NY Dem seeks meeting with Jewish voters as his stance on Israel-Hamas war criticized

Facing potential primary, Jamaal Bowman invites constituents to sit-down on antisemitism that rabbi says no one will attend: ‘The relationship with him has hit rock bottom’

Luke Tress is a JTA reporter and a former editor and reporter in New York for The Times of Israel.

Democratic Representative Jamaal Bowman of New York listens to fellow speakers before US President Joe Biden speaks during an event at SUNY Westchester Community College, May 10, 2023, in Valhalla, New York. (AP Photo/John Minchillo, File)
Democratic Representative Jamaal Bowman of New York listens to fellow speakers before US President Joe Biden speaks during an event at SUNY Westchester Community College, May 10, 2023, in Valhalla, New York. (AP Photo/John Minchillo, File)

New York Jewish Week via JTA — US Representative Jamaal Bowman, the progressive New York Democrat, is asking his Jewish constituents to attend a meeting to discuss antisemitism as criticism of his stance on Israel’s war with Hamas in Gaza has bolstered a potential primary challenge against him.

The meeting, which his office called “Healing breakfast: Fighting antisemitism and hate,” will be held at Bowman’s office in White Plains on Monday morning.

An invitation was sent out to some local Jewish leaders on Friday, but some of the invitees are ridiculing the effort. Rabbi Evan Hoffman, the head of the Westchester Board of Rabbis, called the meeting “laughable.”

“Nobody’s going,” said Hoffman, the leader of the Orthodox Congregation Anshe Sholom in New Rochelle. “The relationship with the congressman has hit rock bottom, and he knows it, we know it. There’s no point in dancing around it anymore.”

Bowman has elicited pushback locally and nationally over his calls for a ceasefire in the war between Israel and Hamas, including from Jewish constituents. He has condemned Hamas and a rally appearing to support its attack; he has also demanded the release of the terror group’s hostages and decried antisemitism. But he is also a member of the “Squad,” the group of progressive Democrats that has directed harsh criticism at Israel both before and since October 7.

Bowman co-sponsored an October 16 resolution from fellow progressive Representative Cori Bush calling for an “immediate ceasefire.” The resolution did not mention Hamas, terrorism or Israeli hostages, and Bowman’s backing drew condemnation from the Westchester Board of Rabbis, which said the resolution denied Israel the right to defend itself while Hamas held hostages and drew false equivalence between the two sides.

Bowman was one of just 10 members of Congress to vote against a resolution “Standing with Israel as it defends itself against the barbaric war launched by Hamas and other terrorists.” He likewise voted against a resolution condemning support in campuses for terror groups including Hamas.

Reps. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Jamaal Bowman, Cori Bush and Ilhan Omar. (Collage/AP)

Bowman was elected to Congress in 2020 after defeating a long-term Democratic pro-Israel incumbent, Eliot Engel, in a primary. Unlike other members of the Squad, including Representatives Ilhan Omar and Rashida Tlaib, Bowman at first tried to walk a cautious line on Israel policy. He traveled to Israel in 2021 on a trip organized by the liberal Israel lobby J Street, drawing fire from the left, and quit the Democratic Socialists of America after the trip.

J Street had endorsed Bowman before October 7. The group told the Jewish Telegraphic Agency on October 24 that it was not withdrawing that endorsement.

The discord over those stances in his district could bolster the prospects for a challenge from George Latimer, the popular county executive in Westchester, who has said he will make an announcement on a potential run this month; Bowman’s current term ends on January 3, 2025.

Bowman’s 16th congressional district is located north of New York City, though it also covers a small part of the Bronx. It is home to a significant Jewish population, and is around half Black and Latino.

More than two dozen rabbis in Bowman’s district, including Hoffman, wrote a letter to Latimer nine days after the October 7 attack on Israel, urging him to challenge Bowman due to the incumbent’s “effort to erode support for Israel on Capitol Hill and within the Democratic Party.”

Rabbi Jonathan E. Blake of the Westchester Reform Temple, who also signed the letter, said that Bowman’s approach to the war appeared to be at odds with most of Westchester’s Jewish community.

“The overwhelmingly shared sentiment is that the Jewish voters in Representative Bowman’s district do not believe that his policy and messages on Israel reflect their own views,” Blake said.

Hoffman feels that that tension predated October 7. Ahead of the war, he said, Bowman was “unresponsive to our requests and our needs and developed an adversarial relationship with us.”

Rep. Jamaal Bowman (second from right) meets with Israel’s then-prime Minister Naftali Bennett (center) during his trip to Israel with a delegation. (Haim Zach/GPO)

On Thursday, Bowman posted on X, formerly known as Twitter, that he had been in daily contact with Jewish constituents “and they do not want their pain exploited by the right wing to justify even more civilian deaths.” Following the rabbis’ letter criticizing Bowman, several dozen Jewish community members calling themselves “Jews for Jamaal” wrote a counter letter, expressing support for the congressman and urging Latimer against running.

Micah Sifry, one of the lead signatories on that letter, said he had been invited to the meeting on Monday and planned to attend.

“I don’t think anybody has actually polled so it’s hard to know, so probably everyone is touching a different piece of the larger picture,” he said regarding Jewish support in the district for Bowman. “It’s no secret that there’s a wide range of opinions in the Jewish community.”

Sifry said Bowman distributed his contact information to community members and had been responsive to requests, but may struggle to keep up with the volume of messages he receives.

Bowman’s office did not respond to a request for further information about the Monday meeting, including who would be attending, what would be discussed and what prompted the event.

Blake, a member of the Westchester Jewish Council, an umbrella group, and the Westchester Board of Rabbis, said that he was not aware of Bowman’s office approaching either group, did not know who Bowman was speaking to in the Jewish community, and had not received an invitation to the Monday meeting.

Hoffman said he had received a brief phone call from Bowman last month, and that the congressman’s Jewish supporters represented a “very small fraction” of the community.

“I believe that he uses this language as a fig leaf,” Blake said of Bowman’s claim that he had been speaking daily with Jewish constituents, “to cover the plain fact that his relationship with the mainstream Jewish community in his district is badly strained at this time.”

War erupted after Hamas’s October 7 massacre, which saw some 3,000 terrorists burst across the border into Israel from the Gaza Strip by land, air and sea, killing some 1,400 people and seizing some 240 hostages of all ages under the cover of a deluge of thousands of rockets fired at Israeli towns and cities. The vast majority of those killed as gunmen seized border communities were civilians — including babies, children and the elderly. Entire families were executed in their homes, and over 260 were slaughtered at an outdoor festival, many amid horrific acts of brutality by the terrorists.

Israel says its offensive is aimed at destroying Hamas’s military and governance capabilities, and has vowed to eliminate the entire terror group, which rules the Strip. It says it is targeting all areas where Hamas operates, while seeking to minimize civilian casualties. Hamas claims over 9,000 people have been killed in Gaza. Its figures cannot be independently verified, and are believed to include its own operatives and Gazans killed by terror groups’ misfired missiles.

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