No, DSA Shouldn’t Expel Rep. Jamaal Bowman

New York congressman Jamaal Bowman has made a number of wrong decisions on Israel-Palestine. But socialists should criticize those errors without driving him away from the Palestine liberation movement and the Left.

Representative Jamaal Bowman speaks during a news conference in the Bronx, New York, on Thursday, June 3, 2021. (Jeenah Moon / Bloomberg via Getty Images)

How does a fledgling socialist movement keep politicians accountable? The question has been posed within Democratic Socialists of America (DSA) after Representative Jamaal Bowman voted to increase funding to Israel’s Iron Dome missile defense system this September and then recently participated in a trip to Israel sponsored by J Street, a liberal Zionist lobbying group.

In response to his actions, a small number of DSA chapters have called to expel Bowman, and the organization’s Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions (BDS) and Palestine Solidarity Working Group penned a statement and collected signatories. The statement has been signed by several dozen DSA chapters, along with a handful of outside organizations like Al-Awda New York. The statement reports on Bowman’s recent participation in J Street’s propaganda trip to Israel, which included a photo op with Israeli prime minister Naftali Bennett. The trip followed Bowman’s yes vote to provide an additional $1 billion to fund Israel’s Iron Dome missile defense system.

The Palestine working group’s statement includes a series of demands to be met by Bowman:

  1. Commit to uphold the call for BDS.
  2. Support pro-Palestinian legislation and oppose anti-Palestinian legislation in Washington.
  3. Participate in a travel boycott of Israel and Palestine.

The statement calls for his expulsion by DSA’s National Political Committee if he does not meet those demands.

It is incontrovertible that the congressman’s recent trip and vote for Iron Dome funding stands in opposition to DSA’s platform in support of Palestine and undermines a basic commitment to justice for Palestinians. The approval of an additional billion dollars to fund Iron Dome came after Israel’s flagrant war crimes in Gaza this spring. It served as a declaration that there is nothing Israel can do that would restrict US aid as a consequence. Both the trip and Bowman’s Iron Dome vote provide a liberal cover for the right-wing administration of Prime Minister Bennett, which is among the most right-wing the country has ever had. Bennett’s government wants to repair its image among progressives while it expands settlements, deepens its apartheid policies, and continues its violent oppression of Palestinians. Socialists should condemn such actions unequivocally.

Indeed, DSA issued a statement after the Iron Dome vote

condemning the barbaric vote by the Congressional House to fund Israel an additional $1 billion for their Iron Dome “missile defense system.” The US already provides nearly $4 billion in annual military aid to Israel. And this money is used to fund the countless violations of international law and Palestinian human rights.

The statement expressed disappointment at both Bowman and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, who voted present.

These votes in support of Israel’s barbaric treatment of Palestinians were wrong, and socialists are right to say so publicly. But expulsion isn’t the solution to this problem.

There are basic questions of democratic norms here, including the setting of a precedent of expelling members for political disagreements without due process. But there are broader political challenges for a growing socialist movement to grapple with. We need to keep politicians accountable — particularly those that we’ve endorsed — through democratic debate and engagement rather than immediate expulsion.

Through debate and education, socialists can strengthen and clarify its own positions along the way and win more members and allies to solidarity with Palestine. We can be clear and honest in our condemnation, deliberate thoughtfully over any disciplinary measures, and do so without unnecessarily isolating ourselves. This is particularly important at a moment when increasing numbers of people are understanding the apartheid conditions in Israel, but this growing consciousness is still in its infancy.

Which Politicians?

The first question socialists have to answer when we attempt to hold politicians accountable is: Which politicians are we talking about? Are they generally part of advancing or obstructing a left agenda? Are they in the pocket of the fossil fuel or pharmaceutical industry, or in bed with lobbyists from the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC)? Or have they, like members of the Squad and other democratic socialists in office, sworn off corporate contributions?

DSA’s Palestine working group is correct to point out the J Street is a pro-Israel lobby, just as AIPAC is. But J Street represents liberal Zionists, including of the Bernie Sanders variety.

J Street’s trip brought together a who’s who of progressive and liberal elected officials, including Barbara Lee, the only member of congress to vote against the authorization of force after the 9/11 attacks, and Mark Pocan, who has spoken and organized in favor of withholding military aid to Israel. Apart from Bowman, these officials aren’t socialists, and they’re not anti-Zionist, but they’ve been putting forward important criticisms and bills in Congress that are finally cracking decades of monolithic and bipartisan support for Israel. Socialists should work with them where we can take positive steps toward withholding financial support for Israel or exposing Israeli crimes, and criticize and debate them where they fall short.

Congressman Jamaal Bowman with Palestinian children in Hebron in the occupied West Bank. (Jamaal Bowman / Facebook)

The delegation attempted to visit Gaza, which flies in the face of the Zionist narrative of Gaza as a terrorist territory to be isolated and besieged. Bowman himself met with Rashida Tlaib’s Palestinian grandmother in the West Bank. He posed with children in Hebron and tweeted, “The occupation must end.” Bowman may be a liberal Zionist, but it’s safe to say that he is not a bloodthirsty tool of AIPAC. Rather, he represents a Bronx and Westchester County district composed of a large Jewish community, many (if not most) of whom are liberal Zionists.

Of course, in an ideal scenario, Bowman would not merely reflect the political beliefs of his constituents but also aim to shift his constituents toward democratic socialist positions, including standing in full solidarity with Palestinians. But the fact that he is not currently doing this and socialists are working to convince him to change his approach is a very different position for socialists to find ourselves in than one in which we’re opposing a politician who represents the enemy. Bowman’s position here is wrong, but he’s not the enemy.

Bowman has real material pressures affecting his positions on issues like Israel-Palestine, and in order to shift his political calculations, we have to build a movement that can both change public opinion in his district and strengthen the influence of DSA and other pro-Palestine organizations in relation to other forces pulling on him.

National political figures like Bowman or AOC may be members of DSA, but their affiliations are loose. Neither will depend on DSA to win reelection. In fact, Lower Hudson Valley DSA members debated endorsing a different candidate in the Democratic primary for Bowman’s district and only endorsed Bowman at his campaign’s end. The fact that both Bowman and AOC continue to meet with and engage with DSA and other activist organizations is a testament to the fact that they value these relationships and their political positions.

Rather than simply making a crass electoral calculus about how to get ahead in the Democratic Party machine, Bowman and AOC have sought out input from activists on a host of issues from Palestine to immigration to police violence. They’ve helped to popularize previously marginal ideas and emboldened the Left to fight for more aggressive demands.

Whatever the limitations and ambiguity of the Left’s relationship to national elected officials, more local democratic socialist legislators have a very different relationship to DSA chapters. In New York City, where six state legislators are members of DSA, these elected officials are in regular touch with their chapters, collaborating to set a citywide strategy together. Many of them were explicitly motivated to run for office as a result of becoming socialists. State senator Julia Salazar has said that attending Jacobin reading groups, for instance, played a formative role in her political education. And Assemblymember Zohran Mamdani has spoken explicitly about the need for him and other elected socialists to be accountable to their organization.

The infrastructure of New York City DSA — including six chapters rooted in the boroughs, a thriving labor branch, an electoral working group that has now helped a new generation of socialists win local office, and a “socialists in office” committee — has gone a long way to make this possible. DSA does not have the same type of relationships to national politicians, but as DSA grows, so too will its ability to have stronger ties to national figures and exert stronger influence on the political positions they take.

How Do We Shift Politicians?

Having an understanding of which politician you’re aiming to influence helps to determine how you influence them. If you’re trying to influence Joe Manchin, you know the only way to do so is to protest and make the cost of not changing his position too great to bear. If you’re trying to influence a politician who is an ally, albeit not one with your exact politics, then a different tack might be in order. Protest or expulsions shouldn’t be written off as possible tools. But the first order of business is to give politicians who are generally on the right side of things but who make mistakes (including big mistakes) a chance to change their positions.

Recall that both Rashida Tlaib and Ilhan Omar, the most outspoken defenders of Palestine in Congress, previously opposed BDS. and after engagement with pro-Palestine organizations both are now strong supporters. AOC has been somewhat inconsistent in her support for Palestine but has shifted significantly in a pro-Palestine direction over the last year.

And this spring, as Israel rained terror on Gaza in an eleven-day assault, Tlaib, Omar, AOC, Congresswoman Cori Bush, and others gave unprecedented speeches on the House floor openly criticizing the state of Israel, the occupation, and ethnic cleansing. Hundreds of thousands of people tuned in via social media across the country to receive a public education in the history and brutality of Israel’s colonial rule, and to hear members of the Squad call out Israel by its name: apartheid.

Ultimately, the answer to how we shift the more incongruent political stances of Jamaal Bowman and other figures who are “progressive except Palestine” is not separate from how we shift public sentiment on this question. Palestine has long been a third rail in American politics. That is finally beginning to change. But socialists have to recognize that we’re still in a relatively weak position, where most people are either ignorant or only beginning to learn of the reality of Palestine.

A knee-jerk response to write off or expel political allies who don’t completely line up with us will confine us to the continued marginality of purity politics. It earns the Left a reputation as those who would rather engage in endless Twitter wars than practical political work, and who take haughty, self-righteous, and impatient approaches with people who “don’t get it” — at a time when we are new and small, with an important but tiny core of elected socialists in office.

We need to hold political allies accountable through open criticism and education, and at times withholding endorsement or even censure or expulsion. But the aim has to be to try to shift them before we write them off. To expel at the outset only drives them further from the Left — and into the arms of liberal Zionist organizations like J Street.

On the Left and in American politics generally, support for justice for Palestine is finally on the ascendancy, but it is still in its baby stages. To advance both socialism and the Palestine movement requires building consciousness, organization, and political power. Instead of cutting off current or future allies in that project, we should cultivate them.