For a few veteran members of the Democratic Socialists of America like Eric Lee, this year’s annual convention in Chicago was a rude awakening. The DSA’s ranks suddenly swelled with thousands of new members, mostly younger activists mobilized by the presidential campaign of Sen. Bernie Sanders and inspired by the success of socialist Labour Party leader Jeremy Corbyn in the U.K. Lee shared their excitement about Sanders, and about the prospects of socialism gaining traction among middle-class voters worn down by decades of neoliberal austerity. What he could not stomach, however, was the new DSA generation’s enthusiastic support for the boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS) movement.
Forged out of a consensus of Palestinian civil society organizations, BDS is a movement sweeping grassroots activism in the West that calls for the right of return of Palestinian refugees, equal rights for Palestinian citizens of Israel and an end to the occupation. On August 5, DSA members voted almost unanimously in support of a resolution to back BDS.
Immediately after the measure passed, spontaneous cheering erupted along with chants of “Free Palestine” and “From the river to the sea, Palestine will be free” as someone waved a giant Palestinian flag.
The vote sent Lee into a rage, and ultimately out of an organization he had been affiliated with for decades. “I cannot in good conscience be a member of an organization which promotes a boycott of the Jewish state,” he wrote in a post on his personal blog. “I consider the BDS campaign to be antisemitic and racist. I oppose it as a socialist and as a Jew. I am appalled that DSA would take such a position.” (In a previous blog entry, Lee boasted of his service in the Israeli military and defended its occupation of the Palestinian West Bank.)
Though the old DSA had its share of anti-Zionists, it has typically avoided contentious votes that might have rankled the sensibilities of left Zionists like Lee. But at the DSA’s convention this year, its members voted to end the party’s 35-year relationship with the Socialist International, a constellation of center-left parties that include the corruption laden Mexican PRI, the increasingly neoliberal Socialist Party of France and Germany’s SPD—all parties that supported the special relationship with Israel in one form or another. The vote set the stage for approving the resolution in support of BDS.
Formed in 1982, DSA grew out of the Democratic Socialist Organizing Committee and the New American Movement. Membership has more than tripled in the last two years to over 25,000, owing largely to the momentous energy behind Bernie Sanders’ presidential campaign, anger with Trump and widespread disillusionment with the Democratic Party. The new members have brought fresh life and vital new perspectives to the group, allowing it to shake off whatever vestiges of Zionism remained among members, particularly that handful who still believed in the ethnically exclusive “socialism” of the kibbutzim. For the new generation of DSA members, supporting the Palestinian civil society boycott of Israel made more sense than seeking common ground with liberal-left Israeli parties like Meretz or Labor whose leadership had thrown their weight behind Israel’s past three wars on the Gaza Strip.
The question of how to respond to Israel has long been an issue that divided DSA members. The breakdown among the ranks went something like this: certain members (usually older), tried to reconcile socialism with Zionism by condemning the Israeli right while ignoring the many human rights abuses carried out by so-called leftists in the name of engineering a demographic majority for Jews in Palestine. Other members (usually younger), supported BDS unequivocally, recognizing it as the latest manifestation of a time-tested means of nonviolent protest and the most powerful force to combat Israeli apartheid in the 21st century. These contradictory stances led to some interorganizational disputes, but without a vote on the official stance, determining how many people believed what, and what they thought DSA should do about it, remained a challenge.
Support from France’s Mélenchon and a direct challenge to Democrats
Chip Gibbons joined DSA earlier this year after being involved in BDS activism since 2007. An architect of the BDS resolution, he sees Palestine solidarity as an essential component of the socialist tradition of internationalism.
Gibbons told me that a representative of La France Insoumise, the party of French leftist presidential candidate Jean-Luc Mélenchon, commended the delegates after they passed the measure.
The text’s other main author, Delé Balogun from DSA’s North Chicago chapter, saw Israel’s occupation up close when he joined the African Heritage Delegation to Palestine, a special trip to Israel-Palestine aimed at fostering Black solidarity for the Palestinian struggle. At this past weekend’s convention, Balogun was elected to the 16-person National Political Committee, DSA’s primary governing body.
DSA’s resolution arrives at a crucial moment for the BDS movement. Democratic Senator Ben Cardin of Maryland recently introduced a bill called the Israel Anti-Boycott Act that would make boycotting Israel a felony punishable by up to a $1 million fine or 20 years in prison. After a major public backlash, Cardin amended the bill so it would not apply to individuals and would not apply criminal penalties to violators, but the language remains disturbingly vague.
The DSA resolution took direct aim at Cardin, declaring that “DSA strongly opposes the Israel Anti-Boycott Act, which would make it a felony to advocate or support boycotts targeting Israel, as well as all similar legislation at the state and local levels.” With this statement, DSA has recorded its formal objection to the reactionary brand of hate speech laws that have already led to the arrests and convictions of BDS activists in France.
Rising anti-imperialism in DSA’s ranks
Though DSA has come under fire from some quarters for its perceived indifference to imperialism, the organization’s critics may surprised to learn that over 90% of the delegates voted for the BDS resolution on Saturday morning. The 700 delegates’ votes, representing 42 local and statewide chapters, were so close to unanimous than an official tally wasn’t necessary.
“Those who struggle against oppression and for equality will always have our support,” said DSA Deputy National Director David Duhalde in an official statement. “Just as we answered the call to boycott South Africa during apartheid, we stand in solidarity with the Palestinian people.” Rawan Tayoon, a Palestinian activist with DSA’s youth wing (known as Young Democratic Socialists, or YDS), added, “Democratic socialists aren’t afraid to challenge the status quo and demand what’s right. We stand against imperialism, we stand against racism, and so we must stand against Israeli apartheid and occupation.”
An informal group within DSA calling itself Democratic Socialists for Justice in Palestine workshopped and revised the text multiple times in order to maximize the impact of the statement and ensure that it represented the spirit of democratic socialism. Olivia Katbi Smith, a Portland delegate and member of the group, felt a sense of urgency in drafting the document: “As an Arab woman and a democratic socialist, it was incredibly important to me that the BDS resolution passed, especially in the face of the disgusting anti-BDS legislation that's currently being pushed nationally.” She saw the vote as a chance for DSA members to participate in campaigns with concrete goals and demonstrated successes—an opportunity to go beyond moral symbolism and performative politics.
“Frankly this organization should have endorsed BDS a decade ago,” says Smith, reflecting the mood of many longtime DSA members. “As socialists we have a responsibility to side with the oppressed and commit to their unconditional liberation, and it's about time that DSA takes a public stand in solidarity with our Palestinian brothers and sisters.”