Jamaal Bowman Reminds Progressives They Can Win

The 44-year-old Bronx principal deals a blow to the Democratic establishment—and the hawkish pro-Israel groups that rallied behind his opponent.

Joshua Leifer
June 25, 2020
The Jewish Vote campaigning with Jamaal Bowman in Riverdale on June 19th, 2020. Photo via @TheJewishVote on Twitter.

THIS PAST SPRING, when New York Rep. Eliot Engel’s reelection campaign began to flag, hawkish pro-Israel groups bet that they could salvage the AIPAC stalwart’s seat by turning the contest against Jamaal Bowman, Engel’s progressive challenger, into a referendum on Israel. Right-wing Zionist and pro-Israel groups—especially the AIPAC-linked Democratic Majority for Israel (DMFI)—poured huge sums of money into a last-ditch ad blitz to take down Bowman. Judging by the results of the primary, the strategy appears to have not only failed but backfired. While the final tally will not be known until at least June 30th, after absentee ballots are counted, Bowman currently enjoys a substantial lead after Tuesday’s vote and has declared victory over Engel.

Bowman’s strong showing is a blow to hawkish Israel advocates within the Democratic Party. Engel represents the old blank check Israel has long enjoyed from the Democrats—as chairman of the powerful Foreign Affairs Committee, he has blocked any attempt to put pressure on Israel’s right-wing government or hold Israel accountable for human rights violations—while Bowman represents the emerging progressive consensus: He has called for conditioning United States military aid to Israel and speaks comfortably about Palestinians’ human rights and self-determination. Engel’s pro-Israel backers seemed to think they could rally Jewish supporters around Engel and against Bowman’s more critical position. Yet Bowman won support not only from working-class voters of color in Westchester and the Bronx, but also from more affluent white—and Jewish—voters. Though Bowman’s positions on Israel do not dramatically push the boundaries of what’s considered acceptable for sitting House representatives—he supports a two-state solution and opposes the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions (BDS) movement—his almost certain victory suggests that AIPAC and right-wing Zionist groups, intolerant of any criticism of Israel’s right-wing government even as Israel moves to annex parts of the West Bank, are significantly out of touch not only with the party’s leftward-leaning grassroots but also with their own supposed base. 

Almost exactly a year ago, when Bowman announced his primary challenge to Engel, it was an understatement to say he was an underdog. A 44-year-old middle-school principal from the Bronx with no previous political experience, Bowman entered what was, at the time, a divided field, facing a 16-term incumbent with all the advantages that come with spending more than three decades in office. Yet Engel had vulnerabilities. He had not faced a serious primary challenger in the deep-blue district, New York’s 16th, in decades, and his repeated primary victories depended on the typically anemic voter turnout: Engel won the 2018 Democratic primary with just 22,000 votes in a district with a population of more than 700,000. Here was a high-ranking congressional Democrat who’d managed to remain in office for decades with the support of just a fraction of his constituents, representing a part of New York that had become increasingly diverse during his long tenure in Washington. The comparison to Joe Crowley—once the fourth-highest ranking Democrat and rumored successor to Nancy Pelosi until Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez defeated him in 2018—was not lost on the left-electoral group Justice Democrats, which had recruited Ocasio-Cortez for that purpose. 

After Justice Democrats recruited Bowman, the challenge, then, was to bring to Westchester and the Bronx the kind of campaign that had won for Ocasio-Cortez in Brooklyn and Queens: a combination of passionate advocacy for the marginalized, a message of hopeful progressivism, and an ambitious ground game to turn out new and infrequent voters. Bowman’s campaign took on a wide range of issues; contrary to his pro-Israel opponents’ claims that he’d singled out Israel, his Israel position is part of a broader vision. In an interview a few days before the primary, Bowman said he wanted the US to move away from “the disposition of crime and punishment and punitive measures,” at home as well as abroad. That vision, of redistributing  resources from harm creation to historically marginalized communities, includes a Global Green New Deal and a 21st-century Marshall Plan, which, Bowman told me, “will help to rebuild the nations that we have disrupted over the years,” as well as a “Reconstruction Agenda,” to address centuries of structural racism in the US. 

The expansiveness of Bowman’s political outlook is what caught the eye of his early supporters. Rachel McCullough, Political Director of The Jewish Vote—the recently founded political arm of Jews for Racial and Economic Justice (JFREJ) and the first Jewish group to endorse Bowman—said it was Bowman’s “grassroots internationalism” that had appealed to the organization’s members in the district.

Engel, in contrast, had no vision to counter Bowman’s. Known primarily for arriving early to State of the Union speeches to shake the president’s hand, Engel could give few reasons for why he should remain in office. In interviews and debates with Bowman, he often appeared frustrated, even angry, that he’d been forced to make a case for himself. In mid-May, Edward-Isaac Dovere reported in The Atlantic that Engel had not stepped foot in New York’s 16th, one of the districts hit first and hardest by the pandemic, since at least March 27th. Engel’s absence and duplicity galvanized support for Bowman and gave him a powerful argument for why he, not Engel, should represent the district. And when Engel did return—in the midst of the national uprising following the police killings of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor—he made it painfully obvious how ill-equipped he was to meet the new political moment. Engel was caught on a hot mic during a press conference on police violence in the Bronx pleading with Bronx borough president Ruben Díaz Jr., who’d organized the event, to be allowed to speak. “If I didn’t have a primary,” Engel said twice, “I wouldn’t care.” The video, which epitomized Engel’s detachedness from the district, went viral. 

The Democratic Party establishment responded to Engel’s expressed indifference to his constituents by doubling down on their support for him: House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, Intelligence Committee Chairman Adam Schiff, Majority Whip James Clyburn, and Democratic Caucus chairman Hakeem Jeffries all endorsed Engel, as did New York Governor Andrew Cuomo, Sen. Chuck Schumer, and Hillary Clinton. The Congressional Black Caucus, the American Federation of Teachers President Randi Weingarten, and a number of prominent liberal groups—including the National Organization for Women, Planned Parenthood, and the Sierra Club—all endorsed the 73-year-old incumbent over his progressive challenger. 

But while the Democratic establishment dutifully fell in line behind Engel, hawkish pro-Israel organizations took up the mantle of fighting to defeat Bowman with vitriol and vigor. According to the investigative outlet Sludge, Engel’s top donor was Pro-Israel America PAC, an organization chaired by a former AIPAC managing director that has also raised money for Republicans such as Kevin McCarthy and Tom Cotton. Daniel Marans reported in The Huffington Post that NORPAC, another powerful pro-Israel fundraising group, bundled nearly $634,000 in donations for Engel. DMFI, a newer pro-Israel group founded by veteran AIPAC strategist Mark Mellman (which took out several attack ads against Bernie Sanders during the presidential primaries), plowed roughly $2 million into campaign ads and mailers in support of Engel and against Bowman. One dark money group, Avacy Initiatives, which spent at least $120,000 to support Engel, sent out mailers depicting a map of Israel without the Green Line demarcating the occupied West Bank.

But not all of the pro-Israel groups’ attacks focused on Israel—a tacit admission that it was not voters’ primary concern in this election. In fact, as had been the case with their ads against Sanders, none of DMFI’s ads mentioned Israel at all. Instead, they took aim at Bowman personally. One of DMFI’s ads accused Bowman of owing roughly $2,000 in tax debt, implying that past indebtedness should disqualify one from holding higher office. The ad was roundly condemned, including by Sanders, who endorsed Bowman and denounced the “ugly, negative” ad, adding, “This is establishment big-money politics at its worst, and why we have to transform the Democratic Party.” 

If the hawkish pro-Israel groups had intended to rally Jewish support behind Engel—the district is roughly 20% Jewish, with a sizeable Modern Orthodox population—the intensity of the negative ads appears to have had the opposite effect. Some Jewish voters, including prominent pro-Israel figures in the Bronx Jewish community, worried that groups like DMFI had made the district’s Jewish communities out to be narrow-minded, single-issue voters, unsympathetic or blind to the concerns of their Black and brown neighbors in the district, all against the backdrop of a national Black-led uprising. 

“I feel compelled to express outrage at some of the tactics a self-identified ‘pro-Israel’ group has used,” wrote Jack Gorman, a member of the board of directors of New York’s UJA-Federation, in a Riverdale Press op-ed announcing his support for Bowman a few days before the primary. “They are misrepresenting the pro-Israel community and the Jewish community in our district, falsely implying that we sanction this scaremongering against Bowman and other progressive people of color.” 

Peter Joseph, chair emeritus of Israel Policy Forum—a centrist Israel-advocacy group—urged voters to recognize what Bowman’s campaign had come to mean in the current political moment. “Jamaal Bowman’s candidacy askes our community to return to its formerly broad-based concerns,” Joseph wrote in The Forward, “and demands that we recognize how urgent it is to address and repair the social, economic, and racial suffering in our nation.” 

Engel—due in part to his own backers—had lost his base. It seemed that even board members of mainstream Jewish organizations had turned away from the candidate campaigning on his pro-Israel bona fides. And the communal leaders who did support Engel proved unable to convince their flocks. Rabbi Avi Weiss—founder of the Hebrew Institute of Riverdale and veteran right-wing Israel activist—published an op-ed condemning Bowman’s positions on Israel. “Engel has been a strong ally of Israel in Congress,” Weiss wrote in JTA, “and we cannot afford to replace him with someone who will not recognize the strategic value of the US alliance with the Jewish state.” But Weiss’s own community seemed to disagree. Poll tallies, tweeted by a Bowman campaign staffer, suggest that Bowman carried the Hebrew Institute of Riverdale polling place by a 61-39 margin. Even Mark Mellman, President and CEO of DMFI, conceded after Bowman’s victory that his group’s attempt to support Engel had failed. “His constituents apparently concluded . . . that he had lost touch with them,” Mellman told Jewish Insider.

For The Jewish Vote’s McCullough, the pro-Israel groups’ failure is a sign of the shifting power dynamics in both local and national Jewish politics. “They attempted to fearmonger, to say Jamaal was at odds with our interests, but all they really did was cast doubt on Engel’s progressive credentials. These kinds of attacks to stir up fear within Jewish communities didn’t work.” Bowman’s victory, McCullough added, felt like “a maturation of the Jewish left.” The Jewish Vote had focused on canvassing for Bowman in Riverdale and had turned his candidacy into a marker of progressive Jewish organizations’ growing political strength. IfNotNow, the anti-occupation group, also endorsed Bowman. 

But while there is no doubt that Bowman’s apparent victory reflects the shifting politics of Israel/Palestine within the Democratic Party, the position he staked out was not particularly radical. Conditional aid to Israel, embraced by Sanders during his presidential campaign, has become increasingly popular within the Democratic Party’s progressive wing, prompting handwringing and consternation within the pro-Israel establishment. BDS, however, remains politically toxic; Bowman’s win does not change this. And though Engel’s loss carries symbolic weight, it is unlikely to jeopardize the Democratic Party’s long-standing unconditional backing for Israel—certainly not with Joe Biden, who has consistently refused to entertain conditioning aid, as the party’s presidential nominee. In fact, pro-Israel liberals may very well have felt comfortable voting for Bowman over Engel because of the guarantee that a Biden administration would have a moderating effect on whatever policies the more progressive Democratic House members might propose. The path to ending US support for Israel’s occupation of the West Bank and siege of Gaza remains long.

Still, Bowman’s defeat of both the major pro-Israel donors and the Democratic establishment—the two, of course, are related—is a sign that the left-electoralist movement is continuing to gather strength. It is also evidence that the surging Black Lives Matter movement may very well translate into concrete electoral gains. Alexandra Rojas, executive director of Justice Democrats, said that he “could be the first candidate swept into Congress by the movement in the streets right now.”

For decades, the Democratic Party has relied on voter apathy and depressed voter turnout to keep the Engels of the country in power, unchallenged and, ultimately, unaccountable to the people they represent. When I asked Bowman what he thought it might mean were he to win, he told me that he aspired to restore hope to communities “that have lost hope and faith because they’ve been so marginalized in our current system, so led to believe their voices and their ideas don’t matter.” Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez had managed to do just this two years ago, sparking a wildfire of progressive primary challengers, and Bowman said he sought to do the same. The premise of campaigns like Bowman’s, and of groups like Justice Democrats, is that the key to transforming the US into a multiracial social democracy is bringing ordinary people, alienated from a political elite indifferent to their needs, into the political process. The political establishment has taken notice: It is prepared to do all it can to keep people from taking their destinies into their own hands. But Bowman’s campaign, like Ocasio-Cortez’s, has shown that the establishment is not invincible. It can be beaten.

Joshua Leifer is a Jewish Currents contributing editor and a member of the Dissent editorial board. His essays and reporting have also appeared in The Guardian, The Nation, Jacobin, +972 Magazine, and elsewhere. He is currently working on a book about American Jewish identity. He lives in New Haven, CT, where he is a history PhD student.