The rise of the Squad in Congress mirrored the explosive growth of the Democratic Socialists of America. Left-wing lawmakers, all national celebrities, have promoted DSA and partnered with the organization on crucial legislation. In turn, young socialists flocked to representatives of the insurgents, lending the volunteers needed for controversial campaigns.
Last week, perhaps for the first time, this partnership fell apart. Some chapters of the DSA and a number of socialist leaders have called for the expulsion of representative Jamaal Bowman from the organization. Bowman, a New York Democrat and DSA member who defeated Eliot Engel in 2020, came up against these chapters for making a recent trip to Israel and meeting with new right-wing prime minister Naftali Bennett. He also drew the ire of DSA members for voting in favor of funding Israel’s Iron Dome defense system and refusing to support the boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS) movement against Israel.
“I think we need to hold our elected officials to higher standards,” said Jen Edwards, co-chair of Madison Area DSA in Wisconsin. “One of our very similar principles is solidarity with Palestine and support for BDS. Jamaal Bowman’s decision to repeatedly vote for funding the IDF, including the Iron Dome vote and his recent visit to Israel and meeting with the Parliament of Israel, directly conflicts with these principles. .
Several other chapters, including Pittsburgh, Orlando and Las Vegas, called for Bowman’s ouster. The DSA’s BDS task force and Palestine Solidarity have joined their calls, demanding that Bowman be kicked out unless he explicitly supports BDS. “Now is not the time for us to lower our expectations by allowing approved candidates to deprioritize Palestine as the third rail problem, selling all of our socialist principles by extension,” the group said in a statement.
Bowman met with the DSA’s national political committee on Friday, which has the power to expel members of the organization. The NPC asked Bowman if he would publicly support BDS and he refused. The discussion about Zoom, according to those involved, was otherwise friendly.
Bowman is unlikely to be kicked out of the DSA – and other members and sections have vigorously pushed back efforts to oust him from the socialist organization, which has nearly 100,000 members across the country and more than 100, including Bowman and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, in elected office. Bowman’s supporters in DSA organized a letter, titled “For Unity, Not Unanimity,” which brought together dozens of signatories from the DSA locals. The DSA chapter in Bowman’s own district did not call for his eviction.
“As socialists our concern is to make material progress towards justice, not just to send messages about what justice is,” the letter read. “Forcibly evicting an elected official the DSA has helped put in place may seem like an act of power, but it reflects a weakness, not a strength. Strong movements can move allies and comrades to their positions.
Expelling Bowman, the signatories argued, “could send a strong signal about our position on BDS, but it will not provide any material aid to the Palestinian cause.”
David Duhalde, vice president of the fundraising arm of the DSA and signatory of the letter, said he had seen an “erosion of democratic standards” happening in the DSA and argued that calls for Bowman’s deportation lacked due process. “This effort is excessively punitive and is not done in a way that would give it a fair hearing. This would not allow the organization to advance the cause of Palestinian liberation.
Bowman’s office declined to comment on the debate. Defenders for the congressman, however, noted that he made the trip with J Street, a progressive organization that supports Zionism but speaks for Palestinian rights, unlike the more powerful American Committee on Israeli Political Affairs (AIPAC). Bowman and the delegation attempted to travel to Gaza but were refused permission, although he was able to meet the Palestinian grandmother of Rashida Tlaib, the Michigan representative and member of the Squad, in the occupied West Bank.
Bowman is not the only leftist congressman refusing his support for BDS. Ocasio-Cortez and Bernie Sanders, who is not technically a paying member of the DSA, refused to support the non-violent boycott movement, which is opposed by large segments of the American Jewish community. Ocasio-Cortez also recently angered the DSA and other progressives when it voted “present” to fund Iron Dome instead of opposing it.
There are political realities that Bowman faces that are unique to his district. Engel, whose seat is now the former head of a public school, was the chairman of the House of Representatives Committee on Foreign Affairs and a staunch Israeli hawk. The Bowman District, which spans the Bronx and Westchester County, is home to a large Jewish community. A progressive in foreign policy, Bowman sought to limit the US military presence abroad, supporting an amendment that would have withdrawn troops from Syria. He was also willing to reprimand other members of the New York delegation who unequivocally escalated Israeli violence against Palestinians.
For DSA, the dispute and reconciliation with Bowman represents both the promise and the peril of a decentralized socialist movement. The great autonomy conferred on individual chapters has led to a number of surprising successes, such as New York’s left turn in the state legislature and the Socialist takeover of the Nevada Democratic Party. It has also, on occasion, spawned internal feuds and alienation – Summer Lee, a rising state lawmaker now running for Congress, recently left the DSA chapter in Pittsburgh after disagreements with the socialists there.
Unlike other organizations on the larger left, the DSA has resisted professionalization and has deliberately avoided becoming another Working Families Party or Sunrise Movement. On the one hand, this is understandable because the DSA is a mass democratic organization, unlike most progressive nonprofit groups. Decisions are made through genuine member engagement and campaigns are only sustained when there is a belief that a sufficient number of volunteers can be called in to knock on doors, make phone calls and raise funds. As a socialist organization, the DSA ultimately seeks to hold elected members accountable to the locals and the principles they support, refusing to broadly or easily endorse politicians.
But left-wing professional organizations have the advantage of employing more paid staff to meet with legislators on a regular basis. Although DSA worked with Bowman on the Green New Deal for public schools, Socialists rarely scheduled formal meetings with the left-wing lawmaker. The imposition of a litmus test on BDS raises a thorny question for DSA: Which principles are de facto red lines that supported candidates should not violate – and which others can be massaged? Medicare for All, for example, appears to be much more non-negotiable than BDS, which has long been controversial even among many progressives. Does threatening Bowman with deportation make him more or less likely to embrace the cause of Palestinian rights and BDS? Will future Democrats seeking the approval of the DSA move closer or further to the greater Palestinian liberation struggle?
Arguably in the North Bronx and Westchester leftists can’t do better than Bowman, who replaced a Democrat who backed the Iraq War and Likud. Purging the DSA would probably do more harm to the socialist organization in the short term than to Bowman’s political career. Unlike the Ocasio-Cortez campaign of 2018, DSA did not engage with Bowman much in 2020 and only approved him near Election Day. Their influence over him, for now at least, may be limited.
As DSA continues to grow and more leftists like Bowman take office with their backing, debates over how grassroots socialists should relate to those in power – and the political disagreements that should spark the censorship or outright expulsion – will likely rage again.
“This is a reflection of our policy maturing,” said Chris Kutalik Cauthern, DSA communications director. “A lot of people like to talk about DSA as a substitute for a party or a party within a party. As DSA comes together and becomes a mass organization, we will have to face it. to these problems. ”