(JNS) “Sanction.” “Boycott.” “Cancel.” “Expel.” “Reject.”
These five words encapsulate the methods and approach of the Palestinian solidarity movement in Western countries. Theirs is the politics of snarling censure and immovable doctrine, in which softer notions like peace, inclusivity, compromise and diversity have no place. If you don’t agree that the Palestinians are the victims of a wrong unprecedented in history, if you don’t believe that every act of violence is a positive expression of their national struggle, or if you advocate for anything less than the liberation of Palestine in its entirety—“from the river to the sea,” as the slogan has it—then there is no place in that solidarity movement for you either.
Here is a telling illustration of what I mean. At the end of last month, the chapter of the Democratic Socialists of America (DSA) in Madison, Wis., called on the national organization to expel a progressive congressman from its ranks for being insufficiently anti-Zionist.
It’s grimly amusing that the congressman to spark the ire of the DSA’s Wisconsin chapter—New York Democratic Rep. Jamaal Bowman—is a member of “The Squad” of left-wing Democratic legislators in the U.S. House of Representatives, as well as the man who won a shock victory over Eliot Engel, the staunchly pro-Israel Democrat who represented New York’s 16th District for more than 30 years, in the June 2020 primary. During his campaign against Engel, Bowman even touted his pro-Palestinian credentials, telling a local newspaper: “One stark contrast between myself and Congressman Engel is I’ve been critical of occupation, annexation and detaining Palestinian children—where Congressman Engel has not.”
But Bowman is decidedly not an eliminationist—someone who believes in the erasure of Israel as a sovereign entity. “That doesn’t mean I’m not pro-Israel,” he clarified in the same interview.
Many pro-Israel activists might disagree with that self-classification, given that Bowman has accused Israel of abusing the rights of children and swallowing up land that rightfully belongs to the Palestinians. Last month, however, Bowman demonstrated that he really does take Israel’s right to exist seriously when he voted in favor of additional funding for Iron Dome, Israel’s revolutionary anti-missile system that protects its civilian population centers from rocket and missile attacks. (Earlier in the spring, however, he publically had said he would not support the legislation.)
He did so, he explained, in part because his first responsibility is to represent the people who voted for him. “It’s important for me to make sure I represent everyone within my district—not just some people within my district,” he said in a media interview. “This was an issue that was very important to many people in my district.” And in a separate conversation reported by a local Jewish community leader, Bowman expressed the fear “that a vote against the Iron Dome could be interpreted as license to kill Jews.”
Bowman also said, consistent with his previous statements, that support for Iron Dome was “not going stop me from speaking out about Palestinian rights, and for Palestinian rights, and for Palestinian humanity. There’s inhumane treatment happening towards the Palestinians. That is a fact and that is something that we have to deal with in order to ensure the self-determination of Palestinians, and the safety and security of the people of Israel going forward.”
But that wasn’t enough to appease the Wisconsin DSA’s determination to rid their organization of one of its more well-known and influential supporters. An Oct. 30 statement headlined “Expel Jamaal Bowman” claimed that “Bowman has demonstrated that he is unfit to be a DSA member and spokesperson for our organization.” Apparently, the “role of a Socialist elected official is to be a tribune for the working class and oppressed, to project our movement’s politics and attract wide layers of our class”—because Bowman voted in favor of both the Iron Dome funding and an earlier package of military aid to Israel in July, he had betrayed this mission.
Not only that, but Bowman was guilty of erroneous thinking more broadly. The Wisconsin DSA sneered disbelievingly as it quoted from Bowman’s tribute to the late U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell. “As a black man just trying to figure out the world, Colin Powell was an inspiration. He was from NYC, went to City College and rose to the highest ranks of our nation,” wrote Bowman.
In praising Powell in this way, Bowman had acted to “legitimize one of the top architects of the criminal invasion of Iraq and Afghanistan, who in turn is responsible for the deaths of hundreds of thousands of Afghans and Iraqis, the plight of countless refugees and the many working-class veterans killed, disabled or driven to suicide,” said the Wisconsin DSA. There was, therefore, only one option remaining: get rid of him. “Bowman’s further association would only serve to misrepresent our politics as democratic socialists and move us away from our political goals,” the statement concluded.
Continued membership of a political organization is, of course, always contingent on what a member says or does in relation to that organization’s core principles and values. Yet to recommend the expulsion of someone because he doesn’t believe that supporting Palestinian aspirations necessitates the endorsement of Israel’s destruction brings to mind the worst Stalinist tendencies on the left. Bowman hasn’t been accused of corruption or harassment. He certainly hasn’t abandoned his progressive domestic agenda. His deviation from the party line on the Palestinians is his only offense—and that is enough for the Wisconsin DSA.
Their world is one in which Israel conducts sustained “bombing campaigns” deliberately targeting civilians in Gaza, where there are no Hamas rockets fired at elementary schools in Israel, where Palestinian Islamists fighting Zionism are enthusiastically embraced. However, Kurds elsewhere in the region fighting Islamism, often in the name of socialism, are ignored or dismissed as the reactionary allies of the United States. It is a world where doctrine and mythology prevail even when the facts say otherwise.
Now Bowman and other left-wing activists are being told in no uncertain terms that it’s not enough to support the Palestinians by advocating their right to self-determination. Solidarity is only worthy of the name if it presents the Palestinians as the downtrodden colonized subjects of an apartheid regime that has no right to exist in the first place. To depict their situation in any other way—to suggest, heaven forbid, that the Palestinians might have exacerbated the conflict through their own decisions across more than a century!—is a sign of corrupted political thinking. Like the Zionists themselves, those who deviate will be subjected to the same measures. They will be sanctioned, boycotted, canceled, expelled and rejected. The cause of Palestine, it would seem, demands no less.
Ben Cohen is a New York City-based journalist and author who writes a weekly column on Jewish and international affairs for JNS.