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To rule an empty palace

The BDS dispute in DSA


Andy Sernatinger follows up on his earlier piece with new reporting about the ongoing dispute between the DSA’s NPC and the BDS and Palestine Solidarity Working Group.

In a previous piece, I tried to synthesize what has happened since the announcement that the BDS and Palestine Solidarity Working Group (BDSWG) was dechartered on March 18, 2022. Since publishing, members of the majority bloc on the National Political Committee (NPC) have posted long justifications for their decision to discipline the Working Group. Facing enormous pressure from DSA’s membership and the Palestinian solidarity movement, the NPC announced that they were rescinding their motion to decharter the BDSWG on March 24. The NPC vote to reinstate the BDSWG leadership was deadlocked (7-7-1), and so the discipline stands.

The Dispute in Question

The NPC majority (Sabrina C, Kristian H, Justin C, Jose L, Ashik S, Gustavo G, Matt M[resigned], Gilman B, and Sydney G) and their supporters initially presented their vote to decharter the BDSWG and discipline its leadership as an apolitical defense of organizational decision-making. The case they made was that the BDSWG was a group of liars and bullies who were being unreasonable and undermining the NPC, and the NPC’s decision, by merit of holding office, is the democratic will of DSA.

The inciting events, they claimed, were that 1) a BDSWG tweet thread regarding the NPC’s closed-door meeting with New York Representative Jamaal Bowman in February contained “misinformation” about Bowman’s position and the “off-the-record meeting,” and 2) that the NPC demanded the Working Group’s social media keys and did not receive them. This was indicative of a “pattern of abuse” and “repeatedly demonstrated poor judgment and disregard for the wellbeing of the organization.” This constituted cause for dechartering the working group and disciplining its leaders. The centrist position, exhibited by an article at The Call, concurred with the characterization, though disagreed with the execution.

The problem is that this account was bullshit. The criticisms the Working Group made of Bowman’s continued support for the Iron Dome were corroborated by Bowman himself, when he posted that he would vote for additional funding for the Iron Dome, which he continues to support. (This also destroyed the centrist position.) The crux of the dispute between the NPC and BDSWG over a Twitter thread was about the Working Group correcting the record after NPC members congratulated themselves for Bowman rescinding co-sponsorship of the Israel Relations Normalization Act (though Bowman credited J-Street). One Working Group leader detailed how Bowman would not commit to any of DSA’s demands, which the NPC knew but would not report to the membership.

And then the BDSWG actually did turn over their social media keys. Accounts by NPC members who voted against the decision (Jenbo, Austin G, Jen M, and Kara H) demonstrate that the Working Group dissented but cooperated, and then they were punished anyway. All that remained were charges that the BDSWG was uncomradely–which might just be understandable when you consider that they were the recipients of backroom dealing, gaslighting about Bowman’s positions, scapegoating, and illegitimate discipline.

The NPC’s story fell apart. They tried to evade the discussion about Bowman’s continuing violations of the BDS picket line and the holes in their story. They stuck to depicting the BDSWG as “toxic” and “undemocratic” for disagreeing with the leadership. Rank-and-file members weren’t having it, and the NPC retreated. They reinstated the Working Group, but not its leaders—though a body that is not allowed to choose its leadership is in fact not reinstated.

But the NPC majority hasn’t given up entirely and now they’ve created a new story: the Bowman crisis was the result of sectarian wreckers operating behind the scenes, and the NPC had to act to prevent bad behavior from destroying the organization. Sydney G’s letter tacks this direction in citing a memo from the DSA Red Rabbits marshal and security committee to justify the discipline, “the biggest threat to DSA is the exploitation of internal conflict to escalate factional tensions within the organization.” Their supporters have followed suit, dragging out the flayed, fifty-plus-year-old corpse of Students for a Democratic Society (SDS) to denounce their adversaries as threats to the organization. They swapped out claims about the BDSWG with paranoia about a factional conspiracy.

All this to avoid talking about the problem that Bowman has made no policy changes, continues to support military aid to Israel (as well as NATO), and the NPC seemingly knew that when they voted against discipline for Bowman last year. If they were to acknowledge this, it would mean admitting that they didn’t actually get any concessions from Bowman (the details of their November meeting were secret) and they decided to give him a pass anyway. That would bring the political dimension of this crisis too sharply into focus.

The NPC had been embarrassed publicly by the controversy and wanted to maintain the secrecy of the conversation they had with Bowman. The majority acted to discipline the BDSWG because of its leading role in the Bowman Affair; the latter demanded that the leadership act to defend DSA’s position in favor of Palestine and BDS after it had been so flagrantly violated by one of the most visible figures associated with the organization.

Bowman, unresolved

The pretense that there were neutral organizational reasons to decharter the Working Group was a distraction from the obvious issue that the Bowman situation remains unresolved. When the NPC decided against discipline at the end of 2021, the NPC majority won the vote but they had not convinced the organization of their perspective—chapters continued to issue statements for months, with 52 chapters dissenting.

In order to “win,” the NPC majority had to resort to a series of underhanded tactics: first, they had to have a closed-door meeting with Bowman (thereby abusing executive session) and enforced secrecy about the details of the conversation (telling the organization to take it on faith that they had handled it); then, NPC member Jose L threatened to split DSA and denounce the organization if there was any discipline for Bowman; and finally, they wrote a report behind the DSA Discussion Board blaming the entire crisis on the BDSWG and taking absolutely no responsibility.

Even still, there was something of a detente after the NPC’s decision not to discipline Bowman. The immediate tensions in the organization eased, even if the dissatisfaction remained. The opposition did not cede the argument, but essentially agreed to put it aside until the question came up again around re-endorsement.

The situation might have been contained, except that members of the NPC took to Twitter to gloat about their victory after Bowman removed himself from the Israel Relations Normalization Act—they stirred the pot. The BDSWG reacted to the provocation, writing to correct the record about the meeting. And then on March 9, Bowman pressed the point in announcing that he would vote for the Iron Dome again—demonstrating that no actual progress had been made.

An overconfident NPC majority used the BDSWG’s response as a pretense to disband the Working Group, despite not having any cause. Here again, they acted improperly by dechartering a Working Group established by the 2019 DSA convention (which they do not have the power to do) and leaking information to factional allies. Socialist Majority and North Star then jointly produced a petition with a few hundred signatures supporting the move to decharter the working group before it had even been announced.

Because the debate was not actually settled when the NPC voted not to discipline Bowman, this reignited the unfinished conflict. The general popularity of the BDSWG (one of the few working groups actively engaging DSA chapters and doing political education), the severity of the punishment, and the demonstrable lack of movement from Bowman reopened the tensions in DSA. This time, the NPC has lost the trust of the membership, and many are looking at the damage done and an obstinate leadership and deciding it’s time to go.

Solidarity is as solidarity does

Lest we get lost in the minutiae, it should be clear that the decision to go after the BDSWG is about politics. The position of the national leadership was that their relationship with an elected official was more important than DSA’s own position. They claimed that they were, of course, pro-BDS, but they were operating under an electoralist framework that prized “an effective and strategic path forward to advance the Palestinian cause through progressive struggle on the congressional terrain.”

In effect, they were saying that the road to Palestinian liberation was not the one chosen by Palestinian civil society itself (boycott, divest, and sanction), but legislative incrementalism that may, sadly, include arming Palestine’s oppressors on the way to being able to make “material” gains. To the extent that BDS was compatible with an electoral agenda, they were for it, but if they had to choose, they would pick the Democrats. And they did. These political goals depended upon an anti-democratic, bureaucratic operation: they opposed chapter participation in the decision-making and kept the details of the meeting with Bowman secret to uphold the appearance that progress had been made. The BDSWG was disciplined when they refused to uphold the lie.

This is a tension that has existed in DSA since at least 2016, when the organization’s membership surged. An important part of making DSA suitable for a new membership was dismantling its anti-communist structure—a project that remains incomplete. The critical move in this direction was jettisoning DSA’s Zionist leanings and declaring itself for Palestine and BDS at the 2017 Convention, and then establishing the BDS and Palestine Solidarity Working Group in the summer of 2019. DSA at this time also left the (neoliberal) Socialist International, declared itself anti-fascist, and began entertaining a break from the Democratic Party.

Broadly speaking, this effort to create an organization with definite political principles stood in contradiction with an electoralist conception of politics. Electoralists viewed political power as being built entirely through elections and legislation, and therefore prioritized access to politicians by building a get-out-the-vote machine. New York City was the center of this electoral endeavor, but DSA’s campaign for Bernie Sanders created a practice that instilled this perspective into the organization writ large. As it relates to Palestine, Dr. Steven Salaita notes,

Electioneering requires compromise, but compromise isn’t a neutral practice. The people are made to sacrifice for the affluent. That’s how compromise works under capitalism. Every time, every single time, it’s some aspect of Palestinian freedom that must be compromised. Never the candidate’s position. Never the system’s inherent conservatism…In fact, according to the mythography of electoralism, it’s the community’s duty to educate the politician. In order to accomplish that goal, the community needs to convey principles it considers [non-negotiable]. For Palestinians, those principles would include right of return and full equality in all of historic Palestine.

DSA’s dependence upon Democratic Party politicians as its method of growing the organization has had to hold the contradiction that these politicians often do not uphold the values of DSA. Joel Reinstein, in an exchange from 2018, anticipated this scenario: “Access to Democratic politicians is absolutely going to come into conflict with the boycott, and Palestine activists will come under intense pressure to put the boycott in the backseat in exchange for ‘real political power.’” Entering the Democratic Party, particularly at the state and federal level, entails supporting the party’s hard-line for Israel.

As Sanders was defeated (again), DSA’s growth stopped, and Bowman unapologetically crossed the BDS picket line, the contradiction could not be contained any longer. No matter how much you say you’re for Palestine or BDS, it’s what you do that matters.

DSA Right Makes Its Move

What’s interesting is that while the North Star caucus has been the home of the DSA “Old Guard,” it has become the vanguard of the right of DSA in articulating its vision. A week before the NPC vote anticipated the dissolution of the BDSWG, Leo Casey made the right’s position clear:

In the coming months, DSA will have to make a critical decision that will determine the organization’s future: will it endorse for re-election all four members who are currently members of Congress – Bowman, Bush, Ocasio-Cortez and Tlaib? If all four are endorsed, the ultra-left forces in DSA will howl betrayal and worse, and they will look to split the organization as they leave. But DSA would then have an opportunity to right the organizational ship that has been dangerously listing.

Ken Barrios has noted that this argument first reared its head in 2020 with Dustin Guastella’s call to shed “fringe positions,” and has been redeployed on multiple occasions since. The signatories at the top of the petitions “For Unity, Not Unanimity,” “Organizing Against Trump” (AKA, For Biden), and most recently “In Support of Our Elected Leadership” have demonstrated the same cross-section of the Socialist Majority Caucus, North Star, New York City’s electoral leadership, and a few other prominent figures. There’s nothing coincidental about it.

But these read as projections: it’s the NPC and its allied caucuses who have precipitated a split in DSA, in order to discipline the organization to its singular conception of politics. Unable to resolve the crisis in the organization, they look to jettison the left wing and consolidate the organization—except that they have underestimated the popularity of the BDSWG and the level of discontent in the organization.

The NPC majority and supporters of this move seem perfectly content watching unwanted DSA members quit the organization, since it creates the desired unanimity. That they have to bend and break rules to achieve this is fine, given the lack of democratic mechanisms and, generally, socialists don’t want to sue their organization to enforce governance. It’s the worst version of what you would call bureaucratic centralism. They might get what they want, and destroy the organization in the process. They would rule an empty palace.

Featured image credit: Wellcome Library, London. Modified by Tempest.

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Andy Sernatinger View All

Andrew Sernatinger is a labor activist and member of DSA in Madison, Wisconsin. He is a member of the Tempest Collective and has written for New Politics, International Viewpoint , Jacobin, and In These Times .