WASHINGTON — Barack Obama unveiled his first wave of down-ballot endorsements for the 2020 elections Monday, which included the Bronx Middle School principal Jamaal Bowman.
After receiving the former president’s backing, Bowman explained the backstory behind the announcement: Obama had reached out to him after reading his response to a local rabbi who questioned the candidate’s positions on Israel.
“He read our response to Rabbi [Avi] Weiss’s letter,” Bowman said on a short video posted on Twitter. “He read that response. He loved it. He wanted to meet me. He called me, we talked, we got the endorsement.”
Less than a week before the election, Weiss wrote an open letter to Bowman in The Riverdale Press asking him to clarify his position on whether the US should condition aid to Israel based on its human rights record.
Weiss, the founding rabbi of the Hebrew Institute of Riverdale, also faulted Bowman for criticizing Israel but not Palestinian violence, citing a Riverdale native, Ari Fuld, who was knifed to death in the West Bank by a Palestinian terrorist.
The moment I told our staff that our campaign had been endorsed by President Obama. pic.twitter.com/2YWvFZxVmt
— Jamaal Bowman (@JamaalBowmanNY) August 3, 2020
Bowman responded by penning an open letter back to Weiss.
“I believe firmly in the right of Israelis to live in safety and peace, free from the fear of violence and terrorism from Hamas and other extremists, and support continued U.S. aid to help Israel confront these security challenges,” he wrote. “I also believe that Palestinians are entitled to the same human rights, safety from violence and self-determination in a state of their own.”
The candidate added that he opposed the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions campaign against Israel, but would support Americans’ First Amendment right to support it. He also said he was against Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s plan to annex parts of the West Bank.
“I can’t promise that we’ll always agree, but I can promise that I will always listen to your concerns and act on them in accordance with my deepest values,” Bowman wrote. “I know that we both have much to learn from each other’s experiences, and I hope that you may give me the chance.”
Obama’s endorsement of Bowman came as he threw his backing behind 118 Democratic candidates running for office in November.
“Our country’s future hangs on this election, and it won’t be easy. But pandemics have a way of cutting through a lot of noise and spin to remind us of what is real, and what is important,” he said in a statement. “Elections matter. And we need Americans of all political stripes to get involved in our politics and our public life like never before.”
Bowman recently defeated the veteran Congressman Eliot Engel in a hotly contested June primary.
He will now face a fairly uncompetitive general election in New York 16th Congressional District, which includes the northern part of the Bronx and southern part of Westchester County. It leans heavily Democratic.
Engel, who has held his seat for more than 30 years, is the current chair of the House Foreign Relations Committee and is known as one of Capitol Hill’s pro-Israel stalwarts and one of the most hawkish Democrats. He voted against the 2015 Iran nuclear deal and for the George W. Bush administration’s Iraq war.
In the primary, Bowman had the support of Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders and New York Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez.
Engel, on the other hand, had the support of much of the Democratic establishment, with endorsements from former secretary of state Hillary Clinton, New York Governor Andrew Cuomo, Senate Democratic Minority Leader Charles Schumer and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi.