“The circumstance which divides socialist politics from bourgeois politics is that the socialists are opponents of the entire existing order and must function in a bourgeois parliament fundamentally as an opposition.”
—Rosa Luxemburg, The Socialist Crisis in France
On July 28th, Minnesota congressperson Ilhan Omar and New York representative Jamaal Bowman, along with 215 other Democratic Party representatives, voted to authorize the United States to continue to pay Israel $3.3 billion in direct military aid and thus subsidize war crimes and apartheid perpetuated by Israel.
This is especially difficult to stomach given that their votes were cast just three months after Israel’s (most recent) bloody bombardment of Gaza and as the recent struggles and the forced displacement of Palestinian families in the East Jerusalem neighborhoods of Sheikh Jarrah and Silwan still roil.
Why did they do it?
In many ways, Omar has been a vocal advocate for the rights of Palestinians during her time in Congress—indeed, she has endured vicious Islamophobic attacks from the right partially because of this stance. That makes her recent vote disappointing. Likewise, Bowman is a member of the Democratic Socialists of America (DSA), an organization that explicitly denounces Israeli apartheid and settler colonialism. The fact that he also failed to stand firmly to end—or even condition—military aid to Israel raises questions about what kind of strategy is needed to combat the US support for Israel’s ethnic cleansing and oppression of Palestinians. Indeed, this debacle poses larger considerations about how socialists in the United States should organize to fight US imperialism more broadly.
The Imperial Policy
What was in the bill, H.R. 4373 (Department of State Foreign Operations and Related Appropriations Act), that Omar and Bowman voted for? As to be expected from any resolution authorizing funding for the State Department of the United States, the section of the state apparatus that directly carries out imperial policy, the bill is full of the standard cluster of nefarious weapons—both “hard” and “soft”—used to cajole, manipulate, threaten, and bully other states into doing the bidding of Washington. So, insofar as it funds the State Department, the bill is essentially an investment in US empire, i.e., in a state of affairs whereby the US ruling class dominates the planet. This is what Joe Biden was referring to when he recently spoke euphemistically of the need to renew “American leadership” in the world.
On this basis alone socialist members of Congress should maintain a principled stance of opposition to bills such as this. Indeed, because genuine socialism is always anti-imperialist, you can’t consistently be both a socialist and vote in favor of allocating tax dollars to the foremost institutional anchor of US imperialism.
Still, even if that weren’t the case, the parts of the bill that concern Israel are egregious enough to warrant strong opposition from all socialists in Congress. Here is just some of what H.R. 4373 does:
- It confirms $3.3 billion of direct military aid to Israel that is promised by the Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) that Barack Obama signed with Israel. (Five hundred million more dollars are given for Israel’s missile defense system, but those are allocated through a separate resolution.) The MOU commits the United States to giving $3.8 billion annually to Israel from 2019–2028 for a grand total of $38 billion—a record sum that tops all previous allocations made to apartheid Israel by the US state. As readers certainly don’t need reminding, this money helps subsidize Israel’s racist occupation and the bombardments of Gaza like what occurred this past May, which murdered 248 Palestinians, 66 of them children, flattened thousands of homes, and dozens of schools and medical facilities.
- It imposes no conditions at all on the aid, effectively greenlighting Israel’s war crimes and massacres.
- It concentrates over half of the total US foreign military financing to Israel alone. Combined with that given to Egypt, this accounts for 75 percent of the total.
- It also gives $1.3 billion of direct military aid to Egypt. Egypt’s government under the military rule of Adel Fattah al-Sisi is a repressive police state. Human Rights Watch describes Egypt as “experiencing its worst human rights crisis in decades.” Tens of thousands of political prisoners are in jail, many are held without trial, and torture and summary execution are commonplace.
- While there are zero conditions attached to US military aid to Israel, the bill is filled with conditions on other allocations in support of Israel. These include:
- US contributions to the International Atomic Energy Agency are dependent on Israel being allowed to participate.
- US contributions to the United Nations Human Rights Council depend on the UNHRC “take[ing] significant steps” to remove Israel from its permanent agenda. The permanent agenda means that every meeting of the UNHRC takes up business in discussing human rights issues in Israel/Palestine. The US doesn’t want this conversation to be had.
- The bill does give economic support to the West Bank and Gaza. But the $225 million is a pittance compared with the military financing of Israel. To obtain even this measly sum of money the Palestinian Authority (PA) has to jump through a number of hoops including security cooperation with Israel. This funding should not be seen as neutral assistance for Palestinians but as a tool to secure Palestinian compliance, with the PA as the main partner. This money can also be cut if the Palestinians get membership status as a state in the United Nations or—and perhaps most grotesquely—if Palestinians initiate an investigation of Israel or an Israeli national for crimes against Palestinians in the International Criminal Court.
To be clear, this is all standard practice for the United States and has been for decades. But that doesn’t make it any less unconscionable. This status quo that Ilhan Omar, Jamaal Bowman, Ayanna Pressley, and nearly every Democrat in the House voted for.
Money and Mouths
The annual vote on State Department funding is often a strictly partisan affair, with one ruling party voting unanimously in favor and the other voting against it. That’s because these bills are, in a sense, confidence votes on the foreign policy priorities of the sitting administration. This year the bill passed narrowly with 217 for and 212 against. What is interesting is that while Omar and Bowman voted for the resolution, representatives Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Rashida Tlaib, and Cori Bush all voted against it. Given how close the vote was, this split in “the Squad’s” vote meant that the left missed an important opportunity to vote it down and strike a blow against Washington’s unconditional support of Israel.
Ilhan Omar’s vote was probably surprising to many as she has been vocal on the question of Palestine and US imperialism—more so than your typical Democrat. She is, for example, a supporter of H.R. 2590 which seeks to place some restrictions on US military financing of Israel. Indeed, the day before the vote she announced a new bill she would be introducing, the Stop Arming Human Right Abusers Act. While it doesn’t name Israel, it would sanction US arms sales to states that violate international law. And she moved to block an arms sale approved by Biden in May. “It would be appalling,” she said, to provide weapons to Israel “without any strings attached in the wake of escalating violence and attacks on civilians.”
So why did she go and vote to just do that? Why did she approve a resolution that AIPAC—which has attacked Omar so viciously that one of her staffers described them as “putting [her] life at risk”—praised, calling its passing a reflection of “strong bipartisan support for Israel’s security”?
In her press release about her vote, Omar is conspicuously silent about the provisions in the resolution that have to do with Israel. Instead, she states: “My priority as a Member of Congress has always been fighting to make life better for the families of Minnesota’s 5th District.” She focuses her vote on the fact that she was able to pass an amendment to H.R. 4373 to reallocate $5 million from foreign military funding to fund a number of development projects in her congressional district like rebuilding clinics, community centers, and developers putting in affordable housing. Of course, the general idea of reallocating funds from foreign military funding is a good one. But the $5 million for the 5th District in exchange for $3.3 billion for Israel is surely too cheap a price. Interestingly, Omar also raised an amendment to H.R. 4373 to place conditions on the military aid to Egypt, but did not do so for Israel.
DSA member Jamaal Bowman’s vote is also unfortunate. He took to twitter to decry “America support[ing] the occupation” during the May bombardment of Gaza, and one of his campaign slogans was “Jobs and education, not bombs and incarceration.” He, too, is an endorser of H.R. 2590. Yet he also voted to fund Israeli bombs without conditions. This is the opposite of what we want socialists in Congress to do.
What It Means
What implications does this have for socialist strategy in the United States?
It certainly complicates the idea that “socialism is winning,” advanced by some on the left after a number of DSA candidates won election to federal office in the last round of elections Jacobin magazine, for example, described Bowman’s primary win as a “political earthquake.” The strategy underlying this assessment is one in which socialists slowly accumulate power by gradually electing individuals like Bowman or AOC to office.
But though this strategy seems compellingly “realistic” on the surface, underneath it rests a naive utopian incrementalism. That’s because it wrongly assumes we’ll have a more or less stable, predictable social and political terrain for the foreseeable future and bets on a steady, optimistic trajectory for socialists hoping to win office and use state power for good. What’s more, this strategy dismisses big political questions—like how to fight US imperialism or defund the police and how (or whether) to organize an independent left party—as distracting from immediate goals or imperiling fragile electoral campaigns that must tack to the center in order to avoid alienating voters. When pushed, advocates of this strategy will concede that questions like imperialism or policing are important, but, sometimes in the same breath, they’ll push a serious discussion of how to act on them into some undefined point in the future.
But we can’t defer these questions when self-avowed socialists, who hold office in the name of the broader left, vote in favor of bills that sustain imperialism and ethnic cleansing.
Of course, some will dismiss my criticism of Bowman and Omar’s vote as mere point scoring or pandering to the politics of purity. They will argue that I don’t understand the “real work” of politics, the messiness of backroom deal-making, the long-game multidimensional chess elected officials must play in order to win even the smallest gains for our side. Instead, they’ll tell us to “trust the process,” which inevitably requires elected officials to engage in negotiation, horse-trading and compromise.
But this approach forgets why we should even want to elect socialists to government posts in the first place. We don’t do so because we take these officials to be leaders of our movement, because we trust their expertise or judgment as negotiators. The point of electing socialists, as the twentieth-century German revolutionary Rosa Luxemburg memorably put it, is to build a publicly visible opposition to the entire existing order, to use the bully pulpit of elected office to amplify movement demands and expose broader layers of the population to serious arguments in favor of socialism. And the thing is that Omar has shown the ability to effectively use the bully pulpit, yet she and Bowman stay their hand at a moment they might have strategically pushed the precise demand that the tens of thousands were calling for in the streets: Not another nickel for Israel’s crimes.
That is why, as a matter of political principle, socialists should draw a sharp line and never vote for a penny, nickel, or dime that funds US imperialism or supports Israel. And this also underscores the need to find ways to tether elected officials more tightly to social movements and socialist organizations, so that they are prevented from succumbing to pressures to maintain the status quo in the name of “statesmanship” or “playing ball.” Arguably, the movement for Palestinian liberation in the United States has gained a lot of ground in the last five years—and we need leftists in government to build on that, not set it back in order to deliver services to local constituents.
A better strategy needs to begin from a sober assessment of the obstacles we face. In the case of Palestinian liberation, we need to remember that the Obama MOU promising military funding for Israel is set to continue for another seven years. That’s a bipartisan pledge to continue backing ethnic cleansing, bombing, and oppression. So, successfully fighting to end US support for Israeli apartheid is going to take a concerted struggle that strikes at the core of US imperial policy.
Now, someone might reply here that Omar and Bowman’s vote is actually best for the long run. But the situation is dire. Will the West Bank endure seven more years of ethnic cleansing and Gaza continue to starve under catastrophic conditions? Certainly that means something different to Palestinians than it does to incrementalists in the United States.
Another dimension that we must confront here is why there wasn’t unity among left and DSA-aligned elected officials on the question of funding Israeli apartheid. After all, AOC and others had no problem doing the right thing and voting against the bill. So we need to ask: why is it that on an issue like this the left, DSA-aligned section in the House fractures?
One wonders if the situation would’ve been viewed differently if, say, Bowman had voted against a domestic DSA-backed initiative like Medicare for All or the Green New Deal. Would this have provoked scandal among those partial to incrementalism, or would it have been little noted (as has been the case with Omar and Bowman’s vote to fund Israel). Would DSA allow a member to take these positions? It’s hard to imagine that there wouldn’t be pushback. So we have to ask: will there be any action or comment from DSA about some of their members in congress voting to fund Israeli bombs?
This problem is not new, nor is it confined to national politics. For example, on a much smaller level, this was seen in Chicago, when DSA-backed alderperson Andre Vasquez broke with his fellow socialist alderpeople to vote for a pro-cop budget. While CDSA initially censured Vasquez, no further action was taken, and he remains a DSA member in city council taking money from developers and voting for cop budgets.
Some leftists will take examples like this to prove that socialists have no business participating in elections or holding public office. But what socialists need is a better electoral strategy, not to avoid electoral politics altogether. More specifically: instead of endorsing a politically uneven assortment of candidates over whom we’ll have limited control once they win office, we need a political party (independent of the two cartels that dominate US government) that is internally democratic and membership based, which fields its own candidates and can hold them accountable. And such a strategy has to be premised on an understanding that all good social change comes from mass disruption.
This is especially important when looking at questions of imperialism and solidarity with Palestine specifically. Holding a firmer line around opposing the breadth of US imperialism needs to be pursued as seriously and stringently as that of domestic demands like health care and jobs.
The massive protests against Israel’s bombing of Gaza lifted the organic slogan cutting US aid for Israel and questioned the complicity of Biden and company in racist apartheid and war crimes. There has never been a better time to organize for Palestinian liberation in the United States. But rather than pushing this to a moment of conflict with the bipartisan consensus in favor of Israel, Bowman and Omar shirked even as others like Tlaib, AOC, and their allies correctly voted no. That’s not an error we should want to repeat again in the future. Successfully resisting the priorities of US empire and apartheid Israel will require a more rigorous strategic approach that frontally challenges the machinations of the Democratic Party.