AOC All Over Again? This pro-Israel Jewish Democrat Faces the Fight of His Life in N.Y.C.

With an endorsement from Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Chuck Schumer still on the fence, Jamaal Bowman may oust 16-term Eliot Engel from New York’s 16th Congressional District, dealing AIPAC a serious blow

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Rep. Eliot Engel speaking during a media briefing on Capitol Hill, Washington, October 31, 2019.
Rep. Eliot Engel speaking during a media briefing on Capitol Hill, Washington, October 31, 2019. Credit: Joshua Roberts/REUTERS

With a fiercely contested Democratic primary coming up in his district later this month, New York Congressman Eliot Engel could become the next high-profile, pro-Israel lawmaker to be ousted by a younger, more left-wing opponent.

Over the past few weeks, Engel’s challenger for the 16th Congressional District, Jamaal Bowman, has gained a lot of support and been repeatedly compared to Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez – who famously defeated Joe Crowley, a 20-year incumbent, in 2018.

“I think it’s great to see so many insurgent candidates in the mold of AOC, including Jamaal and Samelys López, who is also running in the Bronx,” says Noah Habeeb, a supporter of Jewish Voice for Peace Action and describes himself as “a progressive Jewish New Yorker.”

The 26-year-old adds: “I think we need more educators and nurses and organizers in the halls of Congress.”

Like Ocasio-Cortez before him, Bowman is a political newcomer. Raised in Bronx housing projects, the 44-year-old father of three has been an educator for some 20 years and founded the Cornerstone Academy for Social Action – an innovative public school in the Bronx. Bowman also enjoys the support of the group Justice Democrats, which backed Ocasio-Cortez's congressional run in the district neighboring Engel’s.

Bowman – whose platform also includes medicare for all, immigrant rights, support for the Green New Deal and a section on combating antisemitism – accuses Engel of being “absent” from his constituents. “The truth is, he’s never really in the district,” Bowman says in a video campaign ad. “He’s taken us for granted.”

The 16th Congressional District has constituents ranging from low-income minorities in the Bronx to more affluent residents in areas such as Riverdale and New Rochelle, also home to large Jewish communities. Engel, a 16-term elected official, has represented the district since 2013 and served in Congress since 1989. However, the 73-year-old is in danger of being unseated in the June 23 primary, which was delayed by two months because of the coronavirus pandemic.

A moderate Democrat, Engel serves as chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee and is a leading pro-Israel voice in Congress, voting against the Iran nuclear deal in 2015. Israel policy does not feature in the primary, but his ouster would be a triumph for progressives who want the party to adopt a more critical position on Israel.

“Engel has been a very strong supporter of Israel for many years,” says Harris Bak, a Jewish resident of New Rochelle. For Bak, 69, support for the Jewish state is “the defining element” when voting in any political election. “Jamaal Bowman – no one knows much about him, but he’s being backed by the Democratic socialists and their agenda is very negative to Israel,” he says, adding: “Israel, Zionism and racism – it’s all the same for them.”

Bowman has “no record at all, so his only way to run is to malign Engel,” Bak says.

Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez is joined by Senate Minority Leader Sen. Chuck Schumer as she speaks during a news conference in the New York borough of Queens, April 14, 2020. Credit: Mary Altaffer/AP

After being accused of being out of touch, Engel’s reelection campaign took another significant hit earlier this month amid the Black Lives Matter protests in New York when he was caught on video saying: “If I didn’t have a primary, I wouldn’t care.” He says the quote was taken out of context.

“Right now, New York is creeped by pandemics: coronavirus and racism,” Habeeb says. “I think we need somebody who cares like Jamaal, who is a well-known school principal, whose entire work and campaign is informed by anti-racism and compassion.”

Habeeb adds that Engel is “one of the most hawkish congressional Democrats: he has voted to send New Yorkers to fight wars, to increase wasteful military spending, while we have systematically impoverished neighborhoods here in New York.”

High-profile endorsements

Engel faced another hurdle last week after Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer distanced himself from the congressman. “I haven’t endorsed in that race. I’m busy with Senate races,” he told reporters, despite Engel’s campaign website claiming he had received Schumer’s endorsement – a claim later removed from the website. Schumer had endorsed Engel in past races, but appears to be holding off this time.

“What a coward he is that he is not endorsing Eliot Engel,” former Democratic New York State assemblyman Dov Hikind said in a video posted on Facebook, “because he is afraid. He is afraid of a challenge.”

Hikind added: “How can you stay silent at a moment like this? ... You are an embarrassment, Chuck Schumer.”

Bowman, however, has collected significant Democratic endorsements, including most recently from Rep. Ocasio-Cortez and former presidential candidate Sen. Bernie Sanders. He has also been endorsed by the New York Times Editorial Board, which wrote that “in a district that needs new energy, Mr. Bowman will bring it.”

Perhaps most significant was the endorsement Bowman received last Thursday from Priorities USA, a Democratic Super PAC that is affiliated with former President Barack Obama. Priorities USA Chairman Guy Cecil tweeted: “We need someone who understands firsthand that every child deserves a quality education and that change begins in the communities where we live and work.” This could help Bowman raise donations and increase his support beyond the progressive wing of the party. 

If elected, Bowman would join those in the party who identify as democratic socialists and who break with traditional party members on a variety of issues. Bak says he is “horrified” by the party’s shift leftward, particularly as it relates to Israel.

“It’s very frightening,” he says. “There are other pro-Israel voices, but the average age of the pro-Israel people is very old and the young – especially the more vocal group like the Squad [referring to four young representatives, including AOC and Ilhan Omar] – are very anti-Israel and I believe very antisemitic too.” Indeed, Bak admits he has shifted most of his political support to Republicans, “just because they are our friends now” with regard to Israel. “Engel is one of the exceptional Democrats I still support,” he adds.

Habeeb, however, believes Bowman’s election “would mean more New Yorkers can count on real representation in Washington.”

‘Ridiculous and reprehensible’

Engel’s campaign rejects the comparison to the congressional race between Crowley and Ocasio-Cortez in 2018. According to spokesman Tom Watson, it is simply a way for Engel’s opponent to frame the primary to his advantage.

“The voters in NY-16 are smarter than that,” he says. “Congressman Engel has faced tough primaries funded by outside groups before this one. He views each election on its own, and always says he has a two-year contract with voters.”

Bowman’s accusation that Engel has been “absent” from his district is “completely ridiculous and reprehensible,” Watson says, and could be said about Bowman.

“For one thing, Mr. Bowman only became a Democrat in 2018 when he was deciding to run for Congress,” he says. “He missed many elections, didn’t vote for president in 2012, didn’t vote in the New York primary in 2016. In political terms, that’s certainly absent.”

Watson adds that Engel is “well known for showing up everywhere,” and suggesting that he is absent because of his time spent in Washington during part of the coronavirus health crisis is “completely absurd.”

Engel, his spokesman adds, was on “the legislative front lines in Washington fighting for additional resources for New York – including an extra $5 billion for hospitals.”

Addressing the controversy around the video from the Bronx press conference, Watson says that Engel’s words were “taken out of context, quite deliberately,” by his opponent’s team.

“Congressman Engel, as he has stated since, was requesting time to speak at what he considered an important event,” Watson said. “They can’t attack his record, so they’ve tried to smear him in other ways.”

According to Watson, Engel – who is also a co-sponsor of the Green New Deal and advocates for Medicare for All – has a “record of experience and accomplishment,” which helps “advance a progressive agenda and bring needed resources back to the district.”

Rep. Eliot Engel, left, meeting with Israel's then-Prime Minister Ariel Sharon in Jerusalem, 2003.Credit: Nili Bassan

Lobby groups’ favorite

An Engel loss in the primary would be a serious blow to the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, the most influential lobby group supporting Israel in the United States, which relies on promoting legislation that enjoys bipartisan support. Engel has been one of the Democratic politicians most in line with AIPAC’s positions on issues like Iran, Palestinian statehood and Israeli settlements.

He was one of the most senior Democrats in the House of Representatives to oppose the Iran nuclear deal five years ago, and also to strongly criticize the Obama administration for failing to veto a UN Security Council resolution in December 2016 that denounced Israel’s settlements.

Engel also supported the Trump administration’s decision to move the U.S. Embassy in Israel to Jerusalem, an idea that he himself had promoted for years from his seat on the foreign affairs committee. He cooperated dozens of times with the most senior Republicans in the committee in promoting legislation, as well as resolutions and letters of concern, regarding Israel. This pattern made him a favorite of the pro-Israel lobby groups in Washington, including those affiliated with the right.

Bowman, if elected, would bring a different approach to Congress. Last October, he told the left-wing website Jacobin that he thinks the United States should consider placing conditions on the military aid it provides to Israel.

“As [Prime Minister Benjamin] Netanyahu calls for expanding settlements and annexing the West Bank, we should seriously consider placing conditions on the billions of dollars of military aid our government provides him in order to make sure that the rights and dignity of both the Israeli and Palestinian people are respected,” Bowman said. This position is also being advocated by Sanders. 

Bowman added in the same interview: “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.” This quote makes it likely that, if elected, Bowman would support legislation that has been proposed by Minnesota Democratic Congresswoman Betty McCollum that would require Israel not to use military aid it receives from the United States in order to arrest or detain Palestinian minors. McCollum feuded with AIPAC over this legislation earlier this year.

A Democratic foreign policy adviser tells Haaretz that Bowman and Engel’s different approaches on the Israeli-Palestinian issue show how the Democratic Party is evolving on this front. “Engel represents a very old school and outdated approach of what it means to support Israel – basically supporting anything the Israeli government wants to do at any given time, no matter what,” the adviser says. “There is a growing constituency in the Democratic Party that doesn’t accept this approach anymore.”

A Bowman victory against Engel, the adviser adds, “would empower the voices within the party that demand a different approach. There is a growing recognition among Democrats that the values we want to promote at home should also apply to American foreign policy abroad. People are also realizing that supporting the human rights of Palestinians doesn’t make you anti-Israel, and that in order to support Israel, you don’t need to be anti-Palestinian. In fact, the opposite is true: In order to support Israel as a democracy, you need to support Palestinian rights.”

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