New York primary emerges as a litmus test of Israel’s role in the Democratic party

Centrist George Latimer’s challenge to incumbent and outspoken Israel critic Jamaal Bowman attracts criticism from progressives over big money from pro-Israel lobbies, GOP donors

Religious leaders place their hands on Rep. Jamaal Bowman, Democrat of New York, while praying for him during a campaign stop in White Plains, New York, June 11, 2024. (AP/Ted Shaffrey)
Religious leaders place their hands on Rep. Jamaal Bowman, Democrat of New York, while praying for him during a campaign stop in White Plains, New York, June 11, 2024. (AP/Ted Shaffrey)

WASHINGTON (JTA) — Rep. Jamaal Bowman’s primary has become the country’s most closely watched congressional race, and no matter the result, people on both sides say it could be pivotal for Israel’s place in the Democratic Party.

Bowman, an outspoken progressive critic of Israel, is up against centrist George Latimer, the Westchester county executive, who has supported Israel’s military campaign. Their district — New York’s 16th, covering Westchester and a sliver of the Bronx — has a large Jewish population and has attracted millions of dollars in outside campaign spending by political action committees affiliated with the pro-Israel lobby AIPAC and other groups.

Polls show that Bowman is likely to lose, but he’s trying to mobilize voters, and will stage a large rally in the Bronx on Saturday. He likes to quote others who call him “the most endangered Democrat in America.”

It’s a high-stakes election that could have a lasting influence on where the Democratic Party is headed. Knocking out incumbents in primaries is rare and can signal ideological shifts in a party. Almost every member of the “Squad,” a grouping of hardline progressives that includes Bowman, toppled an establishment Democrat in a primary.

Bowman was first elected in 2020 after trouncing a longstanding pro-Israel senior Democrat, Eliot Engel, in a primary. Now that Bowman is the incumbent, his critics hope that if Latimer can take him out, it will be seen as a sign that the Squad’s momentum is flagging.

One Squad member, Summer Lee in Pennsylvania, has already won a primary despite facing a well-funded challenger. Two others are running uncontested, and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Bowman’s neighbor in New York, is expected to sail to victory in her own primary. Rep. Cori Bush in Missouri and Rep. Ilhan Omar in Minnesota are facing steep challenges and tight polls — but nothing like what Bowman is experiencing.

(L-R) Democratic US Representatives Cori Bush of Missouri,Representative Ayanna Pressley of Massachusetts, Ilhan Omar of Minnesota and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez of New York attend a news conference of rabbis calling for a ceasefire between Israel and Hamas, on Capitol Hill in Washington, DC, November 13, 2023. (Mandel Ngan/AFP)

“He’s become an outlier,” said Halie Soifer, the CEO of the Jewish Democratic Council of America, which has endorsed Latimer, in an unusual public stance against an incumbent. “These are extreme anti-Israel views and even more important than the fact that he’s out of step with the Jewish community, he’s out of step with the Democratic Party.”

But even if Bowman is defeated, his allies say their campaign will have an impact. Progressive superstars who are in his corner, including Jewish Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders and New York Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, are trying to make pro-Israel givers toxic to progressive Democrats by linking their contributions to Wall Street money.

“Billionaires are not only spending huge amounts of money to support Latimer’s campaign, they are also making donations to right-wing, extremist candidates,” Sanders wrote on X on Wednesday. “We will not allow the corporate interests of the billionaire class to take down strong progressives like [Jamaal Bowman].”

The United Democracy Project, a political action committee affiliated with the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, has funneled tens of millions of dollars into attack ads targeting Democrats critical of Israel, and has dumped more than $14 million into ads targeting Bowman and boosting Latimer.

Westchester County Executive George Latimer campaigns at a train station in White Plains, New York, June 13, 2024. (AP/Ted Shaffrey)

Shining a light on UDP donors could be an effective strategy nationwide to distance Democrats from AIPAC, said Sophie Ellman-Golan, the spokeswoman for Jews for Racial and Economic Justice, a group that is backing Bowman, as Israel-critical progressives face multiple efforts by pro-Israel groups to knock them out of contention.

She pointed to evidence that many of the super PAC’s donors are billionaire Wall Street investors who have supported Republicans, and whose policies and investments — beyond Israel — are anathema to progressives.

“It’s a conservative alliance, an ideological alliance that to me, does not make unlikely bedfellows, it makes very likely bedfellows,” she said. “That makes AIPAC money come with a price it didn’t use to come with.”

UDP and AIPAC officials say that Republican donors give because they are pro-Israel, not because they believe they can persuade Democrats to embrace conservative policies.

Illustrative: American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) President Michael Tuchin speaks at the AIPAC Policy Summit at a hotel in Washington, DC, June 5, 2023. (Mandel Ngan/AFP)

“Our donors are single-issue and put support for the US-Israel relationship above partisanship,” said Patrick Dorton, the UDP spokesman. A source close to AIPAC pointed to a Politico story that reported that the majority of AIPAC-aligned donors giving to Democratic campaigns are themselves Democrats.

Jewish groups campaigning for Latimer also hope to send a broader message: They say Bowman is an exemplar of the limits of campaigning against Israel, especially in a district with a substantial Jewish population.

Bowman has accused Israel of “genocide” and expressed doubt about reports of sexual violence committed by Hamas during and after its attack on Israel on October 7, which killed nearly 1,200 people and saw over 250 taken hostage, sparking the war in Gaza. The progressive recently apologized for that statement.

But Bowman has also reportedly said he plans to endorse the movement to boycott Israel, and routinely accuses his pro-Israel critics of acting out of racism.

US Representative Jamaal Bowman, Democrat of New York, speaks during a news conference of rabbis calling for a ceasefire between Israel and Hamas, flanked by fellow members of the US Congress’s progressive ‘Squad,’ on Capitol Hill in Washington, DC, November 13, 2023. (Mandel Ngan/AFP)

“You can’t speak up for Gaza,” he said on “The Breakfast Club,” a New York-area talk radio show, in a May 30 interview. “You start speaking out for Black and brown people, and they’re going to attack you.”

Those broadsides lose races, said Mark Mellman, who directs the Democratic Majority for Israel, which runs a PAC that has boosted Latimer. That holds true not just in the New York City area, Mellman said, pointing to races in Ohio, Texas and Illinois where vocal critics of Israel lost primaries.

“The lesson is, from my point of view, that being pro-Israel is not just smart policy, it’s smart politics,” said Mellman. “And we’ve seen that, not just in this race. We’ve seen it over and over again in race after race.”

Sanders-allied progressives will continue to press the case that pro-Israel money equals Republican alignment — and danger to American democracy.

Ellman-Golan, whose group is affiliated with a newly founded “Reject AIPAC” movement, noted that another AIPAC-affiliated political action committee, AIPAC PAC, has backed more than 100 Republicans who voted not to affirm US President Joe Biden’s election on January 6, 2021, when a mob rioted at the US Capitol seeking to overturn the election.

“There’s no mantle of bipartisanship that can hide what is actually happening here,” she said.

Marshall Wittmann, AIPAC’s spokesman, said its PAC’s endorsees represented the American mainstream when it comes to Israel, however much they may differ on other issues. The group also backs dozens of Democrats, including some who voted for the nuclear deal with Iran, which AIPAC bitterly opposed.

“Our donors reflect the mainstream and bipartisan American consensus supporting our alliance with the Jewish state – unlike our detractors,” he said in an email.

Illustrative: A visitor to the US Capitol, wearing a yellow ribbon to raise awareness for hostages held by Hamas in Gaza, clutches an AIPAC folder while taking the elevator in the Rayburn House Office Building, in Washington, DC, March 12, 2024. (Alex Wong/Getty Images North America/Getty Images via AFP)

Mellman said the strategy of casting pro-Israel candidates as aligned with Republicans hits a wall when it comes to groups like his, which solely support Democrats. DMFI, he said, backed Biden’s major infrastructure overhaul in real time, in 2021; Bowman voted against it.

“We’ve got two words in our name that are important,” he said. “One is ‘Israel.’ The other is ‘Democratic.’ We believe in the Democratic Party, we believe in a Democratic agenda. We find fault with Jamaal Bowman because he’s anti-Israel, but also because he’s not supportive of a Democratic agenda.”

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