The Democratic Socialists of America decided not to expel Rep. Jamaal Bowman (D-N.Y.), a dues-paying member of the group, for actions he took that conflict with the DSA’s support of the boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS) movement against Israel.
The group, which endorsed Bowman’s 2020 primary run, is nonetheless withholding its 2022 endorsement of Bowman “unless he is able to demonstrate solidarity with Palestine in alignment with expectations we have set,” the DSA’s national political committee said in a statement Thursday. To begin the process of seeking the DSA’s national blessing, chapters in Bowman’s district would first need to nominate him for reelection.
Calls for Bowman’s expulsion from the DSA gained traction among individual DSA members and local chapters following a trip he took to Israel in November with the liberal pro-Israel group J Street.
During the tour, which emphasized Palestinian human rights, Bowman and several of his progressive congressional colleagues were photographed meeting with Israeli Prime Minister Naftali Bennett, a right-wing politician at the helm of a centrist governing coalition.
Bowman had already rankled some DSA members with his September vote for additional U.S. funding of Israel’s defensive Iron Dome technology.
In its lengthy statement announcing the decision not to expel Bowman, the DSA’s national political committee was unsparing in its condemnation of Bowman’s vote to fund the Iron Dome system, which intercepts crude missiles launched from Gaza before they can reach Israeli civilians, and his visit with Bennett.
But the group acknowledged that Bowman is also one of just a handful of outspoken critics of Israeli government policies in Congress. During Israel’s bombardment of Gaza in May, the freshman lawmaker suggested he sees Palestinians’ struggle as part of a larger movement for justice by people of color the world over. And Bowman, a proponent of imposing tougher conditions on U.S. aid to Israel, won his seat by ousting then-House Foreign Affairs Committee chair Eliot Engel (D-N.Y.), one of Congress’s staunchest defenders of Israeli government policies.
“Already, we have seen considerable movement from Representative Bowman and his office.”
“We recognize the threat that Bowman and other members of the squad pose to the Zionist lobby and the important role DSA can play with them in advancing Palestinian rights and anti-imperialist struggle at the federal level,” DSA’s National Political Committee said. “Already, we have seen considerable movement from Representative Bowman and his office, and a marked demonstration of interest in both accountability, and collaboration on an effective and strategic path forward to advance the Palestinian cause through progressive struggle on the congressional terrain. This is why the NPC has decided not to expel Bowman.”
Out of the 16 members of the NPC, who convened on Wednesday, none voted against the statement that the body ultimately issued, though some members abstained, according to Chris Kutalik, a spokesperson for the DSA.
Before the decision by DSA’s governing body, prominent DSA members and Palestinian solidarity activists heatedly debated whether Bowman’s expulsion was in the best interests of the American left in general and the cause of Palestinian liberation in particular.
Those arguing against his expulsion claimed that kicking Bowman out would do nothing to change the fundamental political dynamics that prompted Bowman’s trip to Israel.
“Forcibly expelling an elected official whom DSA helped put in office may seem like an act of power, but it reflects weakness, not strength,” wrote the signatories of a petition titled “For Unity, Not Unanimity.” “Strong movements can shift allies and comrades towards their positions.”
Proponents of expulsion maintained that failure to do so would reflect a double standard toward the suffering of Palestinians.
“If one of our electeds voted to fund a police department that was actively engaged in a campaign of dropping bombs on Black neighborhoods, would we be concerned about how expelling them might hurt our political relationship with them?” Keon Liberato, a Philadelphia DSA member, wrote in Socialist Call.
Part of what made the DSA’s decision-making process so polarizing ― and at times confusing ― is that the organization has more than one center of power.
While members of the National Political Committee must be elected by the DSA’s rank-and-file membership, the DSA also has a BDS and Palestine Solidarity Working Group composed of DSA members who are passionate about the Palestinian cause.
For months now, the BDS working group has opened its own channel of communication with Bowman’s office to address grievances with his remarks. The working group first reached out to Bowman’s team in May to express concerns about comments Bowman made during a conversation with the head of the Jewish Community Relations Council of New York. In the discussion, Bowman promised to visit Israel and distanced himself from groups that support BDS.
Following Bowman’s Israel trip, the BDS working group also made at least two demands of Bowman that he refused to agree to: canceling a town hall with J Street and committing to vote against any future U.S. funding for Israel.
Before Monday’s J Street town hall, the working group warned Bowman that it would call for his expulsion if he did not cancel it. They followed through on that threat Tuesday, though the working group does not have the authority to actually expel anyone from the DSA.
“It is clear to us that Bowman’s shortcomings on Palestine, unfortunately, are not matters that can be corrected solely through political education,” the working group wrote. “Instead, he and his team continue to place political expediency ahead of Palestinian humanity.”
The DSA’s internal struggle over Bowman’s fate illustrates the challenges that the decentralized, member-funded organization faces as it assumes political influence. The group’s membership exploded exponentially following the first presidential run of Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), a self-described democratic socialist who is not technically a member of the DSA. The DSA now has more than 100,000 dues-paying members, including more than 100 who hold elected office.
But it’s less clear how the dust-up with the DSA affects Bowman’s political fortunes. As the DSA noted in its Thursday statement, Bowman had been open about his differences on U.S.-Israel policy as a candidate. Unlike the DSA, Bowman has never supported the BDS movement against Israel.
In addition, Bowman did not rely heavily on DSA support for his upset primary. The group endorsed him on June 15, 2020 ― eight days before Election Day.
Indeed, the DSA’s public deliberation over whether to oust Bowman appears to have increased his support in some corners of the sizable and politically active Jewish community in New York’s 16th Congressional District. A group of New York rabbis and Jewish community leaders, many of whom live in Bowman’s district, sent Bowman a letter earlier this week calling the trip to Israel “politically courageous.”
The Democratic Majority for Israel, or DMFI, a super PAC that spent more than $1 million trying to prevent Bowman’s election in 2020, condemned the DSA’s “disgraceful” treatment of Bowman.
“DSA’s effort to enforce radical anti-Israelism will fail in America as similar efforts have failed among responsible left parties in Europe,” DMFI President Mark Mellman said in a statement.
Many election watchers believe that deep-pocketed pro-Israel groups like DMFI are a greater threat to Bowman’s political future than any entity on the left.
New York has yet to announce new congressional district lines following the 2020 census. New boundaries could affect the number of voters with right-leaning Israel views who live in Bowman’s district, which straddles either side of New York City’s northern border.
What’s more, Bowman’s trip to Israel may not be enough to assuage skepticism in the more right-leaning pro-Israel community.
New York state Assemblyman Jeffrey Dinowitz, a pro-Israel Democrat and Bowman constituent, told HuffPost that Bowman’s “record on Israel is not what I would hope it would be,” though he was pleased by the vote for Iron Dome funding.
Asked whether he planned to support Bowman’s reelection, Dinowitz was noncommittal.
“Congressman Bowman at no point in time has asked me to support him,” Dinowitz said. “I would not say that I would support or oppose the congressman at this point in time.”
“I would want to wait to see what the district lines look like,” he added.