The brutality Saturday — violence of a greater scope and intensity than earlier Israeli-Palestinian clashes — has shaken some who had been boosted by the DSA. And the blowback has been felt across Congress, statehouses and city halls where the party has made inroads.
In Michigan, Rep. Shri Thanedar officially renounced his DSA membership, saying in a statement Wednesday that he won’t “associate with an organization unwilling to call out terrorism in all its forms.”
In Los Angeles, DSA-endorsed City Council member Nithya Raman rejected the group’s rhetoric late Tuesday, saying a national DSA statement on the attacks “failed to reckon with the horrors committed by Hamas and was unacceptably devoid of empathy for communities in Israel.”
In New York, the DSA lost one of its most prominent members in Bowman, a vocal critic of the Israeli government. His spokesperson confirmed Wednesday that he let his membership expire last year following disagreements on funding Israel’s missile defense system.
The bloodshed and budding war in Israel are shining a brighter spotlight on tensions between the often younger, left-leaning DSA-backed politicians and their mainstream Democratic colleagues.
The disagreement, which mirrors disputes breaking out on leading college campuses in recent days, could serve as an indicator of broader divisions within the Democratic Party.
And the debate over how to respond to the declared war between Israel and Hamas has caused the beginnings of a major rift within the DSA, a group that’s viewed the Jewish state as an oppressor of Palestinians and has tried to link the issue to racial justice causes in the United States.
“There’s an inflection point that’s happening now,” said David Greenfield, a former Democratic New York City Council member who now works with the Met Council, a Jewish nonprofit.
“The core membership of the DSA has not shown any sympathy at all for innocent victims of Hamas’ barbaric terrorism, where the adults in the room have realized that that’s not a viable path forward for any political party in the United States,” Greenfield added.
In New York, several far-left Democrats boosted to elected office by the DSA condemned a pro-Palestinian rally in Manhattan that the New York City DSA had promoted but later distanced itself from. Attendees had chanted “resistance is justified when people are occupied” and one was shown displaying a swastika in a widely circulated photo.
A day later, the NYC-DSA toned down its rhetoric, apologizing in a statement.
But the DSA has still held firm to its core beliefs about Israel: Its statement went on to call for a cease-fire and the end of Israel’s “occupation of the West Bank, the end of the 16-year siege on the open-air prison that is the Gaza Strip and the end of U.S. military aid for occupation and apartheid.”
The local DSA chapter noted it didn’t organize or sponsor the rally, which was not attended by any elected officials.
“No. 1 is that the DSA is anti-war and pro-peace organization that stands for the full thriving of all human beings,” Jeremy Cohan, a co-chair of NYC-DSA, said in an interview, adding: “The idea that we would celebrate or glorify any death I find absurd.”
He dismissed the notion that the party is in peril.
“I don’t see it as an inflection point because I think, in part, unfortunately, Americans are going to see a war coming,” Cohan said of the DSA’s stance against war.
The tensions are highest in New York, a state with the most Jewish residents in the world outside of Israel and also the place where the DSA has made its greatest electoral gains. But the divisions are playing out across the country.
DSA-affiliated elected leaders’ reactions to the war have been seized upon by political opponents, moderate Democrats and Republicans.
In Illinois, Gov. JB Pritzker, who is Jewish, has declared full support of Israel. But there are divisions within the General Assembly and the Chicago City Council, whose Jewish members have written supportive statements about Israel while more left-leaning members have carefully walked a line to say they support peace.
The sides were even at odds over a resolution supporting Israel, with Chicago Alderman Rossana Rodriguez-Sanchez, a member of the Council’s DSA caucus, saying “the situation is more nuanced than what this resolution expresses.”
In Los Angeles, City Council candidate Ethan Weaver posted Monday of his rival, Raman: “24 hours has passed since her biggest endorser, Democratic Socialists of America — Los Angeles, sided with terrorists who violently murdered innocent Israeli civilians … Nithya Raman still has not condemned DSA-LA or rejected DSA-LA endorsement.”
After Raman criticized the national DSA’s rhetoric, Weaver pushed her further still to disavow the party.
In Massachusetts, DSA chapters in Boston and Worcester have called for an end to U.S. military aid for Israel.
But even the most left-leaning members of the state’s all-Democratic congressional delegation, Sen. Ed Markey and Rep. Ayanna Pressley, have refused to go that far. Both have called for “de-escalation” on both sides of the conflict, and Pressley called for an “immediate ceasefire.”
Markey was booed at a “stand with Israel” rally in Boston on Monday for saying exactly that — showing the competing pressures on Democrats in the deep-blue state.
He was also swiftly rebuked by a fellow delegation member, Rep. Jake Auchincloss, a Jewish military veteran who offered full-throated support for Israel and said “de-escalation is not possible when [Hamas is] taking hostages.”
Sara Forman, executive director of the New York Solidarity Network, which promotes the American alliance with Israel, said candidates should reject a DSA endorsement going forward.
“Are you going to be a candidate, in New York, especially, who understands that New York Jews increasingly see the DSA as explicitly an antisemite organization?” she asked in an interview.
Republicans have sought to link DSA members to mainstream Democrats.
In New York, GOP state senators urged Democratic leadership to strip its handful of DSA members of their committee and leadership posts — a move that will put pressure on moderate Democrats to address.
At City Hall in New York City, Republicans and Democrats who run on the GOP line told their DSA-aligned counterparts in statement: “There is no equivalency. There is no ‘both sides’ argument. There is no moral relativism. This is pure evil.”
Some DSA members continued to push back against the Times Square rally.
“We were disturbed to hear reports of statements from individuals who attended which minimized or justified civilian deaths,” state Sen. Julia Salazar and state Assemblymember Emily Gallagher said in a joint statement.
But Salazar, 32, said in an interview she has seen a political shift among younger voters and activists in their views toward Israel, especially given its right-wing government, she said.
“Naturally, as young Americans and young American Jews adopt a more progressive ideology, they’re going to adopt a more sympathetic view of the Palestinian cause,” she said.
“The younger generation is going to continue to become actively involved in the Democratic Party and over time sort of reshape the party’s position on this to make it more nuanced,” Salazar said.
Still, some Democrats see greater room for nuance in the wake of the attacks.
Amy Spitalnick, a former press aide to the progressive Democrat Bill de Blasio, recalled a trip to Israel in 2015 when the then-New York City mayor visited a school for both Israeli and Palestinian kids.
His appearance at the school was “no-brainer” even if it stirred criticism at the time.
“This weekend has made a few things enormously clear: Israel has a right to defend itself from brutal attacks, and this conflict requires a long-term peaceful solution,” said Spitalnick, now the CEO of the Jewish Council for Public Affairs.
Spitalnick said Ocasio-Cortez’s denunciation of the rally struck the right tone.
“It’s important to acknowledge that she actually did the right thing there and called out this rally, whether it’s a DSA rally or whoever sponsored it,” Spitalnick said.
She added, “There are definitely some voices that have not been able to express that moral clarity this weekend.”
Lisa Kaminsky in Boston, Dustin Gardiner in Sacramento and Shia Kapos in Chicago contributed to this report.