Getting BDS and DSA right
Not surprisingly, last week’s article by Daniel Lazare, ‘Taking a pass on Israel’, has caused some considerable controversy. Thankfully, three well-informed comrades have written replies. Needless to say, our sympathies are fully with the critics
Daniel Lazare’s attack on the Boycott, Disinvestment and Sanctions campaign is shoddy and morally wrong-headed. He concedes:
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 … 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?
Here he is insinuating that the Palestinian grassroots organisations which in 2002 initiated the BDS campaign, and the present promoters and advocates of BDS, are fans of Saudi Arabia and the Palestinian authority. This is the opposite of the truth. In fact, they oppose Saudi Arabia, because, among other things, it is Israel’s ally, and they excoriate the Palestinian ‘Authority’, precisely because it is an appendage of Israel. Saudi money paid to the PA is in effect an indirect subsidy to Israel, helping to keep its quisling PA proxies in the style to which they have grown accustomed. Counterposing Israeli and Saudi repressions is preposterous: they are partners.
In any case, what Lazare is offering us is the immoral ‘what about’ cop-out: we should not respond to the oppressed Palestinians’ call for solidarity action, because their oppression is not ‘singular’. What about Saudi Arabia, ha?
But let me come to the main point. Whether or not Israel is “singularly evil”, it is spectacularly ‘singular’ in other major respects. It is the US imperialists’ most pampered junior partner and protégé. It is by far the biggest recipient of US military aid. (That is in absolute terms; in per-capita terms it leaves all other US favourites many miles behind.) Why? Because it is an invaluable strategic asset of the US hegemon, an unequalled loyal nuclear-armed garrison in a volatile region - “the largest American aircraft carrier in the world that cannot be sunk, does not carry even one American soldier, and is located in a critical region for American national security”, as former US secretary of state and Nato commander Alexander Haig so aptly put it.
There is an even more remarkable singularity that may have escaped Lazare’s notice: Israel is the unique state that the US and its camp followers ferociously shield from political reprobation. In these countries, public and private expressions of support for Palestinian rights and opposition to the Zionist colonial-settler state are ferreted out, proscribed and punished by the establishment, their authors traduced as ‘anti-Semitic’ and viciously victimised. Indeed, a negative attitude to Israel has become a common marker of leftwing dissidence, hounded by the ruling class and its abject media. Lazare seems oblivious to recent and current witch-hunts in the British Labour Party and academia, even though in his own country, the US, criticism of Israel is similarly and singularly suppressed (in Germany it is even worse).
The BDS campaign is essentially a focus of the struggle against this singular suppression, and is itself a target of the persecutors - who, of course, besmirch it as ‘anti-Semitic’. Lazare endorses this calumny: “And yet BDS cries foul whenever it is accused of anti-Semitism,” he sneers - implying that the accusation is not groundless. Shame on him!
Lazare claims that “BDS does not work”. Doesn’t it? Well, that depends on how you assess success. When the US imposes sanctions on a country, its aim is to cause economic misery to its ordinary people, driving them to turn against their government and overturn it. The BDS campaign cannot possibly have such a strategy. It would require enlisting the full support of the American state and its subordinate allies; but, given Israel’s singular position as a prime imperialist favourite, that is quite out of the question. What it can hope for is to win a moral battle in progressive public opinion. Strong international grassroots pressure may help to prevent Israel’s worst atrocities and stop it acting with total impunity.
The impact of the BDS campaign on Israel’s economy is slight - almost negligible. In internal Israeli public opinion it barely registers. Most Israelis become aware of it only when popular international stars refuse to visit the country. It has no effect, positive or negative, on the adherence of the Hebrew working class to Zionist colonising chauvinism. (For that adherence to be severed, a necessary precondition is a major regional socialist transformation!)
But these are the wrong measures of success. BDS has been remarkably successful outside Israel, in raising consciousness and mobilising grassroots support for Palestinian rights in the US and its camp followers. It serves to put the issue of Zionist colonisation and Palestinian oppression on the agenda in trade unions, universities and other civil society organisations. Especially noteworthy is the growing participation of young radical Jewish activists. It has become a significant public issue, a shibboleth of left and progressive opinion. The controversy around BDS is now a focus of the struggle about the very right to speak out against the Zionist colonisation project.
Daniel Lazare has enlisted in this ideological civil war - on the wrong side of the barricade.
Stand by Palestine
At this point I think we are all used to reading comrade Daniel Lazare and his grumbling pejoratives, then going on with our day. However, the recent article of his on the Bowman affair, Israel and BDS was a travesty that needs to be countered. The beginning on the record of Bernie Sanders and on Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez is, of course, all true. Nothing to contest there. Yet, as soon as Lazare speaks on Israel and the boycott, divestment and sanctions campaign, he steers so far off course that one has to surmise if being this wrong is an art form.
In an interview with Al-Jazeera, Bernie Sanders roundly criticised BDS and deflected criticism of Israel by arguing that the United Nations focus on Israel was one-sided and criticisms also needed to be made of Saudi Arabia. Now, Lazare denounces BDS and makes the same argument. Imagine that, when we are discussing BDS and Israel, we stay focused on … Israel. To deflect to Saudi Arabia is to actually treat the Middle East as one big morass, and that is not to relativise the reactionary regime or its brutal genocide in Yemen.
The reason, also, that Palestine is such a vital issue, not to be submerged with everything else Middle Eastern, is that Palestine is a site of ongoing settler colonialism: a settler-colonialist project that represents the beachhead of US imperialism in the Middle East; a colonisation daily financed by US dollars. Furthermore, Saudi Arabia is not a normalised and popular state in the United States of America, though it has support from the US military and political classes. I never once heard any person in the US say anything positive about Saudi Arabia. Israel, however, is a site for adulation. Saudi Arabia is not normalised in the way Israel is, where tourism is accepted, where organisations pay for ‘Birthright’ trips, and where Israel is treated as orthodoxy. The whole point of BDS is to stop the normalisation of Zionist colonisation - a normalisation achieved in things like the sale of goods and tourism.
However, Lazare goes one step further than Sanders: he claims that BDS is actually a puppet of Saudi Arabia! What is his evidence? That the Palestinian National Authority (PNA) has taken money from Saudi Arabia. It has also taken money from the United Nations, the United Arab Emirates and the United States. Is it the puppet of Saudi Arabia or their great neighbouring rival, the UAE? Is it the plaything of Saudi Arabia or of the United States? Which one is it? Maybe it is the confused marionette of all of them at the same time? The PNA is in fact forced to take aid from any number of sources because it is absolutely unable to raise funds in any other way, not because it is at the behest of any one power.
If one is to label the PNA a puppet of anything, it is Israel. Lazare seems to be under the impression that the PNA is a state, but I can assure him that it is no state, but a policeman for Israel, helping guard a divided enclave of islands, put in place by the Oslo accords and upheld by Israeli military power. Under the Oslo accords, the PNA administers and deals with security in ‘zone A’. However, in ‘zone B’ they only deal with “civilian matters”, while Israel deals with security, and in ‘zone C’ Israel deals with both. What state has a territory divided into zones, cut up by another state, where it administers some parts of its territory with the help of another? None that I know of. Furthermore, the claim of Saudi Arabia giving money to the PNA and feeding BDS is patently false. BDS is not the sole possession of the PNA: it is a call rising up from Palestinian civil society, and the strong association of the two is not only false, but strange.
We then get the most unconscionable argument of them all, a true ‘galaxy brain’: ie, BDS is “scabbing”: it will hurt the Israeli working class and divide the Palestinian and Israeli working class. Historical analogy will suffice to demonstrate the falsity and bankruptcy of this position: eg, imagine that we asked for no boycott against South African apartheid - after all, we might affect the livelihood of white South African workers. What would we be, should we not help the sales and exports that feed the small Afrikaner farmer?! Of course, I doubt Lazare would have made that argument then. I can only predict though that he would suggest that the analogy between South Africa and Palestine is not valid, and therefore analogous strategies are unwarranted.
More importantly, it is vulgar workerism to think that in every single situation we must seek the unity of the working class. We are communists and must be clear on what basis we seek unity. According to Lazare, we would ask black share-croppers in the southern United States during Jim Crow to make their peace with white workers, forget the horrid racism and seek unity (on what basis I do not know). I also wonder how Lazare would have treated the Algerian revolution and the call for independence. Maybe we should have refused to support the National Liberation Front and their struggle, because the war would hurt the standing of the Pieds Noirs workers.
The truth is that unity can only be achieved when settler or chauvinist workers struggle against their racial prejudice. Forgetting all this, must we make our central strategy against Zionism depend on the Israeli working class? Must we seek unity on the terms of this mostly reactionary and backward section of the global working class - one that for now is deeply committed to Zionism? Pure tailism of the worst sort, pandering to backwardness.
As if all this were not enough, Lazare insinuates that Tempest is anti-Semitic because of the true claim that the Israeli working class cannot be seen as a principal ally in the struggle against Zionism. Why are they anti-Semitic? Because they did not specify the Jewish Israeli working class. I find this ridiculous. Lazare is practically every week doing the ‘culture warrior’ thing, bashing on the woke - but then in the flash of an eye he is willing to make such ‘identitarian’ arguments. Why is he egregiously wrong though? Israel is the self-proclaimed state of the Jews, even though it should never have the right to speak for such a diverse and loosely connected set of groups.
So Tempest is evidently not saying anything anti-Semitic: it is implicitly referring to the fact of Israeli apartheid. The Israeli working class - yes, the Jewish Israelis - has the rights and status it has because of the subordination of the Palestinian people and the colonisation of Palestinian lands. Its existence and origin lies in the displacement and elimination of Palestinians, and the class struggle within Israel is strongly shaped by a more fundamental antagonism of ‘indigenous versus settler’. I would ask that Lazare read the work of Matzpen and the inimitable work of Weekly Worker contributor Moshé Machover, ‘The class character of Israeli society’, to get clearer on all this.
BDS is a movement which sprang from Palestinian civil society as a strategy and tactic to generate repercussions to the endless colonisation of Palestinian land. It is meant to denormalise a project that for too long has been treated not simply as normal, but as noble. For socialists, BDS is a tactic that follows from our commitment to anti-imperialism, to the struggle of indigenous peoples for their land and rights against colonialism. Now more than ever, with the United States passing its largest military budget ever, with Israeli chauvinism on the rise, we must be clear that we will give “not one penny, not one man” to the Zionist settler-colonial project and that we stand by the struggle of the Palestinian people - as we stand by those of all colonised peoples - for self-determination.
Long live Palestine!
Daniel Lazare, in his article on the Democratic Socialists of America’s ‘Bowman affair’, writes that the decision of the national political committee (NPC) not to expel Congressman Jamaal Bowman comes as a shock.
If it came as a shock, it could only do so to somebody who has not paid attention to the strategic orientation of the DSA since it became the socialist organisation in the US in the wake of Bernie Sanders’ 2016 presidential campaign. Indeed, comrade Lazare shows he has not been paying attention to internal DSA debates, since his article is full of inaccuracies. Some are minor, like the fact that the NPC is a 16-member and not an 18-member body, but some are more egregious. For example, he claims:
… 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.
But that is pure fabrication.
Electronic Intifada can be put aside, since it is not a socialist group, but rather an independent publication focused on Palestine and not involved with the DSA. Tempest Collective, on the other hand, operates as a DSA faction (although there are also members who are not in the DSA. This way, Tempest has plausible deniability when accusations of reformism arise from others on the far left). It has, plainly speaking, been one of the most consistent critics of the strategy comrade Lazare accuses them of, both ideologically and practically.
In fact, the spontaneous campaign to discipline Bowman was the most promising effort to cohere a left wing towards a principled Marxist electoral strategy yet. It also resulted in a pyrrhic victory for the liquidationist forces. Here is a brief recap of events:
- October 1: members of the Marxist Unity Group circulated an online petition via Cosmonaut calling on the NPC to discipline Bowman for his vote to fund the Iron Dome. It received a little over 500 signatures and was delivered on October 13.
- October 30: Madison DSA in Wisconsin, which is the main chapter with Tempest influence, issued a letter voted on by the chapter calling for the expulsion of Bowman. The letter was co-written by a member of Tempest and a member of Marxist Unity Group. On November 4, a chapter in North Carolina followed suit.
- November 9: This is when Bowman takes his liberal-Zionist PR trip for Naftali Bennett.
- November 13-16: After Bowman coincidentally escalated the issue by taking the trip, nine more DSA chapters issue similar statements. The NPC acknowledges the issue and says it will meet with Bowman.
- November 17: The national working group for BDS and Palestine solidarity issues a statement with a list of demands Bowman must meet for the NPC meeting. This has the effect of giving the calls for expulsion a degree of legitimacy in the eyes of the average DSA member.
- November 18: the DSA Muslims working group signs onto the BDS working group letter. Liquidationists, now on the defensive, release the letter, ‘For unity, not unanimity’.
- November 19: The NPC meets with Bowman, but stays silent for the time being.
- November 22: The Nation reports that the NPC failed to get Bowman to commit to supporting BDS.
- December 1: By now 28 DSA chapters and 11 YDSA youth chapters have made statements in support of expulsion (there are 208 total chapters).
- December 2: The NPC releases the statement, ‘On the question of expelling Jamaal Bowman’. They do not vote to expel Bowman, but they do say they will withhold endorsement in his re-election campaign and condemn his actions. The NPC also
agrees with members who have signified the strategic importance of developing greater accountability for DSA electeds. In the aftermath of the Iron Dome vote, the NPC initiated a series of conversations on electoral strategy and governance … the NPC decided to re-evaluate our national endorsement process, further develop our electoral training program, and initiate a Socialists in Office committee where the NPC will oversee relationships and direct strategy in greater coordination with DSA elected officials. We are committed to this during our two-year term.
This two-month process was remarkable in two ways.
Firstly, the DSA ‘left’ has historically been a smattering of small groups that could not coordinate a picnic, much less a national strategy debate, or even agree on what it meant to be on the DSA ‘left’. In fact, most opposition to the dominant factions have expressed themselves as a crypto-anarchist struggle against the ‘national organisation’, or have taken an economistic and anti-electoral ‘base-building’ line, focused on ‘doing the work’ (such as building tenants unions) and ignoring electoral strategy rather than challenging it.
Neither the Libertarian Socialist Caucus nor the operaismo-inspired Communist Caucus, for example, publicly supported any of the left electoral resolutions written by Tempest, Socialist Alternative, Reform and Revolution or Marxist Unity, to my knowledge. In this crisis, it is possible to see the contours of a principled Marxist left emerging.
Secondly, it was remarkable in the sense that it created, without much coordination or planning, deep discussions and re-evaluations of DSA strategy within chapters from coast to coast, as well as dozens of articles from various formations. It had convinced people - even those who had voted and campaigned against the MU and Tempest resolutions at convention - of the need for a more disciplined electoral strategy, and got the NPC to create a body designed to move towards more direct ‘fraction’-type politics.
This, of course, could come to nothing, but, if Marxists work towards it, could become a route to the principled strategy laid out by Lenin in ‘Left’ wing communism. It put the dominant liquidationist strategy on the defensive and won conditions for the re-endorsement of Bowman, though it did fail to produce an expulsion, or even an official censure.
However, given the playing field of the DSA over the last four years, any expectation that this would result in an expulsion was fantasy. Germany’s war goals in 1914 included the annexation of France. If in late 1917 somebody had suggested that the Central Powers were losing the war because Germany had annexed one third of the Russian empire rather than France, they would have been rightly laughed at. Of course in the end, the Allies won the war and Germany suffered a humiliating defeat at the Treaty of Versailles.
It is not certain - maybe not even probable - that Marxists will succeed in winning over the DSA to become a principled Marxist party. Yet a strategy of patient struggle within it remains the best road to a socialist party in the US.
Marxist Unity Group, DSA