Nearly five decades ago, the organization that would become the Democratic Socialists of America united around core principles, including universal health care, workers’ rights, and support for the social-democratic state of Israel. That group included such left-liberal luminaries as California Congressman Ron Dellums, the intellectuals Irving Howe and Cornel West, and future New York Mayor David Dinkins.
The writer and activist Michael Harrington, whose Democratic Socialist Organizing Committee was a precursor to the DSA, declared in 1975: “I support Israel as an internationalist. Israel is a democratic country whose people are passionately defending its self-determination.” He added that to “preposterously charge” that Zionism is racism—as the United Nations General Assembly asserted in a resolution that year—“is to drain the concept of racism of any serious meaning.”
For Harrington and his comrades to speak that way in today’s unsubtle times would be inconceivable. DSA leaders, their organization swollen to 75,000 members, now describe Israel as an apartheid colonialist state. When, on October 7, Hamas and other armed Palestinian groups slaughtered 1,200 men, women, children, and infants, defiling and burning bodies, and took more than 240 prisoners into captivity, the DSA, along with much of the organized left, called for members to swell the streets in protest. The object of their anger was not Hamas but Israel. “DSA is steadfast in expressing our solidarity with Palestine,” the DSA proclaimed on X, formerly Twitter, on the day of the massacre. “Today’s events are a direct result of Israel’s apartheid regime … Free Palestine.”
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Two days later, the San Francisco chapter of DSA went a rhetorical step further. “We call on all those who share our vision of global working-class emancipation,” the chapter declared in a statement, “to join the fight to end the occupation and decolonize Palestine—from the river to the sea.” Given that Hamas is a theocratic organization dedicated to installing an Islamic state in Palestine, that call translates as: Eradicate the state of Israel.
These militant turns by DSA persuaded two dozen prominent socialists to tender resignations in the past few weeks. Their public letters and articles speak to a disaffection with a movement that gave meaning and shape to their political lives. “In its inability to distinguish between acts of resistance to unjust and oppressive rule and acts of terror against civilians, and in its confusion of authentic striving for national liberation with theocratic, fascistic crimes, DSA has shown that it has become completely unmoored,” declared a letter signed by two dozen members and published in The New Republic.
The Hamilton College historian Maurice Isserman, who signed that letter and wrote an essay in The Nation entitled “Why I Just Quit DSA,” was approaching a half century in the organization. He opposes Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his right-wing government, and reviles the Jewish settlers who steal West Bank land and bully and kill Palestinians. But he draws a bright line at equivocating about the brutal Hamas attacks. “These hostages are colonial ‘settlers’? Those were ‘settler’ babies who were decapitated,” Isserman told me. “I’m sorry I’m getting angry, but this is abusing the language to excuse the inexcusable.”
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Some DSA members greeted the resignations with derision, describing those departing as old and white and few in number. The writer Ben Burgis posted on X: “I really love that out of a total membership of … what … 77,000? … they found two dozen whole people to sign.” Another writer sardonically waved goodbye to people old enough to sit on “the 1982 Dissent editorial board”—a jibe at a revered left-wing magazine..
These comments carry more than a whiff of generational tension. The DSA experienced a great surge in membership following Senator Bernie Sanders’s 2016 presidential campaign and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s 2018 congressional victory. As young people all but tumbled through the DSA’s doors, the group became the largest organization in the nation to the left of the Democratic Party. The DSA soon helped elect a startling number of candidates in cities and towns across the country.
Those newly minted legislators have been instrumental in pushing left-wing causes, such as rent control, in many cities.
These successes, however, came accompanied by that occupational hazard of the left: a profusion of factions, splinterings of factions, and splinterings of splinter factions. There are libertarian socialists and Marxist-Leninists, electoralists and non-electoralists, and a caucus that brands itself the “un-caucus.” Some feuds are self-defeating, even maddening. A few years ago, the Afrosocialist faction blocked a prominent Black Marxist professor, Adolph Reed Jr., from speaking to the New York chapter. Reed—a lifelong socialist—had had the audacity to argue for focusing on class solidarity rather than race and gender differences. This, the Afrosocialists argued, was a capitulation to racial capitalists.
The prevailing approach differed greatly in the 1970s and ’80s. Harrington’s Democratic Socialist Organizing Committee cast itself in the model of European social-democratic parties and worked within the Democratic Party. Candidates were not required to toe any party line.
In 1990, Mayor Dinkins, a DSA member and loyal member of the Harlem Democratic machine, welcomed Willy Brandt—a former West German chancellor from the Social Democratic Party—and the Socialist International to City Hall. He was so fraternal toward Israeli and Jewish leaders that disgruntled Black nationalists referred to him as “Yarmulke Dave.”
Today’s DSA offers a full-throated socialism. And for all its electoral victories—largely in liberal enclaves—internal debates rage about whether the DSA should participate in Democratic Party politics, and how to enforce its ideological writ on candidates.
The organization appears less and less tolerant of dissent from its pro-Palestinian position. In 2018 Ocasio-Cortez told a reporter that she “believed absolutely in Israel’s right to exist.” DSA caucus leaders were not amused. Some posted a stern letter on Medium. Socialists, they noted, always side with the oppressed. “Ocasio-Cortez’s first impulse should not be to affirm the rights of a settler-colonial state to exist,” the letter declared. She must, the DSA commissars warned, be more uncompromising about her socialist principles.
Representative Jamaal Bowman of New York transgressed too, and he was met with less leniency. Elected in suburban Westchester County, Bowman traveled to Israel with J-Street, a liberal-left Jewish organization that is both Zionist and deeply critical of Israel’s behavior on the West Bank and in Gaza. Bowman also voted to underwrite Israel’s anti-missile defense, known as Iron Dome. Attacked for his perfidies, Bowman recently dropped his DSA membership.
The departures and feuds and attacks have stung the DSA. Burgis assayed a defense of the DSA in the socialist magazine Jacobin, arguing it had “unequivocally” condemned the killing of civilians. The group did in fact mourn violence on October 7 but sidestepped any reference to Hamas. Meanwhile, wilder sorts are grabbing hold of the reins at the group’s local chapters. The Metro D.C. DSA chapter has called on members to rally as “fascist Israel continues its genocide in the Middle East.” And DSA’s International Committee recently signed on to a resolution defending the “violence of the oppressed” in Palestine and arguing that “as a colonial project and an imperial outpost, the Israeli state stands against the tendency of history to advance towards liberation.”
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One explanation for some of the tumult inside the DSA is that Israel itself has changed greatly. The Israel of the 1970s appeared highly vulnerable, having recently survived attempts by Arab nations to wipe it out, and the social-democratic Labor Party, a member of the Socialist International, was a formidable power in the country’s politics. Today the Labor Party is near defunct, while Netanyahu and his Likud Party bend ever more to the right. Religious fundamentalists hold sway in the cabinet and on the West Bank.
Many Israelis see these changes as dire, and by the hundreds of thousands they protested Netanyahu’s attempts to bring to heel their nation’s Supreme Court. Some of those protesters once counted themselves members of Peace Now, which advocated for a two-state solution with the Palestinians.
One can read through many recent DSA communiqués without coming across a hint of such complexity. And the group’s language, which seems intoxicated with the dark wine of violence and faux historical inevitabilities, is a universe away from the animating vision of its founders.
Some members now take to labeling Sanders, Senator Elizabeth Warren, and other stalwarts of the American left as promoters of genocide for denouncing Hamas and calling for a humanitarian pause in Gaza rather than a cease-fire.
I can’t help but wonder about the prospects of an organization that so insistently denounces allies and labels an admittedly flawed but real Israeli democracy as a settler-colonialist state. How can it hope to persuade tens of millions of Americans to make the broad and deep changes it seeks in the United States?