For Clarity – Then Unity: Jamaal Bowman and Palestine Jamaal Bowman in front of the Palestinian flag.

For Clarity – Then Unity: Jamaal Bowman and Palestine

There has been furious debate around what consequences, if any, Jamaal Bowman should face from DSA after both voting to fund Israel’s Iron Dome and then going on a pro-Israel propaganda trip. Unfortunately, the majority of the debate has been very confused and missed the questions being posed. I hope to clarify what is actually being discussed so we move forward in a way that builds trust within the Palestinian community and re-imagines accountability. This clarity is especially urgent since the DSA BDS and Palestine Solidarity Working Group (BDS WG) has formally called for Bowman’s expulsion as of Nov 29th.

Expulsion vs Accommodation?

The primary statement to hold Bowman accountable was authored by the BDS WG. In that statement, we find the following:

…the BDS WG calls on the NPC to expel Bowman if he does not immediately agree to the following demands when he meets with DSA representatives on Friday:

  • Uphold Palestinian civil society’s call for BDS until apartheid Israel ends its illegal settlement expansion, dismantles its apartheid system, and grants Palestinians their right to return. When politicians do not commit to BDS, they are literally not in solidarity with the vast majority of Palestinian civil society.
  • Provide protection to and support for Palestinians through legislation. Oppose anti-Palestinian legislation, like anti-free speech laws against BDS or attempts to provide Israel with any kind of military funding. Support pro-Palestinian legislation, such as the Defend the 6 Resolution.
  • Participate in the travel boycott for personal travel to Israel and Palestine, which entails respecting the ethical tourism guidelines called for by Palestinian civil society and laid out on the BDS website. In line with these guidelines, we also expect Bowman and all endorsed candidates to reject any trips or delegations affiliated with the Israeli government or Israeli lobby groups, such as J Street or AIPAC.

The BDS WG is not putting the responsibility on DSA to expel him. They are putting the responsibility on Bowman to make a choice. They are offering him a chance to make things right or face expulsion. In other words, they’re forcing him to decide if he wants to stay in a pro-Palestine organization.

This is in contrast to the framing by Jacobin and Tempest magazines. Jacobin warns against “a knee-jerk response to write off or expel political allies” and Tempest reinforces this binary by claiming that “expulsion is necessary”. But these are both misunderstandings of what is being offered since Bowman could choose to make things right.

Communists in Harlem in the 1930s

There is historical precedent for taking this approach to accountability and it involved “performative” politics. In the 1930s, the Communist Party (CP) began to reorient itself to prioritize fighting racism and gaining influence in the Black community. It organized interracial events in Harlem with the goal of meeting and recruiting from the community. During a CP movie screening, a white communist was racist towards Black audience members.

The CP decided to turn this racist injustice into an anti-racist opportunity. They promoted a . During the trial, the white communist was forced to choose between either playing a leading role in the struggle for Black rights in Harlem or facing expulsion. The CP used the public trial as a chance to promote their views on anti-racism and to signal to the Black community that they were serious anti-racists, with the hope of repairing bridges and recruiting.

I’m highlighting the performative aspects of this because the statement “For Unity, not Unanimity” (UNU) seemed to denigrate performance. Then the Tempest article argued that this debate isn’t about performance. But the reality is that in 2021, DSA is not in a position to “materially” hold politicians accountable. As Jacobin pointed out, “National political figures like Bowman or AOC may be members of DSA, but their affiliations are loose. Neither will depend on DSA to win reelection.” This means that, for the moment, performance will be a large part of how we engage accountability.

But as the example from the 1930s demonstrates, performances can still be effective ways to center those that have been harmed and begin the process of repair. We should also remember that performances are a major part of what organizers do. Most protests, rallies, most votes by politicians, all of our flyers and slogans: these are all performances. They are all meant to draw attention to ourselves and to build struggle, whether or not they “materially” change anything in the immediate.

Expulsion: Constructive vs Destructive

Jacobin has defended their position as a rejection of “purity politics”. But I suspect that UNU’s concerns that, “holding someone accountable in this organization should not mean writing them off forever” is the primary motivation for most “anti-expulsion” support. Based on the knee-jerk public shaming of Andre Vasquez in 2020, infighting at DSA’s National Convention, and the sectarianism against Socialist Alternative: it’s clear that these are valid concerns.

But expulsions and splits can be constructive instead of destructive. Again, there is historical precedent. During a revolutionary upsurge in 1920s Italy, both reformists and revolutionaries organized within the Italian Socialist Party. The revolutionaries tried to figure out how to seize the revolutionary moment but found themselves obstructed and undermined by the reformists. To fix this, Lenin advised the revolutionaries to, “split away from Turati, and then make an alliance with him”.

This would allow the revolutionaries to clarify their analysis of the situation and generate their next steps without obstruction. It also recognized that blacklisting Turati and the reformists would hurt the revolutionaries, since they needed to work with the reformists to accomplish the next steps that they would arrive at. The political eco-system in Italy needed this sort of political and organizational clarity to advance.

In the context of Bowman, this translates into working with him on the Green New Deal, even if he chooses expulsion, while freeing ourselves to criticize him when he supports Israel.

Moving Forward

We are at a similar crossroads today in which we need to clarify what it means to be a pro-Palestine organization. Can we effectively organize with, and recruit from, the Palestinian community and pro-Palestine organizers if one of our prominent members votes in support of Israeli colonialism? Palestinians and pro-Palestine groups would rightly doubt our commitment to Palestinian solidarity, which would also hurt our standing in other anti-racist and anti-imperialist circles.

In order to clarify for ourselves and the public, DSA’s NPC should accept that Bowman has chosen expulsion and publicly begin the formal expulsion process. This should be done with the understanding that we hope to win over Bowman to a pro-BDS, pro-Palestine position over time and that we remain open to principled collaboration with him as opportunities for joint struggle present themselves.

The BDS WG has set a new standard for accountability with both of their statements and the work they put into trying to shift Bowman before reaching for expulsion. Their example is one that we should build on. These types of approaches to accountability will help our organization proactively build unity out of clarity, instead of stagnating in the unity of our collective confusion.

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