New York primary puts Democratic divide over Israel in the spotlight

Congressman Eliot Engel, a pro-Israel hawk, is being challenged by Jamaal Bowman, a Black educator whose victory would mark a heavy setback for the Israel lobby.

Democratic primary challenger Jamaal Bowman speaks to supporters at his campaign launch in the Bronx, New York, June 18, 2019. (Corey Torpie)
Democratic primary challenger Jamaal Bowman speaks to supporters at his campaign launch in the Bronx, New York, June 18, 2019. (Corey Torpie)

For over three decades, New York Congressman Eliot Engel has used his time in Washington to solidify U.S. support for Israel. He has supported Israel’s assaults on Gaza, downplayed the impact of Israeli settlements, urged cuts to the UN agency for Palestinian refugees, and endorsed Israeli control of all of Jerusalem.

But come June 23, Engel’s time in office could be cut short — an alarming prospect that Engel’s allies in the American pro-Israel establishment are deeply worried about.

Engel, the Democratic chair of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, represents New York’s 16th Congressional District, which includes parts of the Bronx and swathes of southern Westchester County, a suburb of New York City. He is facing his most competitive primary opponent yet in Jamaal Bowman, a 44-year-old Black educator who recently left his job as a middle school principal to campaign full-time. If Bowman defeats Engel, the Israel lobby will lose one of its most important congressional allies, sending a message that the Democratic Party’s pro-Israel stalwarts are beginning to lose their hold on power.

“Now is the time to elect a new generation of leaders who will courageously fight for freedom and dignity of all people,” said Emily Mayer, the political director of IfNotNow, a Jewish anti-occupation group that recently endorsed Bowman. “Jamaal Bowman understands that a humane foreign policy must be part of the progressive agenda.”

Bowman launched his campaign in June 2019 with the backing of Justice Democrats, the group that helped Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Ilhan Omar, Ayanna Pressley, and Rashida Tlaib — collectively known as “The Squad” — win their elections. He has campaigned on key progressive priorities like Medicare for All and affordable housing. Earlier this month, as protests against racism and police brutality swept American cities, he released a detailed racial justice agenda.

The coronavirus pandemic has upended Bowman’s campaign by preventing his team from door-knocking to talk to voters, but they have pivoted to phone calls and hosting Zoom events instead.

And over the past month, the progressive wing of the Democratic Party, from Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez to Bernie Sanders to Elizabeth Warren, has endorsed Bowman, fueling a wave of small-dollar donations to the candidate and giving the insurgent a real shot at taking down a powerful incumbent.

The race is not centered on Israel. It has largely been fought over Engel’s absence from the district through the height of the coronavirus pandemic — an absence that the Bowman campaign says shows how out-of-touch Engel is with the majority Black and Latino district. About 11 percent of the district is Jewish, though not all Jews there will vote for Engel, and Bowman has received the endorsement of The Jewish Vote, the electoral arm of the grassroots group Jews for Racial and Economic Justice. And even if Engel does lose, it is likely he would be replaced in the House Foreign Affairs Committee by another establishment Democrat with conventional views on Israel.

Democratic Congressman Eliot Engel speaks at the Wilson Center, Washington, DC, April 12, 2016. (Wilson Center Maternal Health Initiative/CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)
Democratic Congressman Eliot Engel speaks at the Wilson Center, Washington, DC, April 12, 2016. (Wilson Center Maternal Health Initiative/CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

But Engel and Bowman do have starkly different visions for what U.S. policy toward Israel should look like. Engel has criticized Bowman’s position that U.S. military funding to Israel should be conditioned on respect for Palestinian human rights.

“I just don’t understand why American taxpayers are subsidizing the detention of Palestinian children while Democrats are criticizing child detention at the Mexican border,” Bowman told Jacobin magazine.

In an interview with Jewish Insider this month, Engel shot back at such pronouncements, saying, “conditioning aid for Israel is one of the stupidest things I’ve ever heard.”

Engel’s opposition to conditions on funding to Israel is just the latest example of his hawkish foreign policy. He voted for the war in Iraq, opposed the Iran deal, and has spoken at events organized by the Zionist Organization of America, a far-right group backed by casino magnate Sheldon Adelson. In 2016, Engel voted against an amendment that would have stopped the sale of cluster bombs to Saudi Arabia, and after the 2013 coup in Egypt he opposed the withholding of aid to the dictatorship.

“Engel is a representation of an old guard whose time is up and is clinging to an outdated politics of oppression while trying to hold back a rising tide of justice-oriented progressives,” said Yousef Munayyer, a non-resident fellow at the Arab Center Washington DC.

Engel’s status as one of Israel’s most ardent defenders in the Democratic Party has led pro-Israel lobby groups to swoop in and try to save him from what would be an embarrassing defeat.

“Eliot Engel’s race has shifted dramatically over the last week, and he is now in deep trouble and needs our help!” read one recent email from NORPAC, a wealthy Israel lobby group that has bundled over $630,000 in campaign donations for Engel, according to HuffPost.

“If we let him lose, we will be trading Engel — a stalwart beacon of support for Israel, who is the powerful Chairman of the Foreign Affairs Committee — for a Sanders Justice Democrat, committed to conditioning aid to Israel and rejoining the Iran deal,” the NORPAC email continued.

Another Israel lobby group, Democratic Majority for Israel (DMFI), has contributed about $1.5 million to help Engel, some of which has been spent on personal attacks against Bowman. DMFI came under fire last week when The Intercept reported that a Republican-linked super PAC donated money to DMFI to support Engel.

Other shadowy groups with undisclosed donors have also gotten in the mix. Avacy Initiatives, a nonprofit that does not disclose its donors, sent mailers to voters in the district depicting Israel with full control of the West Bank. The mailer criticized Bowman for “singling out” Israel, though Bowman has said that U.S. military aid should be conditioned on respect for human rights by all countries, not just Israel.

Despite the massive amounts of money spent to sink Bowman, it is clear the progressive candidate has momentum.

A new poll released by the firm Data for Progress shows just how close Bowman is to defeating Engel, with Bowman up 41-31, and 27 percent of polled voters undecided. After the polls close and the votes are counted, New York, and the rest of the country, will find out whether the Israel lobby was dealt a huge defeat.