The ballot or the boycott

August 30, 2018

Joel Reinstein comments on a discussion about Palestine, the Democrats and the left.

I WAS glad to see Benjamin Balthasar’s contribution on the question of socialists, Palestine and elections in Socialist Worker (“Palestine, electoral strategy and the DSA”). This is an important discussion, as both socialism and Palestine solidarity are breaking into mainstream politics in the U.S., overlapping with a progressive rebellion underway in the Democratic Party.

Ultimately, however, I think that Benjamin’s argument doesn’t reckon with the larger picture of the Democrats and the Palestine movement as a whole, and the role that socialists will have to play in speaking clearly for the principle of Palestinian self-determination.

Benjamin looks at the shocking electoral victories of DSA members Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Rashida Tlaib in Democratic congressional primaries, with both almost certainly set to enter Congress. He describes how their victories, in doing what was thought to be impossible, have “broke[n] the conjuncture open for a new kind of social democratic politics,” inspiring people to believe that it’s possible to challenge capitalism.

These electoral victories have helped popularize the idea of socialism and are helping to grow a nascent movement in which thousands of people are exploring socialist ideas for the first time.

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But Ocasio-Cortez and Tlaib have both been challenged on the issue of Palestine and U.S. imperialism generally. Benjamin describes them as refusing to take clear stances against Israel’s apartheid against Palestinians, and not speaking out enough against U.S. imperialism, sparking a familiar debate: whether to take a strong stance against war and imperialism or to view these as secondary to domestic issues.

Benjamin argues that this is an abstract debate which misses the radicalization taking place, with thousands of people attracted to socialism who are also open to or moving toward solidarity with Palestine.

Benjamin argues, therefore, that the DSA shouldn’t take a hard line by withdrawing endorsements of candidates who fail to stand with Palestinian self-determination.

“Clearly people are right to try and reach Ocasio-Cortez and Tlaib, and certainly have every right to confront them on the shortcomings of their politics,” he writes. “But to simply say: DSA candidates must take a hard position on U.S. imperialism and Palestine misses not only the real relationship between DSA and these members, but also the constitutive nature of this movement and its relationship to the left.”

But there are several questions that I think raise serious problems for Benjamin’s argument. What does it look like in practice for socialists to confront candidates on their shortcomings? What are those shortcomings exactly? What are the implications of socialists overlooking them in continuing to lend our support?

BDS and the Democrats

Two critical items are missing that provide critical context for this discussion.

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The first is how the Palestinian BDS movement has clarified what Palestinian self-determination looks like, cutting out false friends and providing a powerful vehicle for growing a mass movement. The boycott is often compared to a picket line, because it clarifies that anyone crossing the line categorically does not respect Palestinian self-determination.

Importantly, just like a picket line, it’s possible to respect BDS without openly endorsing it!

Palestine activists’ criticism of Ocasio-Cortez and Tlaib has not been that they simply aren’t radical enough, as I think Benjamin characterizes it. The criticism has centered on their undermining the boycott movement — and here, it’s important to note that Tlaib responded to this criticism by completely changing her positions, respecting the boycott and even going further than that.

The second piece of critical context is the Democratic Party’s growing appeals to the Palestine solidarity movement in the U.S., in the same way that it appeals to other social justice causes.

Built around BDS, the movement has enjoyed consistent growth and has succeeded in forcing its way past liberal Zionist gatekeepers into progressive politics. At the same time, the global rise of the right, the election of Donald Trump, the final death of the “two-state solution” and Israel’s own growing right-wing extremism have led to Israel beginning to cut off the Democratic Party, giving the appearance that the bipartisan consensus around Israel is weakening.

Just as apparent electoral victories for DSA have excited socialists, many Palestine activists are excited by an unprecedented rift between Israel and the Democrats, and by some Democrats’ overtures towards Palestine.

These overtures are exemplified by a bill in Congress aimed at Israel’s abuses of Palestinian children under its brutal occupation of the West Bank, East Jerusalem and the Gaza Strip. The bill, HR 4391 or the “Promoting Human Rights by Ending Israeli Military Detention of Palestinian Children Act,” is being described as unprecedented in bringing Palestinian rights onto the floor of Congress.

It is being promoted by several leading nonprofits in the Palestine solidarity movement including the U.S. Campaign for Palestinian Rights, the American Friends Service Committee and Jewish Voice for Peace, among others. It was introduced by U.S. Rep. Betty McCollum (of the Democratic Farmer-Labor Party no less, the legacy of the “dirty break” strategy being debated by revolutionary socialists!), and 29 other Democrats have co-sponsored it.

McCollum and the bill’s other co-sponsors are positioning themselves as supporters of Palestinian rights in Congress, and McCollum is set to receive a “Congressional Leadership Award” from the U.S. Campaign for Palestinian Rights at its upcoming national conference.

Of these 30 co-sponsors, at least 23, including McCollum, are also endorsed by the liberal Zionist lobbying organization J Street. J Street stands for exactly the liberal Zionist gatekeeping against Palestinian self-determination that the BDS movement has targeted.

Describing itself as “pro-Israel, pro-peace,” J Street purports to advocate for Palestinians in its opposition to Israel’s military occupation, but in reality, it only wants to end the occupation for the sake of preserving Israel as a racist state, denying millions of Palestinian refugees’ rights to return to Palestine and the rights of Palestinian citizens of Israel to legal equality.

J Street is explicit that it will not endorse candidates unless they support U.S. military aid to Israel — aid that’s used to kill Palestinians — endorse the separate-and-unequal “two-state solution” and oppose the Palestinian BDS movement. To accept a J-Street endorsement is categorically to violate the BDS picket line, in no uncertain terms.

That doesn’t make the bill unwelcome or mean that Palestine solidarity activists should stop pushing for it. But in its J Street-endorsed co-sponsors making overtures toward Palestine activists, it represents a preview of the choice between the ballot and the boycott that the Palestine solidarity movement will soon face.

As movement organizations begin creating political action committees to directly endorse Democrats, electoral efforts and BDS initiatives will increasingly come into conflict.

One can imagine a BDS campaign targeting a company in which a Democratic Party donor holds stock, threatening that donor’s profits and prompting them to threaten to withdraw funding from candidates who are tied to the Palestine movement. They won’t be patient with their candidate’s “shortcomings” — they’ll use their leverage to demand accountability.

Candidates will in turn pressure Palestine organizations, who will in turn pressure BDS activists: find a different boycott target, be “practical,” we need to preserve our relationship with our friends in Congress. Palestine activists will be pressured to give up power from below in exchange for access to Congress, where we’ll be required to be patient and realistic with “our” candidates.

The Role of Socialists

What is the role of socialists at this critical juncture, as the Palestine solidarity movement for the first time is courted by the Democratic Party?

Benjamin argues that at least for now, we should support candidates who are popularizing socialism, in spite of their “shortcomings” on Palestine — that is, in spite of their violating the Palestinian picket line. He says that we should “confront” them on these shortcomings while maintaining our support. In practice, however, this amounts to simply not holding them accountable.

Real accountability was shown by Palestinian-American journalist Ali Abunimah raising a stink over Rashida Tlaib’s endorsement by J Street, a clear violation of the boycott. Many Palestine activists who had been excited by Tlaib’s victory were shocked and upset when Ali drew attention to this endorsement.

He was able to generate serious pressure on Tlaib, probably the reason for her 180-degree turnaround a few days later. She repudiated J Street by supporting the Palestinian right of return and one state with equal rights, not only respecting the boycott but going well beyond that and taking stands for Palestinian rights that are totally unprecedented by a member of Congress!

But while Ali was successful in holding Tlaib accountable, his criticism also met with a backlash on social media that will be familiar to any socialist who has fought for independence from the Democratic Party. He faced all manner of personal attacks and emotional appeals, in place of substantive engagement, from numerous people in the movement.

It was a preview of how the question of the Democrats will likely play out in the Palestine solidarity movement. Access to Democratic politicians is absolutely going to come into conflict with the boycott, and Palestine activists will come under intense pressure to put the boycott in the backseat in exchange for “real political power.”

It won’t be the argument that Benjamin makes about growing the nascent socialist movement, but the age-old Democratic Party line about putting the movement’s “friends” in Congress before its principles and power from below.

Socialists need to be preparing now to fight for the principle of Palestinian self-determination. That will require being clear, unwavering supporters of the Palestinian BDS movement, which represents the bare minimum demands for equality endorsed by the overwhelming majority of Palestinians.

While electoral victories for members of DSA have undoubtedly helped to catalyze the growing socialist movement, socialists supporting candidates who treat Palestine as disposable will provide cover for the Democratic Party to co-opt the Palestine solidarity movement — which has itself brought people hope that change is possible, and brought thousands into grassroots struggle. We absolutely cannot afford to stand by while those hopes are threatened.

Benjamin argues that the age-old question of whether to focus on “bread-and-butter” domestic issues or to foreground anti-imperialism and the principle of self-determination for colonized people is an abstract question that elides something unique about the radicalization taking place.

It turns out to not be so abstract at all, and Benjamin’s argument is essentially the same as the “bread-and-butter” approach: to (temporarily, or at least that’s the plan) put aside our anti-imperialist principles and support candidates who violate them, in order to better grow the socialist movement.

I think Benjamin has a point, however, in his characterization of the debate: Socialists have to explicitly draw out our arguments in standing for Palestinian self-determination, and it won’t do to only recite principles. We have to also justify them to the new generation of socialists, who are open to new ideas and debate about how to win, grounding those principles in concrete struggles.

As Benjamin points out, the influx of tens of thousands of people into DSA didn’t lead it to moderate its stance, but instead to step forward and endorse BDS! Let’s not moderate our principles, then, as we engage new socialists who are ready, like the Palestinians, to fight for the impossible. Nothing less than that will be enough.

Further Reading

From the archives