The Democratic Socialists of America (DSA) is the largest left-wing organisation in the United States and a prominent backer of Bernie Sanders and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. DSA Palestine recently sparked controversy by claiming about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict that ‘One could (and should) very well argue that in a settler colonial context there are no such things as “civilians”’ and by endorsing a right of ‘resistance in all forms’. By erasing the distinction between combatants and non-combatants DSA Palestine is defining all Israeli Jews as legitimate targets for murder. Ari Allyn-Feuer calls for the upcoming DSA conference to apologise, explain, and reconsider its recent lurch to crude ‘Smash Israel’ politics.
Introduction: DSA endorsed ethnic murder
Something extremely strange happened last week. Democratic Socialists of America, the largest socialist organisation in the United States, endorsed the idea that there is a particular ethnic group whom one is entitled to murder. Despite this stance being condemned by many, the DSA has not retracted or apologised. It has, rather, reiterated and defended its position that Israeli Jews are legitimate targets for murder.
The matter has gotten much less attention than it deserves, particularly on the left. This article encourages decent people within the organisation to reverse this position at its national convention next month. In the likely event that this does not happen, decent people outside the organisation should recognise the DSA should be shunned.
The original statement was posted on the Twitter account of the DSA BDS and Palestine Solidarity Working Group, an official organ of the national DSA organisation, created by a charter from its national convention in 2019, and whose website is a subdomain of the national DSA organisation’s website. Where it is necessary to distinguish between the national organisation and the BDS and Palestine Working Group, I will refer to the latter as ‘DSA Palestine,’ its Twitter handle.
DSA Palestine’s tweet said this: ‘One could (and should) very well argue that in a settler colonial context there are no such things as “civilians”, but disregarding that even, it’s total folly to honestly compare settlers perpetrating pogroms to resistance groups deploying violence to liberate themselves.’
This is a stunning statement. The distinction between civilian and military personnel, non-combatants and combatants, in an armed conflict is the dividing line between those who have the protection of international law, whom it is a war crime to target, and those who may be intentionally killed, legitimately, without limit or sanction, anywhere in the theatre of conflict. Saying that there are no Israeli civilians (not even women, children, or the elderly) is saying that DSA considers it legitimate, as a general rule, to kill any Israeli.
And, of course, one must presume that they only mean Jewish Israelis, since they regard Israeli Arabs as Palestinians, and would obviously not regard attacking Palestinians as resistance against Israel. In short, DSA Palestine endorsed (‘and should’) the killing of Israeli Jews (‘no such thing as “civilians”’) .
DSA was swiftly asked to correct itself. Only hours later, Congressman Ritchie Torres tweeted in condemnation of DSA’s statement. He pointed out the obvious problem with this statement, saying: ‘Denying Israelis the status of civilians means declaring them fair game for violence and terror. If a naked justification of terror against Israel is not a sign of a demonic double standard against the Jewish State, I am not sure what would be.’
In response, DSA Palestine did not back down, but posted a lengthy Twitter thread explaining why the original tweet was, in their view, correct and making clear that they still endorsed its content.
Although they deleted the original tweet, their response to Congressman Torres said that ‘the tweet of reference was deleted strictly because it had not been properly vetted before it was posted,’ i.e. not because it was incorrect. This is also a confirmation that the DSA Palestine twitter account is responsible to DSA’s communication vetting policies.
DSA Palestine’s thread identified itself as intended to ‘clarify and present nuance,’ not to retract or apologise for the original statement, and identified Torres condemnation as a ‘bad faith attack.’
The thread concluded by saying that ‘Indigenous resistance in all forms are valid, whether it be non-violent protests or armed resistance.’ ‘All forms’ presumably includes Hamas firing thousands of rockets at Israeli cities – recognised as a war crime by the United Nations – as well as the stabbing of Jewish civilians on the streets or in their beds and mass shootings inside synagogues by the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine. These murders and attempted murders of civilians have happened in recent years, and not only merely in Palestine or East Jerusalem but inside Israel’s internationally-recognised, pre-1967 borders. This is what DSA has chosen to endorse and defend.
And in a response to a Jewish DSA member commenting on the thread to ask for a review, DSA Palestine said that ‘[that] review has already occurred,’ and that its response to Torres ‘was created as the last step in the process rather than the first.’
Since then, DSA Palestine has not posted about this matter specifically, and DSA’s central bodies have not commented on the matter at all. The DSA stance, speaking through its empowered working group, seems to be: the original tweet was correct, we are not retracting its content or apologising for it, criticism of the tweet is a bad faith attack, and our review of the matter is concluded.
In short, DSA’s official position is that yes, it endorses the killing of Israeli Jews wherever they may be, by whomever may choose to designate themselves a Palestinian resistor.
It’s worth reflecting on how extreme this idea is, among expressions of racism in contemporary American life. It is difficult to find anyone else in American life who will publicly endorse (remember: ‘and should’) the murder of anyone belonging to a particular ethnic group within a given country. Even the Klan of the 1920s, which, while it engaged in ethnic murder, pretended that it did so for particular reasons related to the wrongdoing of individual people rather than admitting it viewed any black person, as such, as a legitimate target. From those current Israeli politicians whose explicit racism the DSA (rightly) condemns, no such call has or would be made.
Of course, in war, the intentional targeting of civilians, though recognised as a war crime, is not rare. But it’s rare to hear an explicit endorsement of such targeting nowadays, and when heard such an endorsement is widely considered to be shaming. Donald Trump, for example, was widely condemned for his endorsement of killing civilians in war. This is the company in which DSA has put itself with this statement.
DSA has taken its position. The rest of us can only decide how to react. We must be clear that it is indefensible.
The DSA was not saying that Israelis in general are merely ‘complicit’ in some sense in what DSA believes are Israel’s crimes. It was saying all Israeli Jews are legitimate targets for violence. DSA Palestine’s original tweet was explicit about that: ‘there are no such things as “civilians” … in a settler colonial context,’ and DSA Palestine’s response thread (among other DSA writings) made clear that the ‘context’ they refer to includes all of Israel, saying ‘Israel is and always has been a racist settler-colonial project.’
It is impossible to argue that DSA was only referring to particular kinds of attacks against particular targets. DSA Palestine’s response thread referred to ‘Indigenous resistance in all forms.’
It is impossible to argue that DSA’s statement didn’t matter because it’s all hypothetical. Attempts to murder Israeli civilians, some successful, have been happening during the entire period of DSA’s involvement in Palestine activism.
It is also impossible to argue that the DSA position is not antisemitic. A general warrant for anyone who wishes to murder anyone of a particular ethnic group is unambiguously racist.
The idea that there is group of people whom the law (judicial or moral) should bind but not protect is a conservative idea, not a democratic socialist one. The idea that such a group would be defined in ethnic-national terms is a racist idea, not an antiracist one. The idea that Jews are an ethnic group the law should bind but not protect is an antisemitic idea, not an antiracist one. The DSA has not fallen foul of an excessive enthusiasm for democratic left-wing ideas. It has endorsed an idea which flatly contradicts the DSA’s own professed values.
It is impossible to argue that DSA Palestine doesn’t really speak for the central DSA organisation because DSA Palestine is a chartered part of the main body, which has had ample opportunity to dissociate itself from these views and declined to do so. In fact, last year after a series of controversies, DSA’s National Political Committee, while it did temporarily remove certain individuals from leadership, unanimously voted against de-chartering DSA Palestine after initially narrowly voting to do so. And even the temporary removal from leadership of certain individuals has lapsed.
It is impossible to argue that the tweet has been retracted by deletion, because only hours after the deletion DSA Palestine posted a long thread defending and elaborating on the ideas of the initial tweet. And even if it had been retracted, a general warrant for ethnic murder is something that deserves to be apologised for and guarded against by personnel changes, not merely withdrawn on a technicality.
It is impossible to argue that the tweet doesn’t matter because they’re going to fix it, because DSA Palestine has said that their review is concluded and the matter is over. They say they are not going to fix it because there is nothing to fix. There are no good arguments in defence.
What should DSA do now?
The DSA should take four steps. The absence of any of these steps would be proof that DSA either still endorses the racist tweet, or is not taking racism seriously.
– An unequivocal retraction and denunciation of the original tweet and the response thread, and the ideas they contain, written and formal, from the central organisation.
– An unequivocal apology, written and formal, from the central organisation.
– Identification and expulsion of the people responsible.
– De-chartering of DSA Palestine (because milder measures taken after a series of earlier controversies have failed).
In addition, the DSA should reevaluate its very new, and very extreme, position on Palestine.
The DSA currently supports a one-state BDS position which rejects the existence of Israel, is heavily invested in BDS, and uses would-be candidates’ personal participation in commercial, academic and social shunning of Israel and Israelis as a litmus test for DSA support, even for offices with no role in foreign policy, like city council seats.
Support for these positions are now understood within the DSA to be part of what it means to be a socialist party. But that’s not true, or it doesn’t have to be. For over 40 years, from its foundation until approximately 2017, DSA took the position on Palestine which one can see articulated in its response to the 2014 Israel-Gaza war. Then, the DSA condemned the Israeli bombing of Gaza and Hamas’s attacks on Israeli civilians; opposed ethnic violence on both sides; supported the Palestinian people’s rights, including the return of refugees to Palestine; and engaged with the Israeli left. PCPSR polling shows that the two-state solution still remains more popular among Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza Strip than a binational one state solution. And while the gap is currently small (28 percent for the two-state solution and 26 percent for a single binational state), it has been much larger in the past, and the single binational state has never been more popular than the two-state solution.
Support for the two-state solution is also the position of Bernie Sanders and Jamaal Bowman. And while she might not endorse it now, it was the line Ilhan Omar took when she was running for her first term in Congress, and again when she clarified her position on the conflict in a Washington Post op-ed in 2019 after an antisemitism controversy.
For almost all of its history, the DSA has taken a ‘sewer socialism’ approach when deciding which issues to prioritise. While articulating a foreign policy in keeping with its values, the DSA emphasised practical domestic reforms that could make a difference in the lives of ordinary Americans. Today, it is making a highly unpopular and one-sided stance on Israel absolutely central to the DSAs identity and focus.
There is a reason that DSA held a humane two-state solution position for forty years, and why its leaders keep reaching for it, even BDS supporters like Ilhan Omar, when they need to avow a reasonable and humane position that they can defend in public. Simply, the old position is a democratic socialist position, consistently democratic, recognising the need for self-determination for both peoples, two states for two peoples, as the only basis for peace which supports both peoples’ legitimate democratic aspirations.
DSA only began espousing their current position on Palestine – ‘Smash Israel! – a few years ago, and that position has led the organisation into a racist fever swamp. It should recognise that this change of position has been a disastrous mistake, harming not only the organisation’s image, membership (now shrinking), but more importantly its effectiveness at promoting justice for Palestinians and Israelis alike. It should reverse this recent, ill-advised change, and go back to its previous humane two state position on Palestine.
A good time to take the four essential steps suggested earlier, and to at least begin a broader political reevaluation would be DSA’s National Convention in Chicago, which begins on 4 August.
In fact, however, the compendium of proposed resolutions for the convention includes only proposals fo the DSA to take an even harder-line on BDS, including a proposal to expel any DSA members who do not endorse and practice BDS. DSA’s current membership appears to like the organisation’s turn, and have no interest in reversing it.
Shun the DSA if they don’t change course
If the DSA remains committed to the idea of a general warrant for ethnic murder of Israeli Jews, what should people do about it?
First, retire any question of whether the left’s antisemitism problem is real or serious. When the largest socialist party in the United States endorses murdering Jews, it’s indisputable that there is antisemitism at work in the broader culture of the left. Stop wasting time on that conversation. There is a serious left antisemitism crisis.
Second, accept that the DSA is rotting politically and act accordingly. On foreign policy in particular – Palestine, Venezuela and Ukraine – the organisation can o longer rein in the crazies. Stop wasting time on it. Don’t join or support the DSA. DSA members leaving over this should raise a stink about it.
Third, candidates should stop seeking a DSA endorsement. Accepting DSA backing should be seen as a toxic stain on elected officials and prospective elected officials. Elected officials should be open about not seeking the DSA endorsement, and those who have it should reject it and raise a stink.
Finally, and I say this with a heavy heart, we should stop treating DSA membership as a benign characteristic among our friends and acquaintances. Even if a friend or acquaintance doesn’t really believe, personally, that it’s OK to murder Israeli Jews, are Jews safe around them if they travel in social circles where their friends do believe this? Could Jews endanger themselves by being visible in those circles through friendship with DSA members? These are uncomfortable questions, but like e.g. a black or gay person facing a friend’s or relative’s membership in an alt-right group, we will have to ask them.
Thinking about this affair, what I feel most of all is a sense of incredulity. Did the DSA’s endorsement of ethnic murder really just happen? I suspect that a common response among leftists will be to deny that it did. But it did, and it matters.
This has been an extremely sad affair. Jews live in the knowledge that there are always people out there trying to kill us, and a larger number who, while they wouldn’t do it themselves, don’t care to stop it and even approve of it. A large leftist political organisation publicly numbering itself among them is a shocking thing.
The DSA has been, for several decades, an attempt to create a democratic socialist party which could harness wide support among Americans for real social and economic progress. If DSA’s members still believe in that idea, they will fix this.