Thoughts on Bowman, the Left, and Palestine

(I am in DSA’s North Star Caucus, but I do not speak for North Star, nor does this article necessarily reflect the views of anyone else in North Star.)

The controversy stirred up by Rep. Jamaal Bowman’s vote to fund Israel’s “Iron Dome” missile defense system and his meeting with the repulsive Israeli Prime Minister Naftali Bennett raises questions about the posture of the US Left towards Palestinian liberation, Zionism and anti-Semitism.

It should go without saying that in the US, anti-Semitism on the Right is vastly more vicious and dangerous to Jews than its pale reflection on the Left. Right-wing anti-Semitism is simple, easy to spot and does not require much explication. The Left counterpart is less obvious. Nevertheless, leftish expressions in this direction are a threat to the American Left’s political progress, just as they were to Jeremy Corbyn’s movement in the UK.

I was outraged by accusations of racism, or at minimum race neglect, leveled at the Sanders campaigns. Whatever Sanders' lack of perspicacity in this dimension, there was no honest case for him being less desirable than Clinton or Biden in matters of race. In the same vein, I never believed accusations of anti-Semitism thrown at Jeremy Corbyn. After some debates with others, however, I do think I understand how it happened, and how it could replay in the US.

There are two volatile elements in this context. On the one hand, there are centrists and ultraleftists who want to wreck the organized Left embodied by both Sanders and Corbyn. They both favor a break between the Left and its allies in the Democratic Party that would lead to sectarian isolation and eventual dissolution. Centrists believe this would dissolve the socialist and progressive winds that have been slowly assuming formal political power in the US. The ultralefts think it will lead to socialist revolution.

On the other, there are comrades for whom Palestine is the most important issue, dominating all others, and/or for whom it embodies an unambiguous condemnation of Zionism. By unambiguous I mean a refusal to discern any differences among Zionists, and a rejection of any measures short of wholesale boycott of everything associated with Israel.

In debates on the Bowman affair, it only takes a few trolls to stink up the conversation by repeatedly casting any dissenters from the supposed correct line as supporters of genocide. The implied demand is to uphold an unambiguously negative view of all Zionists. This attitude is justified by reference to the international BDS campaign (Boycott, Divest, Sanction), broadly supported on the Left. But what exactly is BDS?

For some, BDS means boycotting or shunning all manner of associations or transactions with any Israeli person or institution. For others, BDS means strategically targeted boycotts aimed at institutions and financiers enabling Israeli settlements in the occupied territories. Whatever you think of these, they are different strategies. To be clear, I would not characterize BDS as anti-Semitic, though it is certainly a muscular tactic bolstered by strong rhetoric. I could support most any non-violent measure aimed at the Israeli state, from civil society or from governments. However, as politics and analysis, the hardline BDS position, unlike a settlement-focused BDS, it is at least debatable.

Adherence to BDS is difficult politics because there are progressive forces among liberal Zionists and Israeli Jews with whom collaboration may be feasible and ought to be sought. In light of the evolving trend of the Israeli state towards fascism, these people are moved to increasingly heroic efforts.

An absolutist posture is dubious analysis because Israeli Jews, like Palestinians, are not going anywhere. For the future, the question is what sort of accommodation among Jews and Palestinians may be possible. To characterize every sort of Zionist, as well as those who note diversity among Zionists, as favoring genocide shuts down debate by demonizing those with whom dialog would be possible. Those who might disagree are intimidated and will be discouraged from deeper involvement with the Left. My bet is that the vitriol directed at Bowman may have already alienated otherwise sympathetic members of Congress.

Again, I am neither calling nor implying that BDS partisans are anti-Semitic. But their rhetoric reads the same among some and is ripe for exploitation by centrists and unfriendly Zionists. Defending BDS against all comers can only encourage more explicit expressions of hostility towards Zionists of the Jewish sort. (Few harbor any hopes for Christian Zionists, although their uniformity could be exaggerated.)

Undoubtedly, a position on Palestine in line with, for instance, my thinking, would repel many on the Left. My argument is that a position uncritically favoring BDS keeps the Left indefinitely limited in size and influence, and ultimately doomed.

An extreme intolerance for any and all Zionists contributed to the downfall of Corbyn, abetted by both reactionary neo-liberal and ultraleft forces within or around the Labour Party. Associations of Corbyn with those to his “left” were used to smear him, in simple echo of some ultraleft statements smearing any glimmer of nuance regarding Palestine liberation.

Elevating support for BDS to an unbreakable "principle" rests on the delusion that Palestine is somehow central to political struggle in the US. This is a category error. BDS is not a principle — it is a strategy. Calling it a principle precludes any debate over its wisdom as political strategy.

Palestine is of course vital to all those most connected to those in Israel, either currently or historically, but as a political issue in the US, it attracts little sympathy. Unlike the pro-Israel vote, the pro-Palestine vote is negligible. Things that are morally important are not necessarily politically important.

It could be argued that Israel and Palestine are important because their conflict is a threat to world peace, the potential flashpoint for a dangerous, wider, regional war. I can’t disagree. This presents a tremendous challenge to the US Left, which has little leverage over US foreign policy unless mass conflict blows up somewhere. We can mount protests when such conflicts break out, especially if it involves the US military, but our power is limited.

It is one thing to uphold Palestinian liberation as an unshakable objective to which constant support must be applied. I have no problem with that approach, nor with industrial-strength BDS, as an organizational tenet. As I said, there is nothing inherently offensive about a boycott. But the politics are still a different matter.

The immediate issue is not how to evaluate Zionism as much as how to relate to Jewish Zionists and their political friends. There is a tendency to cast as advocates of genocide all who dissent from the canonical line on Palestine, Israel and BDS. This sort of moral posturing will propel the Left from its current wave as a popular, dynamic, growing movement to a blizzard of deteriorating sects.

Of course, an inflexible position on BDS tends to preclude useful communication between supporters of Palestine and Jews in Israel. That is a tip-off to the limits of BDS politics.

I am as anti-Israel as anybody, have been for 50 years. I’ve been a member of the pro-BDS Jewish Voice for Peace. But since as a general matter I frown upon people blowing each other up, much less regional war leading to something infinitely worse, I favor accommodation among all parties, arrived at voluntarily, on the ground. Until that remote event, there is no hope for the working class on either side. The nature of any such compact will be decided by those closest to the conflict, not by resolutions enacted in the US. What we say about this means less for Palestine than it does for the reception afforded to the Left in US politics.

A movement cannot center too many things. Fifty priorities means no priorities at all, and any real political strategy must have a focus. What is the right focus? With all due respect to those for whom Palestine is the most important issue, and for those directly affected by it in the Middle East, I suggest it is not the right focus for US politics. It should not be abandoned, but it should not preclude useful political alliances.

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