Democratic Socialists of America Is Helping Rebuild the U.S. Anti-War Movement

Despite recent public resignations from some longtime members who disagree with the organization’s work and positions supporting Palestinian freedom, DSA is growing—and building coalitions across the U.S. Left.

Daphna Thier

Members of Democratic Socialists of America join demonstators in the streets of New York City to demand a cease-fire in Gaza. (NYC-DSA / Facebook)

Following Hamas’ October 7 attack on Israel that killed almost 1,200 people and saw about 240 others taken hostage, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s government launched a devastating assault on Gaza that has so far killed about 20,000 Palestinians, including more than 8,000 children, with more than 50,000 wounded and thousands of others missing or presumed to be under the rubble. Some 85% of Palestinians in Gaza — nearly 2 million people — have been displaced as tens of thousands of Israeli bombs have struck homes, mosques, schools and hospitals.

Since the Israeli military’s brutal response began and the scale of its violence became clear — the Israeli minister of defense referring to Palestinians as human animals” and cutting off food, water, fuel and electricity to the besieged strip — the Democratic Socialists of America (DSA), the nation’s largest socialist organization, has mobilized thousands of its members to help build the movement for a cease-fire.

The DSA’s mobilization comes as a clear majority of U.S. voters say they back a cease-fire, including more than 75% of Democrats. Many DSA members have been working to translate this broad public support into political change by pressuring members of Congress to call for a cease-fire as part of the national campaign No Money for Massacres. They’ve also been successfully organizing within the labor movement to encourage unions to pass cease-fire resolutions, and helped push the largest private sector union in the country, the United Auto Workers, to join the call.

About a month after the violence in Gaza began, a group of two dozen former DSA members published a letter of resignation in the New Republic, voicing deep concern about the response of DSA to the events of October 7 and lamenting the emergence of isolating, purist, and self-destructive tendencies inside DSA that have undermined its promise.” The letter, which had 24 signatories, also criticized the organization’s leadership for their refusal to publicly condemn Hamas. 

Even if it came to its senses and understood what harm it has done over the past weeks, and even if it seriously reckoned with the moral and political failings which led to that harm,” the letter read, DSA would be in no position to contribute to that vital work: By its own hand, it has destroyed its moral and political authority to speak on Israel and Palestine, and on much else.”

In an earlier article in The Nation titled Why I Just Quit DSA,” Maurice Isserman (one of the 24 who signed the letter) wrote that he was leaving the organization to protest DSA leadership’s politically and morally bankrupt response,” and referred to the October 7 attacks as an anti-Jewish pogrom” — a reference to the pogroms of Eastern Europe, when Jews were an oppressed minority beleaguered by acts of state and mob violence. He attributed a shift in DSA to the organization having been captured by Left sectarian entryists’” but also noted that the support for Labor Zionism that had once been widespread in the DSA in the early 1980s had largely evaporated as the country’s government moved to the right and the two-state solution became more implausible. 

Isserman focuses on what he describes as the now singularly important role of Palestine in DSA’s rather short list of international concerns, completely overshadowing” other issues such as the war in Ukraine or the plight of the Uyghurs in China. He also argued that the issue of Palestine served DSA’s new sectarian leadership, furnishing a convenient stick to beat DSA’s moderate wing if it wasn’t willing to embrace the most extreme positions on the Palestinian question — up to and including denying Israel’s right to continued existence.”

Harold Meyerson, another signatory, argued in The American Prospect that while a majority of DSA members are not actually part of this sectarian camp,” they are fresh off America’s college campuses.” Believing somehow that those who were in their 20s during the upsurge of membership about a decade ago are still straight out of college, he patronizingly argued that they bring to DSA both the blessings and curses of youth: boundless energy and discomfort with complication and nuance.” He compared his leaving of the organization to those who left the Communist Party over the Hitler-Stalin Pact in 1939. And last month, Michael Powell of The Atlantic published a favorable article about the recent resignations from DSA, claiming that the war in Gaza is tearing apart the organization.” 

But as others have already rebuffed, the reality for so many of us in DSA couldn’t be more different. In fact, the organizing around a cease-fire has, in many ways, united and reminded us of the power that DSA can hold and exert when its members come together around a national campaign. Dozens of chapters have mobilized to put pressure on politicians across the country. The demand for a cease-fire has drawn thousands of DSA members into street actions, phone banks, trainings and spaces for political education. 

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Thousands of new members have also joined DSA in recent weeks, marking what may be a resurgence of membership after a period of decline. DSA reported almost 95,000 members at its peak in 2021, but was down to around 77,000 members by August 2023. These numbers reflect a general demoralization among the left wing in the United States over the last few years. But today, Cara Tobe, a member of DSA’s elected leadership, the National Political Committee (NPC), says that, while our main effort has been building, along with many other allies, a strong movement for a permanent cease-fire and Palestinian liberation, we’ve also had a burst of enthusiasm and growth since October. We’re proud to say that we’ve recruited roughly 2,000 new members and reactivated 1,400 more.”

In New York City, DSA’s largest chapter, the organization reported that more than 200 new members joined within the first few weeks of organizing against Israel’s assault on Gaza. Overall, the chapter says it has been able to mobilize more than 10,000 people into actions, phone banks and letter campaigns, including thousands of prospective members. This surge reflects the growing number of individuals who are seeking avenues to uplift the Palestinian cause, and who see DSA as a viable vehicle for this struggle.

Palestinian American and DSA member Layla al-Sheikh says that friends and family members of hers were among the recent recruits, and adds that DSA is proving itself to be at the barricade for Palestine.” She says that, in her opinion, this is an inflection point in the history of the conflict. Not since 1948 has there been such an intensification of hostilities against my people and paradoxically there has not been since 1948 such an outpouring of support for liberation.” 

Jewish members of the organization, including myself, have also been at the heart of much of the recent organizing. For so many of us it is personal, as we see the Holocaust and the premise of Jewish safety being used to justify the genocide and ethnic cleansing of Palestinians. Hundreds of members have put their bodies on the line in acts of civil disobedience led by and in coalition with other organizations, including a sit-down protest on Capitol Hill inside the Cannon Building on Oct. 18, shutting down New York City’s Grand Central station at the height of rush hour on Oct. 27, and blocking the Manhattan Bridge on Nov. 26. We were some of the early signatories to calls for a cease-fire, and as Jewish socialists raised our voices to say, Not in my name.” 

Through DSA’s national campaign, activists have collectively made more than 330,000 calls and sent more than 20,000 emails targeting congresspeople, urging them to support Rep. Cori Bush’s (D-Mo.) cease-fire resolution. Additionally, 15 DSA chapters successfully raised around $80,000 for the Palestinian Children’s Relief Fund. DSA and other organizations have also led regular actions outside representatives’ offices in districts across the country. 

DSA has by no means done all this work on its own. The organization has worked in coalition with dozens of groups such as Adalah Justice Project, U.S. Campaign for Palestinian Rights, American Muslims for Palestine, Jewish Voice for Peace, IfNotNow, Working Families Party, Justice Democrats, among many others, to organize demonstrations and other actions calling for an end to the assault on Gaza. 

“It feels like we can’t keep up with how many people want to be involved and want to lead with us. To me, it feels like people are running towards us.”

New York State Rep. Zohran Mamdani, who is also a DSA member, recently helped organize a five-day hunger strike outside the White House in order to call attention to the conditions of starvation faced by the people in Gaza. Labor unions, members of Palestinian rights organizations and other elected officials joined him. The political and media class will try to make us feel that extending rights to Palestinians is a death knell for the left,” Mamdani told Liza Featherstone of Jacobin, but it’s the opposite.” This rallying cry has been uniting the Left, and has been building a multiracial, working class movement,” Mamdani said, adding that messages of support he’s received from people who were once skeptical” of DSA far outweighed the number of articles criticizing DSA.

Cihan Tekay Liu, a DSA member originally from Turkey who has been leading Palestine solidarity efforts for DSA, says it feels like we can’t keep up with how many people want to be involved and want to lead with us. To me, it feels like people are running towards us.” 

It appears as though the signatories of the resignation letter are also confusing recent debates within DSA about whether to condemn or expel prominent members for perceived political shortcomings, with the clear, popular and moral defense of Gaza that the organization is currently engaged in. Rep Jamaal Bowman (D-N.Y.) came under fire by some in DSA for voting in favor of funding Israel’s Iron Dome missile defense system, which critics say effectively strengthens Israel’s offensive capabilities, and for traveling to Israel with J Street, a self-described Zionist, pro-Israel, anti-BDS organization.” And Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.), was criticized by some in the group for her position on Israel’s right to exist and, in a 2018 interview, expressing her willingness to learn and evolve on this issue” of Israel and Palestine, rather than provide unflinching support for Palestinian liberation. 

Both Bowman and Ocasio-Cortez have been vocal and unequivocal in their support for a cease-fire since the violence began in October. And a number of members who were part of the efforts to expel Bowman have since left DSA. And yet the signatories of the letter seem to argue that DSA’s supposed purist” tendencies around Palestine and its relationship to endorsed elected representatives are sequestering the organization. This view stands in conflict with the recent growth of DSA, and its coalitional work. It also doesn’t acknowledge that DSA-endorsed members of Congress and their progressive colleagues are all now working toward the same goal of a cease-fire in Gaza. 

Police officers take a protester into custody as Jewish activists stage pro-Palestinian demonstration at United States Capitol building in Washington D.C., United States on October 18, 2023. (Photo by Celal Gunes/Anadolu via Getty Images)

Another argument made by the letter’s signatories is that DSA members were not clear enough in immediately denouncing the attacks of October 7 or in holding Hamas responsible and accountable.” But DSA members and elected representatives have consistently condemned the killing of civilians, Palestinian and Israeli. They’ve also underscored Israel’s decades-long history of killing Palestinian civilians and decried the disproportionate and criminal retaliation by Israel, which has resulted in the mass murder of Palestinians.

The resigning members claim that DSA today has failed an elementary test of solidarity.” In order to walk in the footsteps of giants who came before… to keep faith with them, and to remain loyal to the principles of democratic socialism,” according to the letter, they must leave DSA. 

The Democratic Socialist Organizing Committee (DSA’s predecessor, and an organization some of the letter authors were members of) was created in the 1970s, and included support for Israel as a plank in its platform, with some members asserting that Zionism was a progressive, even quasi socialist,” movement. Michael Harrington, who founded DSOC and later DSA, had, like many labor and socialist leaders at the time, a relationship with the Israeli Labor Party (today called HaAvoda) and the Workers’ Party (today Meretz). Harrington held the belief that Zionism was the national liberation movement for the self-determination of the Jewish people. He rejected a charge in the United Nations at the time that called the movement racist. 

Harrington believed that Jews had a right to their own state, and strongly supported a two-state solution that would ensure a politically and economically viable Israel.” As early DSA member and onetime vice chair Jo-Ann Mort said, We were the place to go on the left if you were a socialist and you were pro-Israel.”

But despite the beliefs of socialists like Harrington at the time, in reality, even as a Labor Zionist state, Israel was already engaged in the ethnic cleansing of Indigenous Palestinians. While the various resignation statements attempt to distinguish between the right-wing government of Netanayhu and the ideal version of a Jewish ethno-state, the Nakba of 1948 and the occupation and settlements in the West Bank and Gaza were carried out for decades by the Israeli leadership, including those who self described as left-wing Zionists. Thanks to social media today we bear witness to the violence that ethnic cleansing entails. The result has left fewer and fewer people with the illusion that Israel is a democracy of any kind. 

The resignation letter ignores the growth of anti-Zionism not only among DSA members, but also within broader movements for social justice and among younger Americans more generally. In contrast to the ideas that characterized DSA when it originated, younger socialists today connect their anti-Zionism to a politics of solidarity. 

Building real solidarity with a majority of working class people does not mean supporting an apartheid regime that is oppressing millions of workers in the Middle East. Instead of demanding the acceptance by Palestinians of an ethno-Jewish state in their land, today’s socialists should call for democratic rights for all, regardless of religion.

In fact, socialists (including the founders of DSOC) have a long history of anti-war organizing. And this is because of the critical connection between socialism and internationalism. While our own ruling class wages war on us at home, they do so with the cover of waging war abroad, carried out on our dime. Movements such as Black Lives Matter have for this reason found deep connections to the Palestinian movement.

And the Palestinian cause is central to the anti-war movement because of the centrality of the Israeli-American alliance to U.S global interests. Sumaya Awad, Palestinian writer and activist, explained to Mondoweiss how supporting Israel undermines working class interests in the United States: We’re seeing every excuse under the sun being leveled against poor and working class people in this country for why they can’t have Medicare for All, for why they can’t have a $15 minimum wage… The reason given is that there’s not enough funding, where are we going to get the funding from? You only have to look at the U.S. defense budget.” 

Members of DSA organize to support a ceasefire in Gaza. (NYC-DSA / Facebook)

Though the signatories of the resignation statement worried that DSA’s position on Gaza would isolate it, the political movement over recent weeks has proved otherwise. Within the first days of Israel’s bombing, Rep. Bush, a DSA member, introduced a resolution in the U.S. House calling for a cease-fire, which was quickly endorsed by the sole Palestinian American in Congress, and fellow DSA member, Rep. Rashida Tlaib (D-Mich.). The call for a cease-fire has since been supported by 68% of U.S. voters. Efforts to pressure political leaders to back this call have been fruitful, with the number of members of Congress supporting a cease-fire growing to more than 60.

And the pro-Palestinian movement has made real gains in popular opinion. Once widely held ideas about Israel’s righteousness have made way for disgust with the violent actions of the state. As former NPC member and current national co-chair Ashik Siddique wrote at the New Republic, even backers of Israel’s far-right regime are admitting that the Pro-war propaganda is hitting a wall in part because organizations like DSA are so effective at bringing together diverse people across differences, and fighting across issues in a way that makes us stronger in each, for a shared vision of universal liberation of all people.”

Tobe says that last month DSA had one of its most successful election nights in recent memory. We’re still winning and still making a really big difference. One of our electeds, Alma Castro in New Mexico, won and then immediately after gave a rousing speech about Palestine,” she says. We’re bringing in new electeds to office who aren’t backing down from their support for the fight for Palestinian liberation.” 

DSA has been united in advocating a cease-fire by emphasizing the devastating human toll of the war, while strategically positioning itself within a growing, militant, and youth-driven anti-war movement. The organization’s future direction will stem from the groundwork laid in recent weeks, forging coalitions and training new activists and organizers across the country.

Never before today was there a Palestinian member of Congress [like Tlaib] who so forcefully decries the tragedy that has struck us, and never before today would there have been multiple socialists [in office] alongside her to decry it as well,” says al-Sheikh. Never before today was there a coalition of Jews, Arabs, and working class people from all walks of life willing to march through the streets of New York, San Francisco, Detroit, Chicago, and D.C — for Palestine.”

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Daphna Thier is a labor educator and organizer based in Brooklyn. She works at the Emergency Workplace Organizing Committee and is a member of DSA. She is a contributing author of the volume Palestine: A Socialist Introduction.

Democratic Rep. Summer Lee, who at the time was a candidate for the state House, at a demonstration in Pittsburgh for Antwon Rose, who was killed by police, in 2018. Lee recently defeated her 2024 primary challenger.
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