Why DSA Gets to Ask Candidates About Israel

The furor over DSA's Israel travel ban question illustrates a long-running hypocrisy in local Democratic politics

On Thursday evening, a controversy erupted over a questionnaire that the New York City Democratic Socialists of America had circulated to prospective City Council candidates. The two-part question, under the “foreign policy” heading, concerned Israel, a never-ending source of heated debate and intrigue. “Do you pledge to not travel to Israel if elected to [the] City Council in solidarity with Palestinians living under occupation?” read the question, first reported by NY1’s Zack Fink. “Even though foreign policy falls outside the purview of municipal government, gestures like travel to a country by elected officials from a city the size and prominence of New York still send a powerful message, as would the refusal to participate in them.” A second question was even more direct: “Do you support the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions movement? If not, why?”

Both questions were immediately denounced as anti-Semitic. Jewish and non-Jewish New York City elected officials roundly condemned DSA. The City Council’s Jewish Caucus, absent a few Jewish lawmakers in the body, released a joint statement excoriating the questionnaire as an example of “rank antisemitism” that “has no place in our city.” “It exceeds even the demands of the notorious Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions (BDS) movement against the Jewish people, which every mainstream Jewish organization in the United States has appropriately labeled antisemitic [sic],” the statement read. Other prominent Jewish leaders in the city strongly criticized DSA as well. Among many politicians, including some self-identified progressives, a clear consensus had emerged: DSA had singled out Israel for a travel ban, which amounts to an anti-Semitic act.

As always, context is important here. DSA’s clout has grown remarkably over the last three years. Every socialist candidate they endorsed won their state legislative primaries in June. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Julia Salazar, a Brooklyn state senator, are DSA members. Nationwide, the organization boasts more than 70,000 members, and more than 5,000 in New York City. There is currently a healthy debate, within DSA, over how many candidates they should endorse in the June 2021 City Council primaries. Democrats who don’t belong to DSA are pivoting left to save themselves from potential primary challenges. These primary campaigns—DSA fields candidates who run on the Democratic line—have created notable tension with establishment Democratic players. DSA embraces policies like universal healthcare, a universal right to housing, and a municipal takeover of power companies. Even on the local level, members engage with foreign policy, whether it’s staging antiwar demonstrations, supporting Yemenis as Saudi Arabia viciously bombs them, or declaring their solidarity with Palestinians living under Israeli occupation.

For socialists, Jewish and non-Jewish, Israel represents a particularly problematic example of a modern, heavily militarized nation-state that has forced its poorer neighbors to live in squalor, restricting their rights and movement. Though Zionism emerged from a socialist tradition—young Bernie Sanders on the kibbutz—it has since abandoned such pretentions, as various right-wing forces vie for control of the country. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has far more in common with Donald Trump than any Democratic leader in America. The traditional left in Israel is effectively dead. Ultra-Orthodox political factions are ascendant. For a very long time, the realistic aspiration was a two-state solution, and this is still the orthodoxy embraced by mainstream Democrats in America. A nation for the Palestinians, a Jewish state for Israel. But the actions of the Israeli government, as writers like Peter Beinart have argued, have made such a future all but impossible, as land for Palestinians is continually swallowed up. The alternative, a multiethnic democracy with Israelis and Palestinians living as equals—a United States of America of the Middle East—is the humane alternative. This, of course, won’t be achieved anytime soon either, as Israel strains to protect its legacy as a Jewish state, aided by its American-funded weaponry It is truly an untenable situation with no clear answers.

BDS exists as a nonviolent protest movement to pressure Israel to end its occupation of the Palestinian territories. Modeled on protests against Apartheid South Africa, BDS organizes campaigns for boycotts of Israeli products, calls for international sanctions and other nonviolent means that may alter the status quo. Since there are supporters of BDS heavily critical of the nature of Zionism—advocating, for example, for that multiracial, one-state democracy—BDS has been denounced as anti-Semitic. In this formulation, Israel is synonymous with Jewry; this nation-state in the Middle East is the equivalent of Judaism itself, and to denounce the actions of a government is the same as attacking all Jewish people. As an American Jew with no ties to Israel—my people fled various Russian pogroms in the 19th century, as far as I know—I have always found this rationale simplistic and, ironically, steeped in anti-Semitic tropes. Those who actually hate Jews relish in linking all Jewish people in the diaspora to the actions of a single nation-state. We American Jews did not elect Benjamin Netanyahu. We are not citizens of Israel. Yet their sins and triumphs are supposed to be our own. Anti-Catholic bigots did the same a century ago, accusing new arrivals of harboring more loyalty to the Pope than the American president. I understand the traditions of Zionism very well, and why it mattered so much to build a country that would be a safe haven for Jews. Yet I can’t quite forget that some anti-Semites embraced the cause of Zionism in the early 20th century. There were Europeans eager to rid their countries of German and English and French and Polish Jews and send them packing to the desert, sequestering them in an alien land only known to most through millennia-old scrolls.

Israel, more than any other country, has inserted itself into New York City politics over the last half century. Well into the 2010s, it was all but impossible to be a Democratic elected official in New York City and not profess blinkered solidarity with whatever the Israeli government did. In 2014, as Israel bombed Gaza into submission, many Democratic elected officials staged furious rallies in support of the Israeli government, as if city council members in Brooklyn or Queens had purview over what happened thousands of miles away. Self-professed liberals echoed the language of the far right. “We know Israel lives in a very tough neighborhood, and there are certain realities to that. We mourn the loss of civilian life on both sides of the conflict,” thundered Congressman Hakeem Jeffries, a Brooklyn Democrat, at one rally. “But when you live in a tough neighborhood Israel should not be made to apologize for its strength. You know why? Because the only thing that neighbors respect in a tough neighborhood is strength.”

It is into this context that DSA poses its two questions. Consider that every year, members of the New York City Council travel to Israel, on trips paid for by the Jewish Community Relations Council of New York. Consider that Governor Andrew Cuomo has probably traveled to Israel as frequently as he’s ridden in a subway car. There are no comparable solidarity actions taken for any other nation. This is why it’s disingenuous for DSA critics to moan that the socialists are directing their ire at Israel but not calling for travel bans of other malicious nations, like Saudi Arabia or China. There are no politicians staging solidarity rallies for Xi’s authoritarian China. Most other international actors with problematic human rights records are denounced, not exalted. DSA, I would argue, erred in the wording of their first question. It should have singled out trips paid for by lobbying or community organizations. A blanket travel ban makes less sense, especially if a politician does try, in good faith, to meet with Israelis and Palestinians. Not every trip to Israel is insidious; it’s possible, even, for a democratic socialist to have family there.

There is the broader question of BDS. Should it actually be a DSA litmus test? Even Ocasio-Cortez doesn’t espouse support for BDS. There are real questions about its efficacy, as the boycotts drag on with Israel unbowed. The only change in the last decade has been Israel’s rightward shift. Judged from the perspective of an outcome achieved, BDS has not been successful. Noam Chomsky has argued against BDS on these grounds. Socialists should consider the nuance inherent in this debate. More effective, perhaps, would be calls for slashing American military aid to Israel, which victorious congressional candidates on the left like Jamaal Bowman embrace. There are times when mere support for BDS amounts to little more than virtue signaling. All good leftists should reevaluate their tactics. There’s the question, too, of whether foreign policy deserves space on a questionnaire sent to City Council candidates. Ideally, it wouldn’t be there at all, as something far beyond what a municipal politician can influence. As a way to determine a candidate’s values, fine; but then there are other international debates that can just as easily uncover whatever it is that pulses inside an educated person. Given the history of Israel interjecting itself into New York political affairs, DSA’s posture is reasonable. One orthodoxy and one consensus cannot be expected to be dominant forever, especially when it becomes so incongruous with liberal values. All those running for office under the Democratic banner in New York should someday become aware of this.