On Tuesday, 23 June 2020, Jamaal Bowman made history by winning the Democratic Party primary in New York State’s 16th Congressional District. Here’s why his victory is so significant.
Bowman beat Eliot Engel, a 16-term incumbent Congressman who served as chair of the House Committee on Foreign Affairs and had the backing of nearly the entire Democratic Party establishment, including former secretary of state Hillary Clinton. He is a member of the Democratic Socialists of America and ran on an unabashedly progressive platform that included support for Medicare for All and the Green New Deal. He was outspent by a margin of two to one. And because Bowman had taken positions calling for justice for Palestinians, “dark money” pro-Israel super-PACs spent an additional $2,000,000 in independent expenditures in an effort to tear down his character and defeat him. Despite all these challenges, Jamaal Bowman won, sending the message that change is on the way.
Bowman’s victory against an entrenched incumbent came on the heels of Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s 2018 unseating of 10 term Congressman Joseph Crowley in the nearby 14th District of New York. There were similarities between the two races and some important differences.
Both Ocasio-Cortez and Bowman are young people of colour who defeated older white men whose constituents in their congressional districts are majority minority voters. And because both of the young winners were community activists who had developed strong grassroots networks and the incumbent members of Congress they were challenging had grown lazy and entitled, assuming their victories were assured, Bowman and Ocasio-Cortez represented both generational change and the importance of maintaining direct contact with the voters one seeks to represent.
Both of these upstart candidates were members of the DSA, running on a progressive agenda that promoted universal healthcare, a quality education, a decent job, a clean environment and affordable housing as fundamental human rights. Both were endorsed by Senator Bernie Sanders (Bowman was also endorsed by Ocasio-Cortez and Senator Elizabeth Warren), while Crowley and Engel had the support of the Democratic leadership in the Senate and House of Representatives. As such, they represent the insurgent left’s victories over the party’s centrist establishment.
While both of the defeated Members of Congress relied on large donations from big donors or political action committees to fund their campaigns, Bowman and Ocasio-Cortez raised their campaign funds from individual small donors — replicating the approach taken by Sanders in his 2016 and 2020 presidential runs. Their wins were victories for campaign finance reform.
These similarities aside, there were two fundamental differences between the Ocasio-Cortez and Bowman victories that contribute to making the Bowman win historic. Ocasio-Cortez’s victory was a shock that caught both Crowley and the Democratic establishment by surprise. Determined that it wouldn’t happen again, New York State’s governor, its two senators, the speaker of the House of Representatives and Clinton (in her only endorsement of the 2020 election) all lined up behind Engel. By winning against this formidable line-up, Bowman demonstrated that the progressive wave isn’t a fluke.
And then there’s the role played by the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. While Ocasio-Cortez’s position on justice for Palestinians matches those of Bowman, it never became much of a factor in 2018, largely because Crowley hadn’t made it an issue and because Ocasio-Cortez’s race was run largely under the radar. She didn’t come under attack from pro-Israel groups until she was in Congress and came to the defence of her sister freshmen members, Rashida Tlaib and Ilhan Omar.
Because Bowman was running against the very pro-Israel chair of the House Foreign Affairs Committee and the party’s establishment and the pro-Israel lobby didn’t want a replay of the Ocasio-Cortez win, they invested heavily in the effort to defeat Bowman.
Engel had long been an AIPAC point person in Congress. In 2018, as he was poised to become the HCFA chair, speaking at an AIPAC conference he pledged to use his position “to make sure that Israel continues to receive support... I want tell you that I sit down with AIPAC on every piece of legislation that comes out.”
Protecting Engel was important. One AIPAC-allied group, Democratic Majority for Israel (DMI), spent more than $1.5 million in the Engel/Bowman race. And not unlike the $1.4 million they spent earlier this year to attack Bernie Sanders, their ads were largely personal attacks on Bowman’s character. The DMI was smart enough to know that there were no votes to be won by supporting Israel, since Democratic voters were so alienated by Netanyahu’s policies nothing was to be gained by selling spoiled goods.
Despite the money spent against him, Bowman never wavered. A week before the election, he was challenged by a rabbi from Riverdale, an affluent neighbourhood in his district. In an “open letter” published in the Riverdale Press, the rabbi expressed his concern that Bowman was espousing anti-Israel views and made a number of rhetorically inflammatory charges, with Palestinian terrorism mentioned in seven consecutive paragraphs.
Bowman refused to accept the bait and instead responded in a deeply respectful “open letter” of his own in which he made clear his views on foreign policy — including the Israeli-Palestinian conflict — “are rooted in the values of human dignity” and his life experiences. In one moving passage, he noted:
“The uprising across the country against police violence also makes me empathise with the everyday experience and fear that comes with living under occupation. Just as the police force is an intimidating force in so many black communities, I can connect to what it feels like for Palestinians to feel the presence of the military in their daily lives in the West Bank. I can also understand the crushing poverty and deprivation in the Gaza Strip. I believe Palestinians have the same rights to freedom and dignity as my Jewish brothers and sisters. I will fight for their liberation just as hard as I will fight for yours.”
In the end, not only did Jamaal Bowman win, he won by a decisive margin carrying all areas of his district and all major demographic groups. Interestingly, from vote tallies I’ve seen, he also beat Engel in precincts that were heavily Jewish.
This is yet another reason why Jamaal Bowman’s victory was historic.
For decades, the pro-Israel lobby was able to carry the day in Congress because members feared the repercussions of criticising Israel. That tide is turning. Polls show that a majority of Democrats now support greater balance in US policy, oppose Netanyahu’s behaviour, and believe that aid to Israel should be cut because of violations of Palestinian human rights. That’s why AIPAC was forced to “allow” members of Congress to condemn Israel’s plans to annex West Bank lands. And now their efforts to hurt Jamaal Bowman and save Eliot Engel failed.
This isn’t the first time that AIPAC has lost in their effort to defeat an “enemy” or save a “friend”. And it may be too much to hope that Bowman’s win will finally shatter the myth of AIPAC’s invincibility. The most extreme elements of the pro-Israel lobby will not give up easily, so we must remain vigilant. But as Jamaal Bowman’s win demonstrates change is coming, and that is what makes his victory so historic.
The writer is president of the Arab American Institute.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 2 July, 2020 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly