Daily Beast

Israel Boycott Backlash: ‘This Is Not the DSA I Founded’

The Democratic Socialists of America has tripled in size since 2016—and alienated some of its original members in the process

Former Adjunct Fellow

At its national convention in Chicago this past weekend, Democratic Socialists of America, the group founded in 1982 by the late Michael Harrington with Irving Howe and other noted social-democrats, passed a resolution in support of the worldwide Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions movement, stigmatizing and endangering Israel as a legitimate Jewish state.

The resolution “declares itself in solidarity with Palestinian civil society’s nonviolent struggle against apartheid, colonialism, military occupation and for equality, human rights and self-determination.” To achieve that goal, DSA proclaims that it is “fully supporting BDS.”

The statement avoids any mention of the rights of Israelis to have a Jewish state, and does not even put forth the alternative of working for a two-state solution. Instead, the resolution “condemns all efforts to deny the right of Palestinians in the United States and their allies to free speech, assembly, and academic freedom.” The last phrase comes at a moment when pro-Palestinian groups on the campuses regularly try to prevent defenders from Israel from speaking, and when the Women’s March heralded Linda Sarsour, a Palestinian-American BDS activist, as one of its official leaders.

With Trump’s rise, DSA has exploded from 8,000 members in 2016 to 25,000 now—making it the largest socialist group in the United States. Many of its members play major roles in local, state, and national movements, and some are running in democratic primaries for city and state offices. Many of Bernie Sanders’ supporters joined the organization at the end of his unsuccessful campaign.

As such, DSA is in a position to support and widen the reach of the far left of the Democratic Party, which in the past few years has been developing a strong anti-Israel posture, so far blocked by pro-Israel Jewish Democrats like Senators Chuck Schumer of New York, Al Franken of Minnesota, Chris Van Hollen and Ben Cardin of Maryland, and House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, who has said “The United States’ commitment to Israel’s security is and will remain unbreakable.” Many of these Democrats are both steadfast supporters of a two-state solution, although critical of Israeli policies such as settlement expansion and growth. But they all defend Israel’s right to exist, and firmly oppose the BDS movement that threatens it.

Indeed, Congress will soon vote on an anti-BDS resolution first introduced in the House in 2016 by Rep. Peter Roskam of Illinois and Juan Vargas of California, and in March 2017 in the Senate by Sen. Ben Cardin of Maryland, along with 48 other co-sponsors of the Anti-Israel Boycott Act, a largely symbolic bi-partisan bill that protests economic warfare against Israel, opposes “restrictive trade practices or boycotts fostered or imposed by an international governmental organization, or requests to impose such practices or boycotts, against Israel.”

While polls show declining support for Israel among Democrats, the Jewish state has a large amount of support from Republicans, and from the American public. By signing on to BDS and joining a movement that’s swept college campuses here, DSA is embracing the agenda of the far left in Europe. It is taking the same approach toward Israel as Jeremy Corbyn is taking in Britain’s Labour Party. Corbyn, though, will soon to be pushed into irrelevance. His loss to Theresa May was close, but he won the support of ideological youth and voters while traditional working-class voters were alienated by him.

As Daniel Allington explained in the New Statesman, “In other words, working class voters, voters not educated to college level, and voters in ethnically homogeneous areas love Corbyn’s Labour Party even less than they loved Miliband’s. Meanwhile middle class voters, those educated to college level or higher, and voters in ethnically diverse areas love it even more… Corbyn may have put together an unexpectedly large anti-Tory coalition of voters, but it’s largely concentrated in areas that already vote Labour—and traditional Labour voters are being driven faster than ever into the Tories’ arms.”

Were the Democratic Party to follow Corbyn’s lead, it risks becoming as weak and isolated as Labour is poised to become in Britain.

Turning against Israel is also a major departure from where the founders of the DSA stood. Both Michael Harrington and Irving Howe were critical of aspects of Israeli policy, and friendly to the old socialist leadership of Israel’s earliest years. Yet they unreservedly supported the existence of the state of Israel, and favored a two-state solution. Indeed, I heard Harrington once stress in front of a DSA meeting that support for Israel was a position that democratic socialists held as a matter of principle, which along with opposition to Soviet totalitarianism, would never be reversed.

Eric Lee, a founder of the Democratic Socialist Organizing Committee, DSA’s predecessor organization founded in 1975, and later was on DSA’s National Board and a staff member in its offices, rejoined the group during the Sanders campaign after years of inactivity. He offered a simple explanation for why he was again leaving DSA after the convention vote: “I cannot in good conscience be a member of an organization that promotes a boycott of the Jewish state,” calling BDS both “antisemitic and racist,” and declaring that he opposed it as a “socialist and a Jew.”

Replying to Lee, another founding member, Jo-Ann Mort, wrote “Michael Harrington would not have accepted an organization like DSA is today.” Another founder, Alex Spinrad, wrote that “This is not the DSA that I founded with many others,” because that organization would never have supported a movement “which denies my people—the Jewish people—the right to self-determination.”

How ironic that a group that calls itself democratic is now undermining the one full democracy in the Middle East. DSA is mimicking the sectarian anti-Zionist positions which the old Communist and Trotskyist groups held since the 1920s, and extreme-left groups like “International Answer” hold in our time. These sectarians see destruction of Israel as their sine qua non. They view Israel as the enemy of socialism, and support Arab and Palestinian terrorist groups in their effort to tear down the Jewish state. To them, the first credential for being left-wing is to be opposed to Israel.

DSA is so out of touch with mainstream democratic positions, that one finds even Sanders himself recently appearing on Al Jazeera to defend Israel’s right to exist and vigorously oppose BDS.

As the historian Stephen H. Norwood writes in his bookAntisemitism and the American Far Left, “when confronted with the choice of supporting militant Islamists or the United States, the contemporary far left will choose the former and will align itself even with a reactionary theocracy like Iran because it considers itself anti-imperialist.” Now, it is apparent that the group that once sought to avoid the extremes, and to work within the mainstream Democratic Party to push it slightly to the left, has itself become an extension of sectarian Leninist factions. When DSA delegates cheer the resolution’s passing, with some marching through the ballroom with Palestinian flags chanting “From the river to the sea, Palestine will be free,” they show the world that despite their name, they too have abandoned democracy for the chimera of revolutionary nationalism.

Some years ago, the social-democratic intellectual, Michael Walzer, writing in the journal Dissentwrote the following about what a leftist foreign policy should not be:

Another much-used shortcut… is to oppose everything Israel does and to blame it for much that it hasn’t done, since it is the “lackey” of American imperialism or, alternatively, the dominant force in shaping American foreign policy. The policies of the current Israeli government require radical criticism… Nonetheless, the anti-Israel shortcut is an example of the leftism of fools.

Sadly, DSA has proved that it too has adapted what August Bebel, the 19th century German socialist, called “the socialism of fools.” I suspect that Howe and Harrington, its founding intellectuals, as the saying goes, are turning over in their graves.