After months of rigorous campaigning while facing an uphill battle, Jamaal Bowman declared victory on Wednesday in his New York primary race against Eliot Engel, dealing a remarkable defeat to a congressman who has been in office since 1989.
The full vote will not be counted until early July because of the sheer amount of absentee ballots sent in, but the vote margin from election day and early voting — with Bowman up by 27 points — was enough for Democratic Majority for Israel, a pro-Engel group, to concede defeat. Engel has not yet conceded, saying he is waiting for absentee ballots to be counted.
Bowman’s apparent victory is a stunning defeat for Israel lobby groups that spent millions to keep Engel in office as representative of New York’s 16th Congressional District. The AIPAC-linked Democratic Majority for Israel spent $2 million on behalf of Engel. Pro-Israel America PAC, another AIPAC-linked group, gave Engel’s campaign nearly $130,000, while NORPAC, another pro-Israel campaign group, bundled over $630,000 in campaign contributions for the congressman.
The victory confirms that American politics has entered a new era, one in which the power of incumbency and the backing of the establishment — including major pro-Israel groups — is not enough to stave off primary challenges. Instead, the Bowman victory shows that strategic coalition building across communities, paired with a charismatic candidate aligned with social justice movements, is a stark threat to the Democratic old guard.
“Jamaal won this election despite the Democratic and Jewish establishments doing everything they could to stop him,” said Emily Mayer, the political director of anti-occupation Jewish group IfNotNow, in a statement sent to reporters. “This is a seismic victory for the constituents of NY-16, for the progressive movement, and for advocates for freedom and dignity for both Palestinians and Israelis.”
For decades, American candidates for office took the path of least resistance when it came to formulating policy stances on Israel. Candidates with little knowledge of Israel listened to lobby groups like AIPAC, who supplied them with talking points as well as campaign donations to forge close relationships with them.
But the combination of Benjamin Netanyahu’s divisive meddling in American politics in the Obama era, which drove Democrats away from unquestioning support for Israel, and the growth of the Palestinian rights movement’s power has changed the political calculus of progressive electoral candidates challenging incumbents.
Bowman’s victory is only one example of this trend. While campaigning in 2018 to overtake Joe Crowley, a powerful establishment Democrat, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, the now famous progressive star, criticized her opponent’s support for moving the U.S. Embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, and called Israel’s killing of protesters in Gaza a “massacre.”
Ocasio-Cortez, who is backed by the Democratic Socialists of America and Justice Democrats, the progressive group that also powered Bowman’s victory, has continued to criticize Israel while serving in Congress. She signed on to Rep. Betty McCollum’s bill to prohibit U.S. aid from being used by Israel to detain Palestinian children, and said cutting military aid to Israel in protest of Israeli human rights abuses should be “on the table” as “something that can be discussed.”
Ocasio-Cortez faced her own primary challenge on June 23 from a candidate who attended AIPAC’s annual policy conference and criticized Ocasio-Cortez for supporting fellow Congresswoman Ilhan Omar, another Congressional critic of Israel. Like Bowman, Ocasio-Cortez handily won her primary — showing that criticism of Israel won’t necessarily harm a politician’s career.
“Candidates who believe in bold progressive change — including a humane foreign-policy and opposition to the Israeli occupation — can beat AIPAC-backed establishment politicians,” IfNotNow’s Mayer said.
Engel’s defeat, then, shows that AIPAC-linked candidates are no longer shoo-ins for re-election. Unlike other races, though, this one has particularly special implications for the Israel debate in Congress: Engel is a long-time ranking member of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, the body that writes foreign policy legislation in Congress, and served as chair of that committee since 2019, where he passed various pieces of pro-Israel legislation, including a resolution condemning the Palestinian-led Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement.
These positions, said Zaha Hassan, a Palestinian human rights lawyer, were out of step with the Democratic Party base.
“Some examples of how far he strayed from Democrats include his failure to support Obama’s nuclear deal with Iran, [and] his wholesale support for the U.S. embassy relocation from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, despite understanding that this would decimate the prospects for a negotiated two-state solution,” said Hassan.
Bowman, all but assured to be the next member of Congress from the 16th District, has struck a far different stance on foreign policy issues, including Israel. Bowman supports imposing human rights conditions on U.S. military funding to Israel, a stance Engel blasted as “stupid.”
Bowman’s path to victory was built on the votes of the Black and Latino voters that make up the majority of the district. But Bowman also worked closely with The Jewish Vote, the electoral arm of grassroots group Jews for Racial and Economic Justice, and IfNotNow, to cut into Engel’s base of Jewish Democrats. Bowman easily won the 81st Assembly District, which includes Riverdale, and won votes by a 61-39 margin at the Hebrew Institute of Riverdale poll site.
“We’ve been organizing diligently over the past six months with the expectation that we were going to lose Riverdale,” said Rachel McCullough, The Jewish Vote’s political director. “We didn’t believe it would be possible to win, let alone trounce, which is what happened.”
To win those votes, Bowman walked a careful line on Palestine, and took positions that are anathema to the broader Palestinian rights movement. As pro-Israel groups attempted to paint the former middle school principal as an anti-Israel extremist, Bowman said he “support[s] continued U.S. aid to help Israel confront…security challenges” and that he “personally oppose[s] the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement.”
“Our members were voting for a Green New Deal, Medicare for All, and a Black progressive visionary to represent us in Congress,” said McCullough. “A humane foreign policy and opposing occupation and annexation is part of that, but it’s not the center.”
At the same time, though, Bowman did not waver from his support for making sure U.S. military aid to Israel does not go towards violating Palestinian human rights, and also compared the experiences of Palestinians living under military occupation to the police presence in Black communities.
Those positions were enough to thrill Palestinian rights advocates, who see Engel’s exit from Congress as an opportunity to widen the contours of debate on Israel-Palestine in Washington.
“The most important difference between Bowman and Engel on the issue of Israel/Palestine is simple: Bowman believes Palestinians are people deserving of human rights and freedom. Engel does not,” said Beth Miller, the government affairs manager for Jewish Voice for Peace Action. “Bowman will be willing to take action and believes we should condition U.S. military funding to the Israeli military that pays for the oppression of Palestinians, and this cannot be overlooked as a key win for the movement.”
Correction: A previous version of this article stated that the U.S. embassy was moved from Jerusalem to Tel Aviv. It has been amended to reflect that the embassy was moved from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem.