both the right of Israel to exist as a state and the right of Palestinians to national self-determination, not specifying whether Palestinian statehood was implied by this self-determination.[1]

In response to a speech by Israeli Foreign Minister Moshe Arens at the Harvard Institute of Politics following the Sabra and Chatila Massacre of Palestinians in 1982, we in the DSA chapter on campus, organized a rally under the slogan “Israel Yes, Begin No.”[2] The massacre, while not directly conducted by Israeli forces, was consciously enabled by them. In our publicity for the rally, we took the position that the Israeli state and the Palestinian Liberation Organization (PLO) should enact mutual and simultaneous recognition as legitimate representatives of their respective peoples. We hoped that this would be a precursor to negotiations of a just peace that recognized the rights of both peoples to national self-determination and equality. We believed this would probably have to take the form of a two-state solution. While this went beyond the letter of the national DSA position at the time, it was consistent with the spirit of the new organization. Within a few years the letter of the national DSA policy caught up with this spirit. We emphasized that our criticism of Israeli abuse was consistent with a recognition of Israel’s right to exist. Joe Schwartz, one of my key mentors over the years, as well as the individual who arguably did most to keep DSA afloat during lean years, and I co-signed, on behalf of a fictional student peace organization, a letter to the Harvard Crimson that stressed respect for Left liberal Zionist sensibilities.[3] We invoked a fictional front group partly because we were going beyond the letter of DSA policy nationally by supporting a two-state solution, but also because we didn’t want to alienate non-socialist liberals with sympathies for Israel’s existence but antipathy for the oppression of Palestinians from the demonstration. Within DSA today, it is widely believed that Israel’s very existence implies the oppression of Palestinians. Supporting mutual recognition is viewed by many, if not all, DSAers as being insidious apologetics for apartheid.

In contrast to what would be the experience on campuses today, our position was considered edgily critical of Israel. The left liberal consensus on campus was loath to make any criticism of Israel’s policies or practices, fearing that any such criticism was antisemitic. Our small but gallant demonstration was met with two opposing counter-demonstrations: one by hardline Zionists who claimed that the Sabra/Chatila incidents should be interpreted as no more than “Arabs killing Arabs again,” and one by the Spartacist League. Chanting “Neither Scheiderman nor Noske, but Marx, Lenin, and Trotsky!,” the “Sparts” were protesting more against DSA than against Israeli policy. (We naturally resented their taunts; however, if the chant had been “Neither Bernstein nor Kautsky etc.,” we would have regarded it as a fair cop.)

As the 1980s wore on, I moved from being an activist in my DSA campus chapter, to being on the Executive Committee of DSA’s national Youth Section. Criticism of Israel within DSA did become more common and sharp during this period, but it remained important to many, if not all, DSAers to express such criticism in the context of a clear and explicit recognition of Israel’s right to exist. That is clearly not the case for DSA today. Why the difference? I believe we can identify at least three reasons.

Firstly, the historical associations made regarding the formation of Israel have changed as succeeding generations have taken the stage. Many of our parents had grown up during World War II. As a result, we had been brought up to be conscious of the formation of the Israeli state in the context of the Holocaust’s aftermath. Many of us saw post-WWII Zionism as, in part at least, a defensive response of the Jewish people to their attempted genocide by the Nazis. For better or worse, this led us to conceive of Israel as being more than a colonial-settler state. As new generations populated the Left, historical consciousness became less dominated by the historical memories of the aftermath of WWII, and consciousness of the historic trauma associated with Israel’s founding receded, the settler-colonial aspects of Zionism became more prominent in Leftists’ consciousness. This undercut commitment to Israel’s right to exist.

Secondly, our own liberalism (in the form of a not necessarily acknowledged Wilsonianism) shaped our orientation as well. This drove us to affirm the rights of both Israeli Jews and Palestinians to national self-determination. Wilsonian liberals see the right of national self-determination as pertaining to all nations, not just the oppressed ones; so even if we saw the Israeli state as being currently oppressive, the historical persecution of Jews notwithstanding, we recognized the rights of both Jews and Palestinians in the region to national self-determination. For us, even though Israel had no right to oppress another nation, it did have the right to exist; many DSAers today believe that Israel simply could not exist without oppressing Palestinians. In today’s DSA, Zionism is seen as the nationalism of an oppressor nation, in contrast to Palestinian nationalism which is considered a rallying cry of the oppressed. For most on the Left today, recognizing the rights of oppressor nations to self-determination only perpetuates national oppression. Seen through that lens, Israeli Jews in the region should not have the same rights to national self-determination as Palestinians do.

We argued that territorial conflicts between the two peoples should be resolved through negotiations. It is important to contrast our position regarding the Israeli-Palestinian conflict with that of most revolutionary Marxists at the time. Operating on a distinction between the rights of oppressed and oppressor nations, revolutionary Marxists mostly followed the PLO Charter at the time in advocating the complete replacement of Israel as a state by a Democratic Secular Palestine. Politically, we considered ourselves to be straddling the line between the hard Left and Left liberalism. We sought to blur that division by being the “Left Wing of the Possible.” A negotiated settlement guaranteeing both Israel’s right to exist and Palestinian self-determination seemed to us the most Left-wing, as well as the most ideologically congenial, of the possible outcomes. Contemporary DSAers, in contrast, seem committed to sharpen, not blur, the dividing line between Left-liberalism and Leftism proper. They take pride in breaking with liberal sensibilities regarding Zionism.

Thirdly, the Israeli state itself has, more and more, disavowed the ostensible progressive aspirations of Labor Zionism. Labor Zionism drove the foundation of Israel, and the vanguard of land settlement was in the beginning years constituted by the socialist collectives of kibbutzim. The Israeli Labor Party, which was considered for many decades as the default party of government in Israel, was a member, along with DSOC and then (until recently) DSA, of the Socialist International. Labor, as well as Left and liberal Zionism in general, has been marginalized within Israel’s politics. Zionist settlement has completely abandoned the ostensible socialist thrust of the early Kibbutzim. As the Zionist project became avowedly less motivated by the progressivism of the founders of Israel, young progressives have, more and more, began to regard Israel as nothing more than a settler-colonial state that has no right to exist.[4]

The current resurgence of the DSA partly originated as an effect of Bernie Sanders’s 2016 Presidential campaign. The 2017 DSA National Convention was the first occasion for the newly reconstituted organization to define a revamped political identity. At this convention, DSA passed, for the first time, a resolution in support of full BDS of Israel.[5] How much sensibilities within DSA had changed regarding Zionism was shown by supporters of BDS at the convention chanting “From the River to the Sea, Palestinians must be free!” — a chant taken to be calling for the complete elimination of the state of Israel. Following the endorsement of BDS, its advocates within DSA have worked hard to make commitment to it one of DSA’s core policy planks. The recent debate within DSA over disciplining representative Jamaal Bowman over what is seen as his repeated undermining of DSA’s BDS support demonstrates the extent to which BDS activists within DSA have, and have not, succeeded in this.

After defeating conservative Democrat incumbent and outspoken defender of Israel, Eliot Engel, in the 2020 Democratic primary, Jamaal Bowman went on to win election to Congress in New York’s 16th District. Bowman was, and remains, for the moment at least, a member of DSA and was endorsed by DSA nationally. In his campaign, Bowman promised to criticize Israeli policy in a way that Engel never would. While Bowman did indeed make stringent criticisms of Israeli policy, he made them in a manner that, although it would have been congenial to many of my generational cohorts in DSA, is anathema to the current generation. Although a member of a socialist organization, African American and not Jewish, Bowman allied himself with the liberal, predominantly Jewish, organization J Street (which supports Israel’s right to exist while opposing current Israeli policies) and made stringent criticisms of Israeli occupation, while making it clear that he opposed BDS. In an act that BDS supporters found beyond the pale, he participated in a J Street sponsored delegation to Israel where he was both photographed with Palestinian children, tweeting a photo with the line “The Occupation must end,’’ and participated in a photo-op of the delegation meeting the — far from conciliatory to Palestinians — Israeli prime minister Naftali Bennett. BDS activists predictably found the latter act and participation in a J-Street-organized trip outrageous.[6] Significantly, the outrage was not mitigated by his anti-occupation tweet, but was instead compounded by Bowman’s congressional vote to fund Israel’s Iron Dome defense system at around the same time. The Iron Dome system’s ostensible purpose was to enable Israeli self-defense against Hamas rockets aimed (mostly unsuccessfully) at civilians. This vote was inevitably fraught for any congressperson opposing Israel’s abuse of Palestinians while accepting the right of Israel to defend its civilians against attack: even if the Iron Dome was solely used to defend Israeli civilians, the US funding of it nevertheless freed up funds that the Israeli authorities could use to fund actions against Palestinians. Bowman’s fellow congressperson and DSA member from New York, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, attempted, not entirely successfully, to sidestep the issue by voting “present,” essentially abstaining, on Iron Dome funding.

Following his, what were considered by them, acts of betrayal of DSA’s pro-BDS position, the national DSA BDS Working Group (BDSWG) (whose status had been recognized by a convention vote) and several DSA locals nationally called for Bowman, a dues-paying member, to be expelled from DSA. Given that DSA in my day would have been eager, as Bowman was, to work with the likes of J Street, it is significant that his engagement with the latter causes as much consternation in today’s DSA as his vote on the Iron Dome. In DSA today, J Street and its ilk are seen by many at least as liberal apologists for an apartheid regime. In my day, J Street would generally have been seen as a natural ally of DSA in campaigning for Palestinian rights, not an integral part of the enemy camp.

While the expulsion of Democratic Party elected officials from the organization is conceivable in today’s DSA in a way that it was not during the heyday of my generation — we were much less likely to expel anyone at all, and more deferential to progressive elected officials — it would nevertheless still, many DSAers feel, be strategically problematic.[7] The consensus within the organization seems to be that, at some point, although how imminent that point may be is subject to much debate, DSA should be part of an effort to create a political force (a workers’ party) independent of and to the Left of the Democratic Party.[8] Such an effort will only succeed, many argue, if it is supported by the progressive social movements that currently operate within the Democratic Party. DSA members, especially those of color, who are also Democratic elected officials are seen as key to connecting DSA with those social movements, whose collaboration many in DSA assiduously seek. There is currently a sense among DSAers, both supporting and opposing the expulsion of Bowman, a sense which would have been rare in DSAers of my generation, that endorsed elected officials are in DSA’s debt, and that DSA has a right to take action against them for not following DSA policy. Constituting a far smaller group than contemporary DSA, we were less inclined to see prominent politicians, especially DSA members, as being in our debt. As one would expect, it became a priority for the more militant supporters of BDS to confirm the centrality of principled anti-Zionism to DSA by showing, through his expulsion from the organization, that the combination of Bowman’s vote on the Iron Dome, being photographed with Bennett, and engagement with J Street constituted a bridge too far. Inevitably, since it raised all kinds of strategic issues as well as those of political identity, the demand to expel Bowman from DSA generated intense debate.

In the end, DSA’s governing National Political Committee voted not to expel Bowman but state their disapproval of Bowman’s vote on the Iron Dome, the photo-op, and of his engagement with J Street.[9] They committed to engage with him to correct his many derelictions with respect to BDS and Zionism. A clear implication was that DSA would now not re-endorse Bowman if important progress in DSA’s direction on these issues was not made. (For people of my generation, it is indicative of DSA’s growing heft as an organization, that Bowman went along with this, rather than telling DSA to “take a hike”.) For the purposes of this essay, the take-away should be that even those in DSA who opposed expelling Bowman tend to deny the compatibility of support for the Palestinian right to equality and national self-determination and Israel’s right to exist. This generational shift within the organization is reproduced beyond DSA. For example, during the 1980s, the ostensible avatar of the non-sectarian Jewish Left New Jewish Agenda (NJA) affirmed both the Palestinians’ right to self-determination and Israel’s right to exist; their contemporary counterpart, Jewish Voices for Peace (JVP), in contrast, takes a hard anti-Zionist line. While NJA commonly featured images of both Palestinian and Israeli flags in their literature, JVP has supported the banning from gay-rights demonstrations of rainbow flags, if they have the Star of David superimposed.[10]

The debate around whether to expel Bowman has sharpened and intensified since earlier drafts of this article were submitted. In March 2022, DSA’s NPC went so far as to decharter the BDSWG and bar its leadership from leadership positions within the general organization for a couple years.[11] Due, one assumes, to a strong reaction, the NPC quickly rechartered the BDSWG, although it deadlocked on, and thus failed to reverse, the disciplining of its leadership. It is important to note that this action was justified on the basis of specific alleged organizational infractions of the BDSWG and not specific political positions it took regarding endorsing Bowman or other questions; the litigation of the specifics of the de-chartering is thus not germane to this article. If the article focused on questions of socialist organization, however, the issue of whether DSA’s working groups should be more or less accountable to the whole organization than individual members, who have been elected to office, would be more on point.

If one examines the rhetoric of the expulsion-of-Bowman advocates, two themes stand out.[12] Firstly, that disinclination to discipline Bowman is alleged to reflect a subordination of anti-imperialist principles to the pragmatics of enabling domestic reform, and a failure to recognize that members of a socialist organization elected to office should be especially subject to that organization’s discipline. Nominal acceptance of unmitigated anti-Zionism is assumed (although, as debates become more bitter, the sincerity of people’s anti-Zionism may be questioned more). Increasingly, the question is posed of whether DSA should foster a broader progressive coalition or aspire to enable a revolutionary vanguard party. The latter would constitute a rejection of Left liberalism that DSAers of my generation would never have countenanced.

How does this shift with respect to anti-Zionism affect DSA’s pursuit of its avowed goal, democratic socialism? Looking at the Palestinian movement from Fatah to Hamas, many of my generation would argue that there is, currently at least, nothing necessarily anti-capitalist or socialist, in the struggle against Zionism, however morally essential it may be. Our evidence would include the fact that Palestinian Marxist and Leftist factions such as the Palestinian Front for the Liberation of Palestine have been supplanted in the nationalist movement by Islamists in recent decades. There is no longer an assumption that Palestinian nationhood would usher in overcoming capitalism “between the river and the sea.” In the late 1970s and early 80s anti-imperialism, including anti-Zionism, tended to coincide with anti-capitalist orientations. For people on the Left, the dynamics of the Cold War made American imperialism synonymous with international capitalism. For Leninists, for whom imperialism was just the last stage of capitalism, anti-imperialism was anti-capitalism by definition. Anti-Zionism, again however justified it may or may not be, does not today, I claim, have the innately anti-capitalist, therefore proto-socialist, thrust that anti-imperialism did for my generation. DSAers today want to stress that they are not just social democrats trying to alleviate the excesses of capitalism, but genuine socialists enabling the establishment of an entirely alternative political and economic system, socialism. Given this commitment and the arguable reality that anti-Zionism is not necessarily immanently socialist, it is noticeable (leaving aside the merits of the case) that members of today’s DSA, have nevertheless reached a consensus that undiluted anti-Zionism should be prerequisite to being part of the Left. One can argue that this reflects a responsibility of the Left to take up issues beyond socialism per se — socialists from Jaures to Lenin have stressed that responsibility. Another perspective: in this respect at least, the current generation is (likely unconsciously) repeating my generation’s blurring of commitment to socialism as the definitive dividing line that marks the genuine Left off from the fake Left. |P


[1] Eric London, “Jamaal Bowman, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and the DSA’s long record of military support for Israel,” World Socialist Web Site, December 8, 2021, available online at <https://www.wsws.org/en/articles/2021/12/09/dsai-d09.html>.

[2] Menachim Begin was Prime Minister of Israel at the time.

[3] “Oppose Begin, Not Israel,” The Harvard Crimson, October 19, 1982, available online at <https://www.thecrimson.com/article/1982/10/19/oppose-begin-not-israel-pbto-the/>.

[4] David Duhalde, in private communication.

[5] See “DSA BDS Resolution,” Labor for Palestine, August 6, 2017, available online at <https://laborforpalestine.net/2017/08/06/dsa-bds-resolution/>.

[6] DSA BDS and Palestine Solidarity Working Group, “DSA BDS and Palestine Solidarity Working Group Formally Calls for The Expulsion of Rep. Jamaal Bowman” (November 29, 2021), available online at <https://medium.com/@dsapalestinesolidarity/dsa-bds-working-group-formally-calls-for-the-expulsion-of-rep-jamaal-bowman-fa92eba6854a>.

[7] See the circulating Google Doc, “For Unity, not Unanimity: Palestine, Jamaal Bowman, and DSA.”

[8] Cf. the proposed resolutions for the 2021 DSA convention, available online at <https://convention2021.dsausa.org/2021-dsa-convention-resolutions/>.

[9] DSA National Political Committee, “On the Question of Expelling Congressman Bowman” (December 2, 2021), available online at <https://www.dsausa.org/statements/on-the-question-of-expelling-rep-bowman/>.

[10] See “The Chicago Dyke March, and Questions of Anti-Zionism, Anti-Semitism, and Pinkwashing,” Portside, July 6, 2017, available online at <https://portside.org/2017-07-06/chicago-dyke-march-and-questions-anti-zionism-anti-semitism-and-pinkwashing>.

[11] See Andy Sernatinger, “To rule an empty palace: The BDS dispute in DSA,” Tempest, April 3, 2022, available online at <https://www.tempestmag.org/2022/04/to-rule-an-empty-palace/>.

[12] Cf. Jean Allen and Marisa Miale, “Socialism of the Oppressed: The Stakes of the Bowman Affair,” Cosmonaut, April 9, 2022, available online at <https://cosmonautmag.com/2022/04/socialism-of-the-oppressed-the-stakes-of-the-bowman-affair/>.