The DSA is at a crossroads over Palestine

Hanna Phifer & Omar Zahzah

The Nation  /  July 28, 2023

The group has been riven by conflict over its stated commitment to the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions movement—and things are coming to a head at its national convention.

Next week, members of the Democratic Socialists of America are gathering in Chicago for their biennial national convention. There, they will vote on a pair of resolutions that will test both the organization’s internal cohesion and the boundaries of its stated commitment to Palestinian liberation.

One resolution calls for the DSA to become an “Anti-Zionist Organization in Principle and Praxis.” Another asks the DSA to “Overturn the NPC Decision to Suspend the Steering Committee of the BDS and Palestine Solidarity WG.”

Both resolutions allude to what has been a bitter and tumultuous 18 months within the DSA around the issue of Palestine—one that began with repeated conflicts over the behaviour of DSA-aligned politicians and culminated in the controversial decision of the DSA’s National Political Committee (NPC) to forcibly dissolve the DSA Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions (BDS) and Palestine Solidarity Working Group in March 2022. (That decision was soon reversed, but members of the BDS Working Group were still barred from national leadership.)

Multiple members of the BDS group told us that they are trying to transform an institution that they see as undemocratic, too focused on electoral politics at the expense of core principles, and perpetuating anti-Palestinian racism.

The decision to dissolve the BDS Working Group came after months of heated debate over whether US Representative and DSA member Jamaal Bowman should have been expelled from the organization after he voted to fund Israel’s Iron Dome and took a trip to Israel with the liberal Zionist organization J Street—two decisions that stood directly counter to the DSA’s platform.

In a November 2021 statement, the Working Group, along with several local DSA chapters, condemned Bowman’s conduct and called for the DSA to expel him if he would not commit to upholding DSA principles, including BDS. Members of the Working Group, along with representatives from the NPC and Bowman’s local chapter, then met with Bowman. The Working Group asked Bowman to break ties with J Street and the broader Israel lobby and to commit to voting against future aid to Israel. After Bowman refused, the Working Group issued a second statement, calling for the NPC to “formally begin the process of expelling [him] from the DSA.”

In a statement posted in December 2021, the DSA’s national leadership said that, though it “strongly condemn[ed]” Bowman’s actions, it would not be expelling him, in part because it would be “handing the perfect tool to the establishment to stoke divisions within the Palestine solidarity movement” and vowing not to endorse him again “unless he is able to demonstrate solidarity with Palestine in alignment with expectations we have set.” (Bowman did not seek a DSA endorsement during his 2022 campaign, though he remains a member.)

For many DSA members, though, Bowman’s actions crossed too many red lines. This resulted in a months-long campaign that reportedly saw over 50 chapters calling for Bowman’s expulsion as he continued to publicly voice his support for military aid to Israel. As the conflict became increasingly public, the NPC’s response to this was to revoke the Working Group’s social media access and demand that they delete a Twitter thread criticizing Bowman.

Things finally came to a head on March 18, 2022, when the NPC voted 9-8 to dissolve the Working Group. In a statement, the NPC charged the group with “repeated smears, bullying, accusations, and misrepresentations of events.” The de-chartering was reversed a few days later following a pressure campaign that saw over a thousand DSA members and over a dozen chapters sign a petition in support of the Working Group, as well as an e-mail campaign hosted by the US Campaign for Palestinian Rights telling the NPC to re-charter the Working Group. (A petition in support of the decision was also circulated.) However, the ban on BDS Working Group Steering Committee members taking leadership in other national DSA bodies was not rescinded.

Members of the Working Group we spoke with say that there’s been a dearth of communication from NPC about its decision-making process over the last year. “They haven’t been able to justify their actions to us or to membership,” one member, who asked to be referred to as “MJ,” said. “And they have not held a public forum at any point for any of this.”

Some members of the NPC have expressed similar disquiet about how events unfolded. NPC member Jennifer Bolen, who voted against the expulsion, told The Nation that the decision to de-charter the BDS group felt rushed through with no opportunity for input. “The options as to what consequences the working group should face were presented in a list forum and thrown up on an online voting platform,” Bolen said. “No room for amendments. No room for discussion. No room for debate. No room for what was even feasible and what wasn’t feasible. It was just pushed through, and I think it was a 24-hour vote.”

(The NPC did not respond to repeated requests for comment from members who voted for the BDS group to be de-chartered. Part of a tweet thread from NPC member Gustavo Gordillo written just after the vote sums up the overall thinking, though: “Facile thinking about power—demanding easy answers to difficult moral and political questions—is bad for the left. The BDS working group’s leaders did not want to confront what we should do with limited power, and were offended by being asked to reckon with it.”)

The decision to disband the BDS Working Group was, predictably, met with an immediate backlash from Palestinian organizations that had collaborated with the DSA — including the Palestinian Youth Movement, Good Shepherd Collective, and Falastiniyat Seattle — as well as observers like Palestinian American novelist Susan Abulhawa, who publicly criticized the DSA’s decision not to expel Bowman in 2021.

Hanna Phifer is a journalist and culture writer

Omar Zahzah is a writer, organizer, and Assistant Professor of Arab, Muslim, Ethnicities and Diaspora (AMED) Studies at San Francisco State University