There’s a popular misquote from Mahatma Gandhi: “First they ignore you, then they laugh at you, then they fight you, then you win.” New York City Democratic Socialists of America (NYC-DSA), who are being slandered by fifty-two NYC State Assembly Democrats as antisemitic, seem to be following this path. A few weeks after the NYC-DSA slate swept their State Legislature elections alongside winning important congressional primaries, the chapter’s candidate questionnaire was scrutinized and denounced.
The candidate interviews include two on the question of Israel: Do you pledge not to travel to Israel if elected to the City Council? And do you support the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions movement? NYC-DSA has clarified that the trips to Israel in question are specifically political propaganda trips, not personal trips.
NYC-DSA is accused of “singling out” Israel on their questionnaire. In fact, there is no other country where state and city officials are taken on all-expenses-paid junkets to deepen political ties between local politicians to other nations. Imagine the uproar if Iranian or Chinese organizations took council members on pro-government tours of their country.
The charge of “singling out” Israel is an attempt to make the nation out as the victim — despite its current bombing of Gaza, threatening annexation of the West Bank, and long history of discrimination and ethnic cleansing. Far from singling out Israel, supporters of Palestinian rights are the same people who oppose oppression and imperialism everywhere.
Insofar as Israel is “singled out,” it is for those aspects of the US/Israeli relationship that are indeed singular: No other country receives as great or as consistent financial, military, and political support. And there is no other country where it is assumed (and not so subtly enforced) that criticism of its history or policies must be off the table.
Mayor Bill de Blasio (who visited Israel as city public advocate in 2011, and again as mayor in 2015) predictably lined up to condemn DSA. “I would hope and pray,” he lectured, “that no DSA chapter would decide not to endorse a local candidate over an international affairs issue. If they do that kind of thing, they’re just pushing people away.” But touring local politicians in other countries is inherently forcing a topic of “international affairs.”
Centrist Democrats are following a familiar playbook of weaponizing antisemitism to attack and isolate the Left, a strategy that sadly has only undermined the struggle against the discrimination of Jews by clouding and minimizing actual antisemitism.
This common blueprint rests on the assumption that the question of Israel and Palestine is a third rail in American politics, and that NYC-DSA should never have been so brash and extreme as to touch it. Indeed, the liberal left has historically tried to avoid talking about it, often building anti-war movements that skirted the issue in order to curry favor with mainstream Democratic politicians.
The problem with this playbook is that it has been played out. From leftist politicians on Capitol Hill, to the progressive Jewish community’s leading intellectuals and movie stars alike, talking about Israeli oppression of Palestinians is no longer taboo.
Just as important, the issues that have propelled socialists into New York state legislature: health care, housing, education, and anti-racism, are of a piece with the politics of solidarity with oppressed people abroad. Though most New Yorkers are more familiar with issues at home than they are with those abroad, support for Palestine is increasingly resonant, particularly with younger voters.
The assembly members that denounced DSA ended their statement with a chilling line that harkens back to Red Scare–era red-baiting of old: “No political organization that embeds antisemitism to its platform should be welcome in the halls of our legislature.” We should take such attacks seriously, but also recognize that nods to Trumpian repression is unlikely to win favor among Democratic voters.
The politicians that have lined up to smear DSA may well be looking for a dividing line between themselves and their new radical counterparts. But voters have become tired of politics as usual.
Leftist candidates and politicians have only grown in popularity precisely by highlighting those very lines, and by taking principled stances for solidarity and for the liberation of oppressed and exploited people. As Simone Zimmerman, of B’tselem USA and IfNotNow, put it: “DSA building power without compromising on Palestine is threatening, so they need to delegitimize it.”
Democratic socialists are building a politics of solidarity rather a politics of conciliation. In that vein, NYC-DSA eloquently responded to the slanders of antisemitism with a statement explaining what is really at stake:
We need legislators who are working tirelessly on behalf of the oppressed. That means rewriting the rules of an economy that rewards the rich while trampling over the working class, and guaranteeing social rights for everyone in our state. It also means criticizing injustice all over the world. The attacks on DSA are first and foremost an attack on our solidaristic principles, the same ones that sent Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel to march arm-in-arm with Martin Luther King Jr. in Selma for justice in this nation.
These politics, though still in the minority in the halls of government, are gaining momentum. The recent attacks on NYC-DSA are only an admission of the chapter’s growing influence and power. It entrenches establishment Democrats further to the right, while highlighting the uncompromising politics of those on the Left.