The rise of the Squad in Congress has mirrored the explosive growth of Democratic Socialists of America. The leftist lawmakers, all of them national celebrities, have promoted DSA and partnered with the organization on crucial legislation. In turn, young socialists have flocked to the insurgent representatives, lending necessary volunteers for contentious campaigns.
Last week, for perhaps the first time, saw a fraying in this partnership. Select chapters of DSA and a number of socialist leaders called for the expulsion of Representative Jamaal Bowman from the organization. Bowman, a New York Democrat and DSA member who defeated Eliot Engel in 2020, ran afoul of these chapters for taking a recent trip to Israel and meeting with the new right-wing prime minister, Naftali Bennett. He also drew the ire of DSA members for voting to fund Israel’s Iron Dome defense system, and refusing to back the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions (BDS) movement against Israel.
“I think that we have to hold our elected officials to a higher standard,” said Jen Edwards, the cochair of Madison Area DSA in Wisconsin. “One of our very closely held principles is solidarity with Palestine and support of BDS. The decision of Jamaal Bowman to vote multiple times for funding for the Israeli military, including the Iron Dome vote and his recent visit to Israel and meeting with the Parliament of Israel, is directly in conflict with those principles.”
Several other chapters, including Pittsburgh, Orlando, and Las Vegas, called for Bowman’s ouster. DSA’s BDS and Palestine Solidarity Working Group joined their calls, demanding that Bowman be expelled unless he explicitly supports BDS. “Now is not the time for us to lower our expectations by allowing endorsed candidates to deprioritize Palestine as a third rail issue, selling out all of our socialist principles by extension,” the group said in a statement.
On Friday, Bowman met with DSA’s National Political Committee, which has the power to expel members from the organization. The NPC asked Bowman if he would support BDS publicly. Bowman’s team declined to answer, deciding to take the request, among others, under review. The Zoom discussion, according to those involved, was otherwise amicable.
Bowman is unlikely to be expelled from DSA—and other members and chapters have vigorously pushed back on efforts to drive him out of the socialist organization, which has nearly 100,000 members across the nation and more than 100, including Bowman and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, in elected office. Supporters of Bowman in DSA organized a letter, titled “For Unity, not Unanimity,” that garnered dozens of signatories from local DSA chapters. The DSA chapter in Bowman’s own district did not call for his expulsion.
“As socialists, our concern is with making material progress towards justice, not simply with messaging about what justice is,” the letter read. “Forcibly expelling an elected official whom DSA helped put in office may seem like an act of power, but it reflects weakness, not strength. Strong movements can shift allies and comrades towards their positions.”
Expelling Bowman, the signatories argued, “could send a strong signal about our position on BDS, but it will not provide any material aid to the Palestinian cause.”
David Duhalde, vice-chair of The Democratic Socialists of America Fund—DSA’s sister educational nonprofit—and a signatory of the letter, said that he saw an “erosion of democratic norms” taking place in DSA and argued the calls for Bowman’s expulsion lacked due process. “This effort is excessively punitive and isn’t being done in a way that would give him a fair hearing. It wouldn’t empower the organization to advance the cause of Palestinian liberation.”
Bowman’s office declined to comment on the debate. Defenders of the congressman noted, however, that he took the trip with J Street, a progressive organization that supports Zionism but speaks in support of Palestinian rights, unlike the more powerful American Israel Political Affairs Committee (AIPAC). Bowman and the delegation attempted to visit Gaza but were denied permission, though he was able to meet with the Palestinian grandmother of Rashida Tlaib, the Michigan representative and Squad member, in the occupied West Bank.
Bowman is not the only leftist member of Congress to withhold support for BDS. Both Ocasio-Cortez and Bernie Sanders, who is not technically a dues-paying DSA member, have refused to endorse the nonviolent boycott movement, which is opposed by large segments of the American Jewish community. Ocasio-Cortez also recently irked DSA and other progressives when she voted “present” for the Iron Dome funding instead of coming out against it.
There are political realities Bowman must contend with that are unique to his district. Engel, whose seat former public school principal now occupies, was the chair of the House Foreign Affairs Committee and a staunch Israel hawk. Bowman’s district, spanning the Bronx and Westchester County, is home to a sizable Jewish community. A progressive on foreign policy, Bowman has sought to limit the US military presence abroad, backing an amendment that would have pulled troops from Syria. He has also been willing to chide fellow members of the New York delegation who have unequivocally boosted Israeli violence against Palestinians.
For DSA, the spat and reconciliation with Bowman represents both the promise and peril of a decentralized socialist movement. The great autonomy conferred on individual chapters has led to a number of startling successes, like New York’s leftward swerve in the state legislature and the socialist takeover of the Nevada Democratic Party. It has also, on occasion, engendered infighting and alienation—Summer Lee, a rising state lawmaker now running for Congress, recently left Pittsburgh’s DSA chapter after disagreements with socialists there.
Unlike other organizing bodies on the broader left, DSA has resisted professionalization and consciously avoided becoming another Working Families Party or Sunrise Movement. On one hand, this is understandable because DSA is a mass-member, democratic organization in a way most nonprofit progressive groups are not. Decisions are reached through genuine member engagement and campaigns are supported only when there’s belief that a sufficient number of volunteers can be summoned to knock on doors, make phone calls, and raise funds. As a socialist organization, DSA ultimately seeks to make member elected officials accountable to local chapters and the principles they support, declining to endorse broadly or readily cozy up to politicians.
But the professional left organizations do have the advantage of employing more paid staff to meet with lawmakers regularly. Though DSA has worked with Bowman on the Green New Deal for public schools, socialists have rarely scheduled formal meetings with the left-wing lawmaker. The imposition of a litmus test over BDS raises a thorny question for DSA: What principles are de facto red lines that endorsed candidates must not violate—and what others can be massaged? Medicare for All, for example, appears to be far more nonnegotiable than BDS, which has long been controversial even among many progressives. Does threatening Bowman with expulsion make him more or less likely to embrace the cause of Palestinian rights and BDS? Will future Democrats seeking DSA endorsements pull closer or further away from the greater struggle for Palestinian liberation?
It can be argued that in the northern Bronx and Westchester, leftists can do no better than Bowman, who replaced a Democrat that supported the Iraq War and Likud. Purging him from DSA would, in the short term, probably do more damage to the socialist organization than it would to Bowman’s political career. Unlike the 2018 Ocasio-Cortez campaign, DSA did not engage heavily with Bowman in 2020 and only endorsed him close to Election Day. Their leverage over him, for now at least, may be limited.
As DSA continues to grow and more leftists like Bowman enter office with their support, debates over how grassroots socialists should relate to those in power—and what policy disagreements should trigger censure or outright expulsion—will likely rage again.
“It is a reflection of a maturation of our politics,” said Chris Kutalik Cauthern, DSA’s communications directer. “A lot of people like to talk about DSA as a party surrogate or a party within a party. As DSA gets its legs and become a mass organization, we’ll have to deal with these issues.”