How America’s Largest Socialist Organization Went from Supporting Israel to Boycotting It

The Jewish state is the new litmus test for the American left.

Democratic Socialists of America.

Democratic Socialists of America.

Observation
Dec. 30 2021
About the author
Ronald Radosh is a historian, a contributor to The Bulwark, American Purpose, and other publications, and the author of many books, including The Rosenberg File.

This fall, Jamaal Bowman, the Democratic congressman from New York’s 16th district, found himself threatened with expulsion by the Democratic Socialists of America (DSA), a hard-left outfit whose most prominent member is Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (popularly known as AOC). The reason? He had voted, along with most of his fellow Democrats, in favor of funding Israel’s Iron Dome system, which blows up incoming missiles aimed by Hamas at its population centers. There is a double irony here. First, the far-left Bowman had just last year unseated Eliot Engel, a sixteen-term incumbent who represented exactly the sort of mainstream (and pro-Israel) Democrat the DSA wishes to see replaced. Second, the DSA was founded by a group of people disgusted by the left’s turn against Israel, and was now getting ready to drive out a member for being insufficiently anti-Israel.

To understand how this situation developed, we must first turn to Bernie Sanders’s 2016 bid for the Democratic presidential nomination. Although he failed to win the primary, his campaign had a galvanizing effect on the left, inspiring scores of his acolytes to join the DSA, an organization most Americans had previously never heard of. While not a political party in the proper sense, the DSA endorses candidates and tries to put its members on Democratic tickets wherever it can. Thanks to Sanders, the group grew from about 25,000 in 2016 to about twice that in two years. After their 2021 convention, DSA leadership reported that it now had “94,914 comrades” enrolled in the organization. Most groups exaggerate their actual membership, but the real figure is probably not far from that. Numbers aside, it has become an influential force in American politics, and each election cycle brings more of its affiliates into Congress, state legislatures, and local governments.

Most famous, of course, is the radical group in the House of Representatives dubbed the squad, which includes, besides the aforementioned Ocasio-Cortez and Bowman, two additional DSA members: Rashida Tlaib and Cori Bush. A fifth congressman, Danny K. Davis of Chicago, belongs to the DSA as well. The group can also count among its ranks eight senior state officials, 32 members of state assemblies, and countless members of city councils and county commissions. As of this year, DSA members also control the Nevada Democratic party, something not attained by U.S. socialists since the New Deal era, when the American Communist Party controlled the Democratic apparatus in California, and when the Communist Party USA (CPUSA) had a few members in the House, who kept their affiliation hidden.

On the DSA’s domestic agenda are, naturally, such items as universal free health care, racial equality, unionization campaigns like the organization of Amazon workers, and fighting income inequality. As one might also expect, its foreign-policy positions are dovish, and include conciliatory approaches to such socialist countries as Cuba, Venezuela, and even China. But the DSA has only one hard and fast principle when it comes to the world beyond America’s shores: opposition to Israel and support for the movement to boycott, divest from, and sanction it (BDS). That this is so should surprise no one, given recent trends in American attitudes toward the Jewish state. But it would have greatly surprised the group’s founders, for whom support for Israel was as key to their worldview as antipathy to Israel is to that of their heirs. How did this happen, and what does it portend?

 

The DSA’s roots lie in the early 1970s, a time of political upheaval for the left and American politics more generally. It grew out of that segment of the American left that saw Soviet totalitarianism for what it was, and wanted little to do with the Kremlin-controlled CPUSA. Thanks to the leadership of the political scientist Michael Harrington and the literary critic and editor of Dissent magazine Irving Howe, support for Israel became a defining characteristic of these leftists. When in 1973, in a Greenwich Village watering hole, Harrington tried to recruit me to the DSA’s precursor, the Democratic Socialist Organizing Committee (DSOC), he told me that a commitment to Israel was a key position of the organization, to be maintained as a matter of principle.

By this point, such a position could no longer be taken for granted. In a long 1971 essay on left-wing anti-Semitism in the New York Times, the political theorist Seymour Martin Lipset noted that all the prominent leftist groups of the time engaged in anti-Semitism: the Black Panthers, the Communists, Maoists, and Trotskyists, and the New Left in general. The cast of characters hasn’t changed much since then: Angela Davis, Bill Ayers, Noam Chomsky, and Alice Walker haven’t lost their influence. Now, Louis Farrakhan and the Women’s March leader Tamika Mallory have replaced 60s icons like Malcolm X and Stokely Carmichael, but much of the rhetoric about Jews and Israel is the same.

Lipset excluded only one group: “The democratic socialist movement, represented in this country by the Socialist Party, the Young People’s Socialist League, and the magazine Dissent, defends Israel as the most democratic state in a sea of Middle East authoritarianism, and has been critical of anti-Semitic tendencies among the more authoritarian sections of the left in the United States.”

It was in this spirit that, in 1982, the DSOC merged with a New Left remnant called the New American Movement, which also committed itself to backing Israel. With a scant 5,000 members, the newly formed DSA was nonetheless the largest socialist organization in the United States. It had a small, but not negligible, influence on left-wing Democrats in Congress, who welcomed its support for such pieces of legislation as the Full Employment Act. It had little national presence, and it’s fair to say that most Americans did not know it existed.

 

The DSA’s turn to vitriolic opposition to Israel began at its annual convention in August 2017—just a year after the Sanders campaign had breathed new life into the organization. There BDS activists introduced a resolution that the DSA should declare itself “in solidarity with Palestinian civil society’s nonviolent struggle against apartheid, colonialism, [and] military occupation and for equality, human rights, and self-determination.” To achieve that goal, the resolution stated that the DSA should proclaim itself as “fully supporting BDS.” There was no mention of the right of Israelis to have a Jewish state, or even of a two-state solution.

The resolution passed and, since then, the trend has been in only one direction. Needless to say, the DSA has not passed any resolutions condemning terrorist attacks on Israeli civilians. By signing on to BDS, the DSA has embraced the agenda of the European, and especially the British, far left. Indeed, DSA leaders like Bhaskar Sunkara—whose position as editor of Jacobin magazine gives him much influence over the organization—have argued explicitly for adopting as a model Jeremy Corbyn, the far-left and viciously anti-Israel politician whose takeover of the UK’s Labor party unleashed a torrent of hostility to Jews. Under Corbyn’s leadership, Jewish Laborites were routinely harassed, outbursts about Jews and the Jewish state from party members became commonplace, and complaints of anti-Semitism were greeted as evidence of a Zionist conspiracy. Corbyn not only revealed himself as a supporter of terrorists in their war on Israel, but on at least one occasion failed to disguise his contempt for Jews as contempt for the Jewish state. His term as party leader culminated in a disastrous loss in national elections, while his successors are still dealing with the fallout from various anti-Semitic scandals.

But Sunkara and his comrades are deterred neither by Corbyn’s electoral failures nor by his anti-Semitism. In a pre-pandemic debate I had with Sunkara, he dismissed Corbyn’s anti-Semitism as a “phony smear.” DSA members share this opinion because the Corbynite view of Israel is their own, as is made clear merely by surveying the titles of Jacobin’s many anti-Israel articles, or those that can be found on the DSA website.

Why did the DSA change its original position, and conclude that to be socialist, it must oppose Israel’s right to exist? Any answer, of course, is speculative. But I would argue that its leaders felt that to be part of the emerging left, it had to adopt a belief in “intersectionality,” as understood decades ago by Angela Davis and others, even before the term came into vogue. This doctrine states that one cannot be opposed to racism against African Americans in the United States without being opposed to the oppression of “people of color” abroad—like in the once-apartheid state of South Africa and what they now consider to be its twin, the state of Israel. Hence, to be a “progressive” anti-racist in the U.S., one must also fight Israel’s supposed racism against the Palestinian people—whom they define as “people of color,” while believing Jews to be white, even if they hail from Morocco, India, or Ethiopia.

But it’s not simply that opposition to Israel has been added to a laundry list of intersectional causes that range from the abolition of prisons to the use of gender-neutral pronouns. Israel has rapidly become a litmus test to distinguish true believers from fellow travelers. This became clear with the Jamaal Bowman affair.

On September 24, 2021—the day after the House voted on the Iron Dome bill—the DSA’s National Political Committee issued a statement condemning this “barbaric vote,” and putting the words “missile-defense system” in scare-quotes, as if it is really something more sinister. “As socialists,” it continued, (my emphasis) “we stand unequivocally against any funding to Israel and stand firmly in support for the Palestinian struggle for freedom.” The statement then declared Israel guilty of “ethnic cleansing” and of course “apartheid,” while making no mention of Hamas’s repeated rocket attacks.

But the statement, while expressing dismay over Bowman’s vote of “yes” and Ocasio-Cortez’s of “present,” also explained that the Democratic party puts great pressure on members “who would dare vote against funding the Zionist expansionist agenda.” It went on to express DSA leaders’ commitment “as socialists”—again implying an intrinsic connection between socialism and opposition to Israel—“to build enough working-class power to ensure that votes like this can never happen again.” AOC, who reportedly wept while casting her vote, was obviously responding to the DSA statement when she said, “To those I have disappointed—I am deeply sorry. To those who believe this reasoning is insufficient or cowardice—I understand.”

But that wasn’t the end of it. On November 16, 2021, the DSA’s “BDS and Palestinian Solidarity Working Group” recommended that Bowman be expelled from the organization if he refused to comply with their demands: support BDS, cease attending events run by the left-liberal Jewish organization J Street (which calls for a two-state solution and is routinely critical of Israel), “discontinue his relationship with the Zionist lobby,” and oppose any “future funding for the state of Israel.”

Bowman’s cardinal sin, the statement continued, wasn’t his Iron Dome vote per se but that he had “publicly slandered and opposed the BDS movement in an interview with the Jewish Community Relations Council of New York,” telling them that “he does not align with BDS-supporting organizations.” Moreover, he had gone on a trip organized by J Street that was “carefully constructed to validate Zionism” and to “normalize Israeli apartheid and the ongoing ethnic cleansing of Palestinians from historic Palestine.” All Palestinian groups in the U.S., it claimed, endorsed this call for his expulsion.

Finally, on December 2, the DSA released an even longer statement titled “On the Question of Expelling Congressman Bowman.” It reads like a classic Stalinist document from the most sectarian period of the American Communist party, a style its author must have deliberately imitated—in other words, it was a throwback to precisely the kind of socialism the DSA’s founders wanted to separate themselves from. Since Bowman has been openly critical of the Israeli government, the document argues, he poses a “threat” to the “Zionist lobby,” and therefore should not be expelled. Instead, he should agree to greater “accountability” to the DSA.

Furthermore, the statement concluded, to expel Bowman would be to give a “tool to the establishment to stoke division within the Palestine Solidarity movement, the left, and the working-class, and play into the strategy of divide and conquer,” which is “exactly what our enemies want,” and might even “fuel Zionist media narratives.”

What is most salient here is the argument the DSA did not make: that Bowman is a devoted democratic socialist who stands for the group’s positions on all the most important issues, and should thus be forgiven for being a bit soft on a minor foreign-policy matter over which he, as a junior congressman, has little influence. Instead, the statements take for granted that a heretical position about Israel can and should be sufficient grounds for expulsion, even if that measure wasn’t warranted in this particular instance.

Most recently, on December 5, Politico reported that AOC “said Bowman has been an incredible champion on [the Palestinian] issue given the community that he’s in,” a sly reference to the sizeable Jewish population in Bowman’s district. “What he is doing,” she added, “is walking a very difficult path, quite alone. I think the goal here is to stand with and advocate for Palestinian human rights. And so what’s really important for us is to transform the communities into supporting that.”

In effect, AOC is telling her DSA comrades that Bowman adheres to the correct anti-Israel positions, but must hold back a bit because the Jews in his district otherwise might not vote for him—exposing the very slippery slope between anti-Zionism and seeing American Jewry as a threat so long as they resist “transformation.” Bowman himself expressed something similar when trying to clarify his position to a group of college students in November. After attempting to place himself on middle ground, acknowledging Israel’s right to defend itself along with the justice of opposing the “occupation,” he chastised “right-wing Jews” who “don’t want any kind of criticism” of Israel.

As with AOC’s comments about Bowman’s voters, there is something especially unsettling about Bowman aiming his complaints not at those with the “wrong” beliefs about Israel, but at the wrong kind of Jews.

 

What sets the DSA apart from other left-wing groups is its consuming emphasis on the need to oppose Israel’s very existence, and proclaim it an “imperialist colonial-settler state.” The DSA not only endorses these positions, but holds them to be essential tenets of its ideology. Merely attending a J Street junket or searching for some sort of middle ground is taken as a sign of betrayal.

Some would argue that the DSA is still a fringe group, despite its growing membership, and its large electoral presence in several states. They would also argue that its defeat in the Iron Dome vote, not to mention Sanders’s loss in two consecutive presidential primaries, proves its lack of clout and overall irrelevance.

These people would be wrong. The DSA’s leadership and members are very much in tune with the very young, especially college students, who, polls have shown, believe that socialism is the future of the United States, and that capitalism has proved to be the source of income inequality and the persistence of “systemic racism.” To them, it follows that one cannot fight racism, despite good intentions, without fighting for the end of capitalism. And, the DSA would add, one cannot fight domestic racism or capitalism without fighting Israel’s right to exist. As of December 2017, according to Wikipedia, “the median age of its membership was thirty-three, compared to sixty-eight in 2013.” That is most likely accurate, and hence quite disturbing. After AOC’s victory in her race for a congressional seat, the Democratic National Committee’s chairman Tom Perez—who embodies the party establishment—proclaimed her “the future for our party.”

Still, the Democratic mainstream remains supportive of Israel. Older Democrats like Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, and younger ones like Congressman Ritchie Torres, have prevented the new anti-Israel liberals from taking over. In 2019, however, the New York Times cited data that “the share of liberal Democrats who sympathized more with Israel than Palestinians has plummeted from 33 percent to 19 percent in just three years.” And this year, a new poll from the Associated Press and the NORC Center for Public Affairs Research confirms that “among Democrats, 51 percent say the U.S. is not supportive enough of the Palestinians. The sentiment jumps to 62 percent among Democrats who describe themselves as liberal.”

Such pro-Israel old-timers as Schumer, Speaker Nancy Pelosi, Senators Chris Van Hollen and Ben Cardin of Maryland, and Senator Chris Coons of Delaware will not be in their posts forever. Moreover, even old-timers like Coons and Senator Robert Menendez of New Jersey have become openly critical of some Israeli policies in ways they never would have been a few years ago.

Meanwhile the new, younger Democrats, soon to be a majority in the party, are influenced by anti-Israel members of the House like the squad—all of whom, whether part of the DSA or not, have stood in the forefront of trying to tie progressive politics to opposition to the Jewish state. And leading this charge and encouraging the squad and its allies is the Democratic Socialists of America.

 

Writing in 2002, the social-democratic political theorist Michael Walzer wrote an important article for Dissent, a journal which he then co-edited. It was titled “Can There Be a Decent Left?” a question to which he answered “yes.” He wrote one paragraph on what he thought should not be leftist foreign policy:

Another much-used shortcut . . . is to oppose everything Israel does and to blame it for much that it hasn’t done, since it is the “lackey” of American imperialism or, alternatively, the dominant force in shaping American foreign policy. The policies of the current Israeli government require radical criticism. . . . Nonetheless, the anti-Israel shortcut is an example of the leftism of fools.

Walzer here has in mind the famous quip, attributed to the German socialist politician August Bebel, that “anti-Semitism is the socialism of fools.” We have seen that the entire left, including the self-proclaimed democratic socialists, have engaged in precisely the foolishness Walzer warned against. Indeed, the DSA, the only important socialist group in the United States, has made opposition to Israel a shibboleth, a “shortcut” to formulating a left-wing foreign policy. Opposition to Israel is not only becoming a requirement for being a member in good standing of the left, but is on its way to becoming the foremost requirement. Much as anti-Semites of the past turned Jews into a symbol of everything they thought wrong with the world, today’s socialists take anti-Zionism as a symbol of all that is good and holy. With a few minor exceptions, the once pro-Israel socialist movement has joined the frontlines of the far left’s long-standing ideological anti-Semitic crusade, masquerading its anti-Semitism, as it always has, as “anti-Zionism.”

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More about: Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Bernie Sanders, Irving Howe, Socialism