The Media Is Smearing the Democratic Socialists of America on Palestine

While mainstream politicians are supporting Israeli violence against civilians in Gaza, some in the media have focused on denouncing the left-wing group Democratic Socialists of America — and in doing so, they’ve played fast and loose with the facts.

The position of DSA and its members in Congress, like Rep. Rashida Tlaib (D-MI), on Palestine and Hamas's attacks on Israel have been cynically twisted by some in the mainstream media. (Anna Moneymaker / Getty Images)

The only power plant in Gaza is out of fuel. Hospitals there have backup electricity, but that’s not going to last for long. Hundreds of thousands of Palestinians have already been made homeless by Israel’s indiscriminate bombing campaign, with the full support — diplomatic, logistical, financial, and rhetorical — of the US government. As you read these words, desperate parents in Gaza are digging through the rubble of bombed apartment blocks to find their children, hoping against hope that they’re still alive.

With a handful of honorable exceptions, support for these flagrant and escalating war crimes has been depressingly bipartisan. No one on the wing of the Right that postures as antiwar with regard to Ukraine seems to have any interest in pumping the breaks on the assault on Gaza. And most Democrats aren’t much better. When New York’s Democratic governor, Kathy Hochul, was asked about her message to Palestinian Americans with family under the guns in Gaza in her state, she spouted talking points about “Israel’s right to defend itself” and the need for Palestinians to denounce Hamas without even a nod in the direction of human sympathy for those families.

In a society less twisted by militarism and bigotry toward Arabs and Muslims, Hochul’s response would have been a major scandal. In America in 2023, hardly anyone noticed. Instead, more people seem to be talking about the Democratic Socialists of America (DSA).

Everywhere, from mainstream media outlets to the New York State Legislature, the facts have been twisted into pretzels to portray one of the few groups consistently calling for a just and lasting peace as supporters of terrorism.

The Strange Case of Shri Thanedar

Shri Thanedar is one of the oddest politicians in my home state of Michigan. In 2018, he ran for the Democratic nomination for governor, coming in third behind centrist Gretchen Whitmer and “Berniecrat” Abdul El-Sayed. While Thanedar’s campaign platform was fairly progressive, the Left in Michigan lined up behind El-Sayed, with Thanedar widely distrusted. Public records showed that, in 2008, Thanedar made a substantial donation to Republican presidential candidate John McCain, which was certainly enough to raise an eyebrow or two in a Democratic primary, and he reportedly told multiple political strategists in 2017 that he “didn’t know whether he should run as a Republican, a Democrat, or an independent.” Strangely, his campaign was also marred by accusations that a company he once ran engaged in animal testing and had abandoned 173 dogs and monkeys in a laboratory.

Last year, though, Thanedar managed to get himself elected to Congress. For reasons known only to himself, he joined DSA — anyone can join the organization. DSA’s open membership policy makes the distinction between being a self-selecting member and a group-endorsed politician especially salient and critical. Neither Thanedar’s local chapter nor the national organization ever endorsed his campaign. Searches for his name on the organization’s local and national websites turn up nothing; they’ve never touted his membership, a pointed omission given that he’s a sitting US congressman. But despite being officially unclaimed by DSA, Thanedar’s name frequently shows up on third-party lists of DSA members in Congress across the internet.

In June, India’s extreme right-wing prime minister, Narendra Modi, addressed Congress. Another DSA member representing Michigan in Congress, Rashida Tlaib, condemned Modi’s human rights abuses and announced that she was boycotting the event. Thanedar personally escorted Prime Minister Modi to Congress for the address. Unsurprisingly, Thanedar’s local branch of DSA voted to expel him from the organization in September.

Fortunately for him, this seemed to fly under the media’s radar. A couple of days ago, he was able to announce, with great fanfare, that he was “resigning” from the organization that had already expelled him, citing DSA’s alleged “moral equivocation in the face of unadulterated evil as we have seen from Hamas” and his own commitment to “Israel and its right to defend itself.”

Writing in the New York Times on Wednesday, progressive columnist Michelle Goldberg uncritically repeated Thanedar’s version of events. So did just about everyone else in mainstream media. If you Google Thanedar’s name and “DSA,” you won’t find out about the expulsion vote until you’ve waded past pages and pages of reporters who simply transcribed Thanedar’s claim to have left of his own free will without doing even cursory fact-checking.

To repeat for emphasis: DSA expelled Shri Thanedar last month. This month, Thanedar announced he was leaving DSA over its putative views on Israel and Palestine — an announcement that’s been picked up by the Hill, MSNBC, Fox News, Politico, Forbes, and beyond, with outlets regurgitating his disparaging statements about the organization that expelled him.

That sequence of events just goes to show how careless and out of touch the mainstream media is with DSA, an organization they don’t understand and don’t care to.

DSA Condemns Hamas Killings and the Media Pretends It Didn’t

In her piece, Goldberg says that the New York City chapter of DSA promoted a rally in which some speakers applauded Hamas’s attacks on random Israeli civilians. DSA did not organize the rally, nor were the offensive speeches made by DSA members. Nevertheless, promoting the rally was a serious mistake, as NYC-DSA itself acknowledged the following day. While holding rallies in solidarity with the Palestinian population made sense at a time when Israel’s bombs had already started to drop on apartment blocks, it’s important to be careful not to work with organizations likely to muddle your intended message, and the New York rally included plenty of those.

It’s dishonest, though, for Goldberg — along with Helen Lewis at the Atlantic, among others — to mention NYC-DSA’s promotion of the rally in a way that suggests that even the NYC chapter of the organization, never mind the national organization, knew of the content of the speeches beforehand or agreed with the message of those speakers who trivialized or excused Hamas attacking civilians. Before NYC-DSA had even tweeted out its promotion of the rally, the national organization had already put out a commentary on the unfolding violence in the Middle East, stating that it “unequivocally condemn[s] the killing of all civilians” and calling for all parties to respect “international human rights law.”

The day after the New York rally — two days before Goldberg’s article — NYC-DSA apologized for its tweet promoting the event. The rest of the official statement said what you’d expect a group with a long track record of supporting de-escalation and a just peace in Israel and Palestine to say. The group situated the violence in the context of Israeli apartheid. It also stated, “We deeply mourn the loss of life in the region and unequivocally condemn all hatred and the killing of civilians.”

Goldberg acknowledges that some prominent leftists had condemned the killing of Israeli civilians — she gives the single example of Bernie Sanders. But she declined to acknowledge that NYC-DSA said the same two days before her column or that the national organization had said it days before that.

Writing on Sunday under the fire-breathing headline “Millennial Socialists Embrace Atrocities” in the “post-liberal” magazine Compact, Matthew Schmitz may have taken the prize for most misleading characterizations of DSA’s stance. Citing NYC-DSA’s promotion of the tweet and studiously ignoring the national organization’s unequivocal condemnation of any side killing civilians, Schmitz treated support for the worst statements made at the rally as the position of DSA as a whole. He wrote, “Six sitting members of Congress — Rashida Tlaib, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Cori Bush, Jamaal Bowman, Shri Thanedar, and Greg Casar — belong to the organization, which sets the tone for many political intellectuals and journalists.”

There’s just one problem — well, one problem besides the fact that Thanedar’s branch had voted to toss him out for unrelated reasons back in September. Five of the six figures he mentioned had put out statements that denounced Hamas’s killings of Israeli civilians. The sixth, Greg Casar, may not have felt any need to clarify his own position. He may still pay dues to DSA — I don’t know — but he’s not endorsed by the organization. (During last year’s election, he requested that his DSA branch drop their endorsement after Casar came into conflict with DSA over his support for US military aid to Israel.) To say all of this is far from the impression that Schmitz gave his readers would be a staggering understatement.

To be sure, some leftists really have said foolish, even awful, things this week that start from an entirely justifiable condemnation of Israel’s apartheid treatment of its stateless Palestinian population — and the mounting war crimes the Israeli military is committing in Gaza — and extends this stance into a perverse “enemy of my enemy” defense of Hamas. Regrettably, some of the people who talk like this may be among the seventy-five-thousand-plus Americans with DSA membership cards in their pockets, though they do not speak for the rest of us. While people who display a glib attitude regarding Hamas’s killing of Israeli civilians are not a large or powerful group, they nevertheless deserve our criticism; I’ve criticized such rhetoric several times in the last few days. But anyone who attributes these statements to DSA as an organization or to the elected officials who belong to it is distorting the record.

Moreover, this distortion is already having real-world consequences. Republicans in the New York State Legislature have already not only written a resolution condemning DSA but initiated an attempt to strip legislators who belong to the organization of their committee assignments and leadership roles — all based on the absolute lie that these legislators, by being in DSA, are “standing in support” of Hamas terrorism.

If the media accurately reported the position that’s actually been taken by DSA as a whole, and by some brave politicians like Rashida Tlaib and Cori Bush, I don’t doubt it would still be deeply controversial. Tlaib, Bush, and DSA have condemned Hamas’s massacre of Israeli civilians, but they haven’t treated it as a one-off event. Instead, as I wrote on Wednesday, they’ve situated it “as part of a cycle of violence, of attacks and counterattacks, massacres and counter-massacres, that started long before this last weekend” and emphasized that “this cycle of violence is rooted in a violently enforced system of apartheid.” They’ve even called for an end to US military aid, which is about as far as you can get from the bipartisan consensus on this issue.

The sentiments expressed by Tlaib, Bush, and DSA are likely to be deeply offensive to those mainstream voices — the Kathy Hochuls of the world — who want to paint Hamas’s attacks as a singular event and think the morally righteous stance is to “stand with Israel” as the Israeli army kills children in Gaza.

Fine. Let’s have that argument. But let’s have it fair and square, beginning by telling the truth about everyone’s positions.