Democratic Socialists of America Is a Key Player in the Fight Against Israel’s Assault on Gaza

Across the country, DSA has faced attacks and slander for opposing Israel’s human rights atrocities in Gaza. It’s a testament to how effective socialist antiwar organizing, in coalition with other progressive groups, has been.

US representative Rashida Tlaib addresses the crowd as Jewish Voice for Peace holds a large rally and civil disobedience action at the US Capitol in Washington, DC, October 18, 2023. (Bill O'Leary / the Washington Post via Getty Images)

Who speaks for people of conscience at this moment? The world is watching with horror and grief as the Israeli government, with the funding and approval of our own, slaughters thousands of Palestinian children. Polls show that two-thirds of Americans want a cease-fire; support is similarly high in the international community. Yet only a handful of Democratic politicians have signed onto that demand.

Given the polls, it’s not because a cease-fire isn’t popular. Mainstream Democratic leaders’ lack of courage in the face of widespread human rights violations and the deaths of over ten thousand as of this writing has left a moral vacuum demanding peace — into which Democratic Socialists of America (DSA), along with many Arab and Jewish organizations, has stepped.

DSA (of which, full disclosure, I am a member) is demanding an end to US funding for the Israeli occupation of Palestine and calling for an immediate cease-fire. The group and its coalition partners have organized too many actions to list, oftentimes multiple on a single day. It’s worth recounting just a few of those actions to understand the role that the group has played in demanding peace in Gaza right now — which is also why a target has been put on DSA’s back by the forces opposing such peace.

Last week, for example, the group joined actions organized with Jewish Voice for Peace (JVP), Desis Rising Up and Moving, and others at the New York offices of Yvette Clarke, Gregory Meeks, and Grace Meng demanding that these Democratic congressional representatives sign onto a cease-fire resolution backed initially by DSA-supported and -affiliated politicians like Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Cori Bush, Rashida Tlaib, and Jamaal Bowman, but which now includes twenty-two House members and, in the Senate (unpredictably) Dick Durbin.

While it is always difficult to precisely measure the impact of public pressure on politicians’ decisions, there is no doubt that DSA’s organizing alongside other groups is playing a role in building growing support for a cease-fire on Capitol Hill. Last week, 150 Mid-Hudson Valley DSA members protested at the offices of Democratic congressman Pat Ryan, who likely owes his seat to the turnout boost last year from DSA-endorsed assemblywoman Sarahana Shrestha’s campaign (their districts overlap, and Ryan faced a tight race against a Republican). DSA has also protested at the home offices of Chellie Pingree (Maine) and Hakeem Jeffries (Brooklyn), among other politicians, and the group has been bird-dogging some elected officials to pressure them — a tactic that activists say has worked on some progressive Democrats, like Brooklyn congresswoman Nydia Velázquez, who signed onto the cease-fire demand.

The group’s phone banks have been the biggest of its history. So far, DSA members say the group has made over two hundred thousand calls to members of Congress, demanding a cease-fire. The phone banks, which have also provided political education sessions about the issue, have targeted elected officials in New York, Chicago, Atlanta, northern New Jersey, Los Angeles, East Bay, San Antonio, St Louis, Austin, Boston, Rhode Island, Cape Cod, Worcester, and elsewhere.

Massive rallies and civil disobedience are usually only a small part of DSA’s activism, but on this issue, members say organizing visible public dissent is especially important. Cihan Tekay Liu is an organizer with New York City DSA’s (NYC-DSA) Palestine Solidarity Committee. She is Muslim and originally from Turkey, where she says she has been blacklisted from the public sector for antiwar activism and because of her opposition to that country’s treatment of its Kurdish minority. Liu, who lives in the Bronx, explains that DSA wanted to “proudly and loudly take a stance publicly in New York City, in public space in such an important center of this country and of the world.”

Washington, DC, rallies cosponsored with groups like JVP and IfNotNow have drawn tens of thousands, the biggest in the group’s history. DSA has also organized protests in smaller cities like Portland, Maine. Members have been arrested as part of mass civil disobedience, including at Grand Central Station in an action principally organized by JVP that saw over three hundred people arrested on October 27.

DSA’s own elected officials have taken action, too. In New York City, they have been arrested in multiple separate civil disobedience actions. In Chicago, city council member Rossana Rodriguez-Sanchez introduced a council resolution calling on President Biden to work for a cease-fire. In Philadelphia, State Senator Nikil Saval and Pennsylvania House representative Rick Krajewski shared a bullhorn at a massive protest at 30th Street Station.

The Palestine actions are building the organization: participants have told organizers they have found phone banks by Googling “ceasefire phone-bank” and finding a DSA-organized action. People have joined the organization as a result, and some have ridden DSA-organized buses to the protests in Washington, DC. “When I was sending mass texts,” Liu says, “people were answering me, expressing their gratitude, or hesitation, but either way wanting to have more conversation, sharing grief.”

By working to save Palestinian lives, DSA is also helping to rebuild the American antiwar movement, which has been quiescent since 2003, the last time Americans took mass action against their own country’s role in bloodshed and empire.

Explaining why she has been so involved in this work, Liu speaks in the idiom of Bernie 2020. “I’m antiwar in Turkey and antiwar in the US,” says Liu. “It’s very simple for me, because socialism is caring for someone you don’t know.”

DSA’s level of action and intensity on this issue has been escalating, despite the enormous McCarthyite backlash and efforts at intimidation by political elites. After NYC-DSA retweeted but did not endorse a call for an emergency rally for Palestine in Midtown Manhattan that featured rhetoric widely derided as insensitive to Israeli grief, Democratic mayor Eric Adams falsely accused NYC-DSA of “carrying swastikas and calling for the extermination of the Jewish people.” The New York Post falsely claimed that the socialist group cheered the murder and kidnapping of Israelis. Hudson Valley Republican congressman Mike Lawler introduced a House resolution condemning DSA and insisting that “NYC-DSA held a rally celebrating the murderous rampage of Hamas terrorists throughout Israel.”

This narrative was clearly a lie, as Ted Hamm has explained in the Indypendent, and politically motivated. While most NYC-DSA members probably agree that retweeting the rally so soon after the Hamas attacks was a mistake, it also soon became clear that the slander directed at DSA was not actually about that mistake — it was an attempt by long-standing enemies of the Left to destroy the movement, wielding the supposed concern for Israel and antisemitism as a convenient cudgel.

Ashik Siddique, a member of DSA’s National Political Committee, says that figures like Mayor Adams are trying “to divide the movement from the masses broadly, and divide it inside between Muslims and Jews, streets and statehouses. The more you think about it, the more heinous it is: supporters of the most powerful government on Earth trying to make us defend our own morality while they are the ones funding a genocide.”

A Democratic pro-Israel group has been running ads denouncing DSA-endorsed Rashida Tlaib, the only Palestinian-American in Congress, for her support of the cease-fire. Republican congresswoman Marjorie Taylor Greene, a right-wing January 6 diehard, attempted to censure Tlaib on the floor of Congress for allegedly leading a “pro-Hamas insurrection at the Capitol complex” — what was actually simply a protest calling for a cease-fire. (That was too much even for some members of Greene’s own party, and was voted down by twenty-three Republicans.) Other supporters of the cease-fire, including Jamaal Bowman of New York and Summer Lee of Pennsylvania, face primary opposition from Democrats backed by pro-Israel interests, and many local DSA-endorsed candidates are likely to face similar political repercussions for their activism.

Most American leftists have historically buckled under pressure of the sort that DSA — and all Palestine supporters — have been facing in recent weeks. Some seem nostalgic for that past. A couple of prominent self-described socialists dramatically and publicly quit DSA last month, retailing the right-wing narrative on the organization and predictably winding up covered by Fox News. It would not have surprised most outside observers, right or left, if DSA had backed down after the torrent of slander — especially given the McCarthyite-like environment in the United States right now when it comes to Palestine, with some supporters of Palestine losing their jobs, Palestinian and other Arabic cultural events being canceled, and the label “antisemitic” being thrown at nearly anyone who objects to Israel’s brutality.

That would have been a huge mistake. To back down, says Siddique, would have allowed “the ruling class to use Palestine as a wedge to cow electoral organizing, threaten legislative organizing, and suppress labor organizing — to even pit them against each other. Instead, we’ve learned from years of struggle how to use them to become stronger.”

This time, DSA and Palestine have a majority on their side. Since the 9/11 forever wars, Siddique says, the political situation has dramatically shifted. After 9/11, there was one single vote in Congress against war: Barbara Lee. Today, Siddique points out, there are many more, “led by DSA and DSA-friendly congress members organizing for a cease-fire” — something “essentially unimaginable less than ten years ago.”

In a bleak time for this country and for the world, socialists are suggesting the possibility of a better future, wrought not only of domestic redistribution, but by an end to war and empire. They are taking action in a political landscape that encourages depressed passivity.

“I am proud to say DSA members are the most united I have ever seen us,” says Siddique. “Our tens of thousands of members coming together from across the country to do anything and everything we can to fight back against the US-funded genocide campaign in Palestine.”