Op-Ed: Open Letter Regarding Palestine and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez – Democratic Socialists of America

Editor’s Note: Recently Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez was drawn into a public discussion of Israel, Palestine, and occupation. In response, numerous DSA debates have emerged regarding DSA’s position on such matters. The following is one position, and here is another. 

Open Letter Concerning Ocasio-Cortez and Palestine

To Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, the DSA National Electoral Committee, and DSA’s New York City chapter,

The occupation of Palestine is in many ways a complex issue. However, some things are black-and-white.

Always side with the oppressed.

Always oppose settler colonialism.

Never split hairs or play devil’s advocate for apartheid.

This is why at the 2017 National Convention, Democratic Socialists of America voted overwhelmingly in favor of supporting Palestinian liberation and the Boycott, Divestment, Sanction movement (BDS). DSA is a big-tent socialist organization filled with countless leftist tendencies historically at odds with one another on many fronts. But on this one issue, we have largely spoken in a single, unified voice: we support justice for Palestine and an end the Israeli occupation.

On the campaign trail leading up to the 2018 New York primaries, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez received endorsements from both DSA National and DSA’s New York City chapter. Herself a DSA member and professed socialist, Ocasio-Cortez was a likely candidate for DSA support and the organization threw its weight behind her, marshaling an army of canvassers and experienced organizers to help win her the nomination. She quickly emerged, in appearance at least, as the type of ally Palestine needs inside the global superpower most complicit in its ongoing oppression. She condemned the slaughter of unarmed Palestinian protesters by Israeli snipers, rightfully calling it a “massacre.” She criticized her opponent for supporting the relocation of the U.S. embassy to Jerusalem. In a broader context, her platform calls for an economy of peace and an end to perpetual U.S. warfare in the Middle East and beyond.

However, she has never outright expressed her commitment to Palestinian liberation, BDS, or the end of Israel’s brutal occupation of Palestine. Furthermore, in mid-July she sat down for an interview with PBS’s Margaret Hoover and left many of her supporters disappointed and concerned about her commitment to the issue.

In DSA we strive to assume good intent and give comrades benefit of the doubt. However, a number of Ocasio-Cortez’s statements in the PBS interview raise serious red flags. As members of the organization which has endorsed and continues to campaign for her, we offer good-faith criticism, seek clarification on several outstanding points from the PBS interview, and make specific requests for moving forward.

In the interview, Hoover queried Ocasio-Cortez on her position concerning the Israeli occupation, citing Ocasio-Cortez’s previous statements condemning the “massacre” of Palestinians. Ocasio-Cortez’s response was troubling to say the least:

“Well, I believe absolutely in Israel’s right to exist. I am a proponent of a two-state solution. And for me, it’s not — this is not a referendum, I think, on the state of Israel. For me, the lens through which I saw this incident, as an activist, as an organizer…”

Further on, Ocasio-Cortez expressed a commitment to sit down with both Israeli and Palestinian leaders, saying, “I’m willing to learn and evolve on this issue.”

The first problem with this should be apparent. As a matter of principle, socialists side with the oppressed in our commitment to ending systems of oppression and exploitation in all forms. Accordingly, Ocasio-Cortez’s first impulse should not be to affirm the rights of a settler-colonial state to exist, but rather to affirm the right of the colonized to self-determination.

Furthermore, given the settler-colonialism intrinsic to its Zionist nature, anyone committed to justice should offer a referendum on the state of Israel. It is agents of the state shooting unarmed protesters and dropping bombs on Gaza. It is agents of the state clearing Arab land to make room for Jewish settlements. It is with both U.S. and Israeli state resources that they are doing it. The political and economic subjugation of Arab-Palestinians is an integral part of Israeli statehood and a premise of citizenship. To refuse a referendum on the colonizer obscures the crux of the problem, namely the Zionist nature of the state of Israel.

One can condemn the colonial nature of the Israeli state without calling for the expulsion of its Jewish citizens or becoming politically irrelevant. An unwavering commitment to a two-state solution is no longer one of them. After decades of Israel subjugating Palestinians and fracturing their territory into ever-smaller splinters, it’s hard to imagine how such an approach could secure the right of return for Arab-Palestinian refugees, Palestinian access to holy sites, or anything resembling Palestinian self-determination. This is why so many activists for Palestinian liberation have changed their tune on the two-state solution.

Further, Ocasio-Cortez’s commitment to sit down with leaders from both sides seems noble in its intent but is concerning in its ramifications. Israel has no trouble securing an audience in U.S. government. Indeed, Congress can hardly avoid being subjected to intense lobbying on Israel’s behalf. Especially hailing from New York City, Ocasio-Cortez would have to go out of her way to not hear from Israeli interests.

Not so in regards to Palestinian interests. There is no AIPAC for Palestine stalking the halls of power in Washington. When the establishment isn’t actively hostile, it’s thoroughly indifferent to the plight of Palestinians. If the situation between Israel and Palestine is intractable, it is not because Israel has not been heard; it is because Israel has long had the absolute, unwavering, and unconditional backing of the United States. What is needed isn’t to give Israel yet another sympathetic ear in U.S politics; it’s to erode U.S. support for the occupation.

Finally we turn to Ocasio-Cortez’s assertion that in criticizing Israel’s massacre of Palestinian protesters, she was speaking as an activist, not the politician she has not become. Again, the red flags should be obvious. Ocasio-Cortez swept to victory in the primaries by offering an alternative to establishment politicians. That she is a political outsider, a member of the community, a real person (so to speak) is undoubtedly an enormous part of her appeal. To change her tone and shift her values now that she has been nominated undermines her appeal and smacks of selling out. We rallied for someone to challenge business-as-usual, not conform to it.

Many leftists find that electoral politics require too much compromise and pressure to become a cog in the capitalist machine. However, national electoral politics is one of the few ways to gain influence on foreign policy. Leftists in this arena must therefore be uncompromising and insistent on our anti-war, anti-imperialist principles. In Congress, Ocasio-Cortez will be in a unique position to effect how the U.S. interacts with the rest of the world and conducts foreign policy in the Middle East. As a representative she will have a duty to serve her constituents, but as a socialist in the heart of empire she has a responsibility to fight for justice in any capacity her position provides. If she had wanted to avoid the issue of Palestine, she should not have run for federal office; one can fight at least as effectively for their constituents as a City Councilmember. But as Corey Robin explains, “Sooner or later, every national politician in the US has to confront the issue of Palestine. You can’t duck it.” And when Ocasio-Cortez faces this issue she will have to support either settler-colonialism or justice for Palestine. There is no third way as long as Israel exists as a Zionist ethno-state.

As members of the Democratic Socialists of America, we ask the following of Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, DSA’s National Electoral Committee, and the New York City chapter of DSA.

We respectfully ask Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez to publicly and unambiguously clarify her stance on Palestine and to commit to the following:

  1. unequivocally support Palestinian liberation
  2. unequivocally condemn Israel’s occupation and colonization of all Arab lands
  3. unequivocally support the fundamental rights of Arab-Palestinian citizens of Israel to full equality
  4. unequivocally support the rights of Palestinian refugees to return to their homes and properties
  5. unequivocally condemn the Israeli sniper massacre of Palestinian protesters and Israeli bombardments of Gaza
  6. unequivocally call for the U.S. embassy to be moved back to Tel Aviv
  7. unequivocally endorse the Boycott, Divestment, Sanction movement.

We ask that DSA’s National Electoral Committee to adhere to DSA National’s resolution in support of justice for Palestine and only endorse candidates who themselves support Palestinian liberation. If Ocasio-Cortez declines to clarify her position and make a firm commitment to support Palestinian liberation in accordance with DSA and socialist principles, we ask the DSA NEC to rescind its endorsement of her.

Finally, we ask the New York City chapter of DSA to hold themselves and Ocasio-Cortez accountable to live up to our values as an organization and as leftists. We ask that they prioritize developing an understanding of the settler-colonial context of the Israel/Palestine conflict, of broader U.S. imperialism in the Middle East, and of the duty of socialists to oppose these forms of oppression and exploitation.

We believe that Ocasio-Cortez’ statements in the PBS interview were blunders arising from a lack of preparation on this particular issue. We accept in good faith her assertion that she isn’t an expert on the geopolitics of the Middle East. Moving forward, this must change. As an organization, as socialists, and as citizens of humanity we must hold ourselves accountable and always fight on the side of justice.


DSA Boricua Socialist Caucus

Seattle Anti-War Caucus

Boston DSA Internationalism Working Group

Libertarian Socialist Caucus

NYC Central Brooklyn Libertarian Socialist Caucus

NYC Refoundation Caucus

For a full list of signatories, see the original post here.