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Do comrades cross picket lines?

The stakes in the debate over Bowman and Israel


The following piece by brian bean was originally submitted to Jacobin in reply to Hadas Thier’s “No, DSA Shouldn’t Expel Rep. Jamaal Bowman. The Jacobin editorial board rejected the response. 

A major crisis has erupted in Democratic Socialists of America (DSA), sparking debate about whether or not Representative Jamaal Bowman should be expelled from DSA for his votes to fund Israeli apartheid and his propaganda tour of Israel. To understand the stakes of this debate solely in terms of how we can hold politicians accountable dramatically narrows the political discussion and minimizes these stakes. The call to expel Jamaal Bowman touches on crucial issues of socialist strategy today, including his material support for Israeli apartheid, how we understand the nature of liberal Zionism, and the relationship of socialist officeholders to their own socialist organization. On these points, I disagree with Hadas Thier’s recent arguments in Jacobin against expelling Bowman from the DSA, but more importantly, I think framing the issue around holding “political allies” accountable misses what is at stake and could be seen as making an apologia for liberal Zionism.

Thier argues against Bowman’s expulsion by making two interconnected points. The first is that Bowman is “generally part of advancing a left agenda.” Secondly, because of his advancing of a left agenda, rather than being expelled, Bowman should be “influenced” and have his position “shifted” by “education and criticism.” For Thier, anything more substantial than this is just “a knee-jerk response” confining us to “the marginality of purity politics,” earning the Left a reputation as those “who would rather engage in endless Twitter wars than practical political work, and who take haughty, self-righteous, and impatient approaches with people who ‘don’t get it.’”

On the contrary, the call to expel Bowman from a socialist organization is a reasonable and warranted response to his material and political support for Israeli settler colonialism and thus the oppression of Palestinians. The call to expel Bowman is an insistence that socialist organizations hold the line on the question of Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions of Israel. It is an affirmation that justice in Palestine is not just a secondary issue of minor importance for the socialist movement, but a central component of building a principled opposition to US imperialism. Holding Bowman responsible for his actions, to the extent of calling for his expulsion, is a call to hold a picket line against US support for Israel. That is the kind of principled unity that is needed to build a strong movement capable of standing up against the chief purveyor of violence in the world and the primary military and political backer of apartheid Israel.

More Than “Disagreement”

I am sure that Bowman holds a number of positions about Israel and Palestine that I would argue socialists shouldn’t advocate; like the two-state solution, seeing the Israeli working class as a current ally, and failing to provide a principled defense of the right of the occupied to resist by military means. However the call for expulsion is not about that; it is not about what Bowman thinks. The call for expulsion is about his actions and how they have directly provided material support to Israel.

At the end of July, Bowman voted for H.R. 4373 which gave $3.3 billion in direct military funding to Israel. On September 23, he voted to give another $1 billion to Israel for its Iron Dome missile interceptor system. Combined, this amounts to more US tax dollars given for direct military funding to Israel than in any single year for at least the last forty years. Also on September 23 he added his name as a cosponsor of H.R. 2749 which calls to extend and expand the “Abraham Accords”—the Trump era normalization process between Israel and Arab States  widely considered a betrayal by Palestinians. The National Political Committee of DSA issued a statement on the 24th which criticized the vote for Iron Dome as “barbaric,” but only criticized Bowman (and AOC for her abstention from the vote) by expressing “disappointment.” A month later, after no further mention from the NPC about what had been done about this, the Madison chapter of DSA issued their open letter that opened the floodgates of the call to expel.

In the meantime, on November 9, Bowman attended a tour of Israel sponsored by J Street, a liberal pro-Israel group which veils its adherence to the Zionist position for a Jewish ethnostate behind a progressive veneer critical of the excesses of the occupation. During the tour, Bowman met with—and had his Iron Dome vote praised by—Israeli government officials, including a photo-op with war criminal prime minister Neftali Bennett. Driven by the widespread support for the DSA BDS and Palestine Working Group (WG) open letter, a meeting was held with Bowman on November 19. In that meeting he was asked to agree to support BDS, which he refused. On Monday November 29, he participated in a public town hall event with J Street, which he was asked to cancel at the meeting with the NPC and the WG, and which he also refused to do.

Taken together, these events make clear the stakes of the calls for expulsion, that this is not about what Bowman thinks, but what he has done, and what he continues to do. His actions as member of the House of Representatives has been to break the picket line of BDS multiple times by voting to invest in the Israeli occupation and to go on trips that, according the BDS National Committee—the largest coalition of Palestinian civil society—are “complicit in whitewashing” apartheid and ethnic cleansing. BDS is the ask of Palestinian society of the international community in how to stand in solidarity with their struggle. It’s not just that Bowman doesn’t agree with BDS, it’s that he is materially operating against it through his actions. BDS is a picket line and Bowman has broken it by scabbing for Israel.

The gravity of these actions can be understood through a loose parallel. The movement to end apartheid in South Africa is an important analogue to the Palestinian struggle. Imagine if a prominent member of one of the largest socialist organizations in the history of this country in the 1980s voted to send arms to the government of Apartheid South Africa in an affront to the widespread international call for boycott. Imagine then that they also went and met with, and had a photo-op taken with P.W. Botha—the prime minister and president of apartheid South Africa. In this situation, should socialists be rushing to minimize these actions and criticizing those who have demanded that their own organization take further action as “haughty and self righteous”?

The broad call from DSA chapters and external groups is about insisting that socialists hold the line on BDS. As to whether the preferred outcome is immediate expulsion or asking him to publicly commit to BDS as previously demanded by the DSA BDS WG is less important to me and I want to avoid the rabbit hole of DSA proceduralism and obsession with bylaws. But what is clear is that the call to expel Bowman is about expressing that support for Palestine is not a secondary issue to be compromised for other concerns in the socialist movement. It is about understanding the immense pressures of the ruling class and the Democratic Party to hold discipline around support for Israel. We are only going to be able to present a clear and consistent alternative against these forces, and build a movement powerful enough to contend with these forces, by acting in a manner of unity on this question. That is how a picket line works.

Bowman repeatedly broke the picket line of BDS by voting to invest in the Israeli occupation and to go on trips that are complicit in whitewashing apartheid and ethnic cleansing. Photo by Wall in Palestine.

Bowman’s Role: Ally or Member of a Socialist Organization?

Any principled socialist and anti-Zionist like Thier will agree to much of what I have argued short of the conclusion. Thier agrees “socialists should condemn [Bowman’s] actions unequivocally.” For Thier, Bowman is at least not a “bloodthirsty tool” of American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) and he is generally part of advancing a left-wing agenda. Therefore, Thier advocates working to influence and shift the opinion of “political allies” like Bowman. Bowman is not “an enemy”, Thier argues, and his opinion can be changed. As evidence, Thier points to Ilhan Omar and Rashida Tlaib changing their positions on BDS. The calls for action on Bowman is not a call to chasten or “cancel” an “ally” but seeking to demand that a public, prominent national figure of a socialist organization like Bowman should not act against the organization’s expressed, and democratically decided solidarity with Palestine.

Framing Bowman as a “political ally” misrepresents his role in the situation. To my knowledge, no one in this debate has declared Bowman an “enemy.” The problem is that Bowman, more than just a “political ally,” is a member and prominent representative of a socialist organization, and the calls are for that membership to be discontinued. What is the point of socialist organization if its strategy and program are not expressed through action? This is where important larger political questions about the relationship of DSA to elected officials arise. Bowman—like AOC and others—are not “DSA representatives” per se, but are DSA members who are endorsed by DSA. Relegating the relationship of DSA to its elected officials as being “endorsed by” is not so dissimilar from the way NGOs and unions use endorsement and relationship in coalition in attempts to “influence” what a politician says and does. If the goal is for DSA to relate to its own members (and prominent national representatives) the way an NGO relates to elected officials unaffiliated with any organization, then the very purpose of building socialist organization is undermined.

It also bears noting that Thier uses the example of Omar being convinced of BDS—but Omar is not a member of DSA. So convincing a politician of a political position doesn’t require organizational affiliation.

Thier admits their “looseness of affiliation” but assures us that figures like Bowman and AOC “continue to meet with DSA and other activist organizations.” This in my opinion is not assurance but admission of the problem; Bowman’s actions (and AOC’s regrettable abstention) is evidence of that. This situation implies that DSA politicians, who, based on the position of their elected office, are often the most prominent members with the largest platform, and most powerful in sense of prestige in the formal halls of the charade of government are largely, formally unaccountable to the organization. Being beholden to “electeds,” and being dependent on them for a profile and influence in a way indistinguishable from how other grassroots organizations treat relationships with elected officials weakens the ability of our side to develop and maintain our own socialist strategy and program. This is especially the case for issues like Palestine and imperialism which—despite a broad shift to a more common-sense position of sympathy with the cause—still cuts against the grain of the ruling class interests expressed by the Democrats and Republican party, in which being pro-Israel is still largely the bipartisan consensus on the level of national politics.

A socialist strategy that is clear and uncompromising on the question of Palestine will require firmer standards. One of the arguments made in passing to excuse Bowman is that he would be unable to win his district if he took a public stand in solidarity with Palestinians or for BDS. What is not mentioned is that unconditional support for Israel is already a near-universal condition of being in the Democratic Party. If socialists genuinely think we are advancing leftwing politics by running as Democrats, despite the fact that being pro-Israel is effectively the party’s price of admission, then there is an inherent contradiction between this stated goal and running in that party. This contradiction results in the current situation of sacrificing the question of Palestine for the fact that Bowman has—according to Thier—”sworn off corporate contributions.” Do we expect socialist politicians to accept other backward ideas or even materially support reactionary policies because of the backward ideas that may exist in their constituencies? I argue “no” and warn against the way that the strategy of working in the Democratic party while attempting to “shift” or “influence” politicians within it opens us up to capitulation and is part of what led to Bowman’s pro-Israel actions, Omar’s vote for direct military aid, AOC’s abstention on Iron Dome and generally a complete lack of consistent strategy of socialists in congress around presenting opposition to US imperialism.

The Persistent Danger of Liberal Zionism

The other element of the argument to not expel Bowman that should be troubling is how the desire to characterize Bowman as “not so bad” on Palestine downplays the political danger of liberal Zionism. Thier doesn’t make a defense of liberal Zionism when attempting to distinguish the politics of J Street, Bernie Sanders, and Bowman from that of “bloodthirsty AIPAC,” but the necessity of socialists polemicizing against the the dangers of liberal Zionism is left out of the equation.

Bethlehem, Mandela-Graffiti, April 2019. Photo by ippnw Deutschland.

While it is certainly the case that we should comport ourselves differently in our argumentation to a zealous AIPAC hawk than a liberal Zionist “peace” advocate, it would be an error to depict the latter as “on our side” in contrast to the former. Liberal Zionism is not the inverse or antithesis to the kind of far-right grotesquery on display in Israeli politics, but a complementary component of the settler colonial project. As Thier has argued elsewhere, “The extent to which Zionism has maintained legitimacy, despite decades of atrocity and occupation, stems from the myth of its so-called liberal (even socialist) democracy.” Regardless of its criticism of the occupation, liberal Zionism’s insistence on a “national home” for Jews that maintains a Jewish “democratic” majority serves to justify apartheid and denial of Palestinians’ democratic rights and right to return.

We should be careful in painting individuals like Bowman as “just liberal Zionists” as that downplays the degree to which liberal Zionism needs to be politically defeated. It doesn’t appear that Bowman’s dalliance with J Street is about naivete, as his continued relationship, and appearing in the town hall on November 29 reflects. Our struggle, for those of us attempting to stand in solidarity with Palestinians, is against Zionism, not just its more egregious forms. I know Thier and I agree on that point but I would caution that the Bowman situation raises massive concerns about backsliding on this politically.

The stakes of getting this right are high. If socialists allow themselves to be represented by actions fundamentally opposed to our organizations’ democratically defined politics, we not only abdicate our responsibility to the people of Palestine, we undermine the very purpose and strength of our organizations. Far from a reason to turn a blind eye, the prominence of Bowman’s platform and the gravity of his deeds necessitate a clear, swift, and principled response from socialists. A socialist movement for justice in Palestine will only be built through steadfastness, a consistent strategic approach, and having the courage of socialist convictions when it counts.

Featured Image Credit: Photo by Andrew Ratto. Image modified by Tempest.

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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.

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