Taking a pass on Israel
Daniel Lazare denounces the DSA’s unprincipled stand on congressman Jamaal Bowman and controversially questions the whole BDS movement
The Democratic Socialists of America have this week created a small furore by letting a pro-DSA Democratic congressman named Jamaal Bowman off the hook despite the fact he voted for stepped-up military aid to Israel and followed up with a trip to the Jewish state and a photo op with prime minister Naftali Bennett.
The decision is a shock, because the DSA supports the boycott, divestment, and sanctions (BDS) movement, which opposes not only military aid to Israel, but political normalisation in general. So, despite declaring that Bowman had “no excuse” for either his vote or his “egregious” visit with Bennett, who is “an unapologetic racist and war criminal”, the DSA’s 18-member national political committee decided last week that he was too important to let go.
The reaction was fast and furious. Tempest, a magazine founded by refugees from the Hal Draper-Tony Cliff movement, accused the DSA of crossing anti-Zionist “picket lines” and said that penalising Bowman “is not just a secondary issue of minor importance, but a central component of building a principled opposition to US imperialism”.1 The Electronic Intifada website said the decision showed that the DSA had failed the test of Palestinian solidarity: “At the very least,” it said, Bowman “should have been expelled from DSA, but invited to reapply for membership when he has clearly met its political conditions”.2
It is hard to disagree. But what is notable about criticism like this is not only what it says, but what it does not. While assailing the DSA for violating BDS - a movement, incidentally, that deserves more scrutiny than it usually receives - groups like Tempest and Electronic Intifada are silent on the more fundamental issue of what self-proclaimed socialists are doing with the likes of Bowman in the first place. Clearly, they think there is nothing wrong with working with Democrats if it helps advance their aims.
Except that it does not, simply because such manoeuvres are little more than an exercise in collective self-delusion. The DSA’s half-in, half-out relationship with the Democrats is not something the group picked up along the way, but a basic organising principle. DSA founder Michael Harrington got it from his mentor, the notorious Max Shachtman, who, after breaking with Trotsky’s Fourth International in 1940, decided that deep “entryism” vis-à-vis the Democrats was the only way to go. Along the way, he supported an anti-communist purge of organised labour beginning in 1949, sided with pro-segregationist Dixiecrats against civil-rights workers seeking to overthrow them in 1964, and backed the Vietnam war as well. Still, Harrington saw entryism as a question of realism. The only way to avoid ending up on the margins with the Trotskyists, he figured, was to forget about revolution and enlist instead as the “left wing of the possible within the Democratic Party”.
This has been the DSA calling card ever since. But what is remarkable about such ‘realism’ is how unrealistic it has become.
Take Bernie Sanders. The DSA not only endorsed him in 2016 and 2020, but provided him with an army of foot soldiers for his campaigns. But this meant staying silent whenever Bernie toed the Democratic line - something he has done more often than the DSA cares to admit. As the World Socialist Web Site points out, Sanders backed US intervention in Somalia in 1993, the Nato air war against Serbia in 1999, and the invasion of Afghanistan in 2001.3 When The Washington Post published an article in February 2020 charging Russia with assisting his presidential campaign, his response was not to blast it for spewing out nonsense. Rather, it was to proclaim himself more Russophobic than thou, even when it came to Jeff Bezos and his yapping journalistic watchdogs.
“My message to Putin is clear,” he said:
Stay out of American elections, and as president I will make sure that you do. Unlike Donald Trump, I do not consider Vladimir Putin a good friend. He is an autocratic thug who is attempting to destroy democracy and crush dissent in Russia.
When Trump appeared overly chummy with Putin at the 2018 Helsinki summit, Sanders’ strategy was to embarrass Republicans by daring them to vote for a Senate resolution endorsing the US intelligence-community claim that the Kremlin had helped get Trump elected. Quoting arch-hawk John McCain, he tore into Republicans for refusing to recognise that:
Russia has been interfering not only in US elections, but in the elections of other democracies, the United Kingdom, France, Germany … Russia’s goal is to advance its own interest by weakening the transatlantic alliance of democracies that arose after World War II, while also inflaming internal divisions in our country, as well as other countries.
Weakening the transatlantic alliance? The DSA rarely has a good word to say about Nato, yet here was its hero rising to its defence. Its only choice was to hold its tongue, so as to continue as the left wing of a bourgeois party galloping to the right.4
The DSA also assails “our ossified constitution”, as its platform puts it, and calls for abolition of both the Senate and Electoral College.5 But it remains silent for the same reason whenever Sanders uses his position in America’s lopsided Senate to bring home the bacon for his constituents in Vermont - the second least populous state in the union and hence the second most overrepresented. Per capita, Vermont thus receives $3,741 each year in federal aid, whereas California, whose population is 64 times greater, receives just $12.6 Among other things, Sanders has used his outsized clout to see to it that nuclear-capable F-35 jet fighters are stationed at a Vermont air base - a move that will generate $222 million in economic spin-offs, according to state estimates.7 This puts him squarely in the middle of the military-industrial complex that the DSA loves to denounce (except when he is concerned).
What is the upshot? Simply that after losing the nomination to Joe Biden, Sanders is now reduced to shepherding his “Build Back Better” program through the Senate, where it doesn’t stand a chance due to the same ossified constitutional structure. DSA might just as well have stayed at home.
Then there is Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez - another example of where such class collaboration leads. The DSA pronounced itself disappointed when, after she voted ‘no’ to a proposal to grant Israel an additional $1 billion in military aid for its Iron Dome missile defence system, she burst into tears at the last minute and change her vote to ‘present’ in a clear effort to avoid alienating pro-Israel voters back home in New York.8 But instead of blaming AOC, the DSA blamed itself: “It is up to us, as socialists, to build enough working class power to ensure that votes like this can never happen again,” it declared.9 Like Boxer in George Orwell’s Animal Farm, its answer to every setback is merely to “work harder”.
If such manoeuvres had helped steer Democrats in a less pro-Israeli direction, they might have been worth it. But they have not. September’s Iron Dome vote sailed through the House with only nine ‘no’ votes and two abstentions. The influential Defense News website called it a “blowout”, while House speaker Nancy Pelosi said it “reflects the great unity in Congress, on a bipartisan and bicameral basis, for Israel. Security assistance to Israel is vital, because Israel security is an imperative for America’s security.”10
This is why Binyamin Netanyahu always loved addressing Congress - it assured him of a warmer welcome than anything he could expect from the Israeli Knesset! The US political establishment is every bit as Zionist as the Zionists themselves - a situation that the DSA, for all its deal-making, has done nothing to change.
As for BDS, it is also an easy way out, which is why groups like Tempest love it. But little about it makes sense either.
The reasons are endless. Yes, Israel is racist, expansionist, and the rest. But singularly evil it is not, for the simple reason that, when it comes to sheer bloody repression, no-one holds a candle to America’s other great Middle East ally, the Saudis. The kingdom’s treatment of its 15% Shi’ite minority in the oil-rich Eastern Province is every bit as shocking as Israel’s treatment of the Palestinians in the occupied territories. Its war on Yemen, now in its seventh year, has resulted in death, disease and famine, while the aid it funnelled to pro-al Qa’eda jihadis in Syria, beginning in late 2011, has wreaked havoc in that country as well. And this does not include channelling aid to jihadi militias in Libya or to Islamic State in Afghanistan - or, for that matter, supporting the hijackers who brought down the World Trade Center in 2001, the mega-event that gave us the ‘war on terror’ to begin with.
If the BDS movement prefers not to mention Saudi Arabia, could it have something to do with the billions of dollars that the kingdom has donated to the state of Palestine over the decades - aid that has reduced the Palestinian Authority to little more than a Saudi appendage?11 If so, then the implications are clear: BDS is a fundamentally conservative movement aimed at distracting attention from Riyadh’s reactionary influence.
Pressuring the US to boycott Israel assumes that Israel is the master and the US the servant. But it is the other way around, since US imperialism dwarfs Zionism, according to any objective measurement. So BDS actually helps conceal the source of the problem. Since the purpose of disinvestment is to shut down industry and throw employees out of work, BDS is also anti-working class - a scab outfit, to put it plainly. Tempest magazine spilled the beans in its denunciation of Bowman, when it argued that it is wrong for socialists to see “the Israeli working class as a current ally”. Since Palestinians account for roughly 20% of the proletariat in Israel proper, the statement presumably applies only to Jews. And yet BDS cries foul whenever it is accused of anti-Semitism ...
BDS does not work. Instead of detaching Israeli workers from their Zionist masters, it cements them together all the more securely. The same goes for the Democrats: teaming up with them does not work either. Instead of building socialism, all it does is sow illusions that the ruling class is open to reform, when in fact it is more closed and undemocratic than ever. This is the unfortunate truth that DSA also tries to conceal.
See my article, ‘Subordinate to the bourgeoisie’ February 29 2020: weeklyworker.co.uk/worker/1288/subordinate-to-the-bourgeoisie.↩︎
“Federal Aid by State 2021”: worldpopulationreview.com/state-rankings/federal-aid-by-state.↩︎