The fallout from Eliot Engel’s likely defeat and a look at other US primaries

In a changing Democratic landscape, Israel is no longer sacrosanct, and aid to the Jewish state may be conditional

In this, March 19, 2018, file photo, New York City Council Member Ritchie Torres addresses a news conference in New York (AP Photo/Richard Drew, File)
In this, March 19, 2018, file photo, New York City Council Member Ritchie Torres addresses a news conference in New York (AP Photo/Richard Drew, File)

WASHINGTON (JTA) — Jamaal Bowman, the middle school principal who challenged longtime Rep. Eliot Engel in New York’s 16th District, has declared victory based on his 2-1 lead among voters who headed to the polls for this week’s primary. Mail-in votes are still being counted, so Engel, the Jewish chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, has not conceded.

That, however, hasn’t stopped the big picture takes. One is that the traditional pro-Israel views among Democrats are in big trouble, at least in their center-right expression: Keeping differences with Israel on the down low, and on the rare occasion where you feel compelled to speak out, leaving aid to Israel sacrosanct.

Bowman is openly critical of the policies of the government of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and has said assistance to Israel should be conditioned on its behavior. Among House Democrats, Engel may be the closest to the pro-Israel center and right.

Here’s a typical take from the National Interest: Will This New York Progressive Be the AOC of Foreign Policy? The reference is to the perception that Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, who ousted a longstanding moderate in the 14th District, has moved the entire party left. AOC’s district shares the Bronx borough with the 16th as well as the 15th.

The article quotes foreign policy progressives who backed Bowman as saying his election is determinative of the end of “militarism” among Democrats, and Republicans are seizing on the defeat as the death knell for pro-Israelism among Democrats.

“Jewish Republicans have had plenty of disagreements with Rep. Engel during his 32 years in Congress, but his defeat is a blow to the historically bipartisan support for Israel in the US Congress,” the Republican Jewish Coalition said in a release.

In New York magazine, Eric Levitz notes that in the 15th district, the likely winner is Ritchie Torres, who is progressive on domestic issues — and boasts of a past affiliation with Bernie Sanders, who endorsed Bowman and backs leveraging aid to Israel. But Torres, Levitz writes, “has barricaded Israel-Palestine off from the rest of his progressivism.”

Torres had the backing of mainstream pro-Israel PACs, including the Democratic Majority for Israel PAC and Pro-Israel America, as well as NORPAC, which leans right. He forcefully rejects leveraging aid to Israel. Torres, who is gay, hates it when anti-Israel progressives accuse him of “pinkwashing” Israel, and he does not stint on firing back.

Democratic Representative Eliot Engel of New York, chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, listens during a committee hearing, on Capitol Hill in Washington, April 30, 2019. (Jacquelyn Martin/AP)

“I found it utterly baffling that you had LGBT activists doing the bidding of Hamas, which is a terrorist organization that executes LGBT people,” he told Jewish Insider.

So it’s more complicated than the Engel-Bowman tea leaf readers would have us think.

There’s more to it than the results in the 16th and the 15th, however. Let’s take a look at the fallout from this week.

The aid question

Talk about reducing assistance to Israel has been ongoing for ages, but until the current Congress it was an anomaly for both parties — an attention-getter for folks on the margin. In fact, before 2018, it’s most prominent advocate was Rand Paul, the Republican senator from Kentucky. Donald Trump the candidate flirted with the idea in 2016, on the very day in March he was set to address the American Israel Public Affairs Committee. Virtually the only advocate for aid cuts among Democrats until 2018 was Rep. Betty McCollum of Minnesota, who framed her proposed cuts narrowly, tying them to the number of Palestinian minors in Israeli detention.

In 2018, victories by two Democrats who support the boycott Israel movement — Rashida Tlaib in Michigan and Ilhan Omar in Minnesota — were the most obvious signal that aid to Israel was not sacrosanct. But there were other signs: J Street, the liberal Jewish Middle East peace group that endorses more than half of the Democratic caucus, flirted with the notion last year, and leading candidates for the nomination, including Sanders, Elizabeth Warren and Pete Buttigieg, were open to it.

Israel likely was not a factor among voters in the 16th, but that may prove this point: Bowman’s expressed criticism of Israel did not spur Jewish voters — in a district where they are substantial (particularly in its Westchester portion) — to vote against him.

Jamaal Bowman speaks during his primary-night party Tuesday, June. 23, 2020, in New York. (AP Photo/Eduardo Munoz Alvarez)

Cutting aid, on the other hand, has hardly become an orthodoxy among progressives. Mondaire Jones is leading the pack in New York’s 17th to replace Nita Lowey, like Engel, a Jewish pro-Israel leader who is in a powerful position as chairwoman of the Appropriations Committee. Jones was the only candidate who had announced before Lowey said she was retiring, and he was setting up a campaign to challenge her from the progressive left — but Israel did not factor.

Jones, like most other Democrats, opposes Netanyahu’s proposal to annex parts of the West Bank, but otherwise he can’t praise Lowey enough when it comes to her Israel policies.

“I’m going to continue in the legacy of Nita Lowey in being a friend to Israel — we have to continue our security assistance,” he said last week at a debate organized by the Jewish Democratic Council of America.

In New York’s 12th District, Suraj Patel is neck and neck with Rep. Carolyn Maloney, the chairwoman of the Oversight Committee who attracted centrist pro-Israel financial backing. Patel challenged the longtime incumbent from the progressive left, but also told Jewish Insider that he emphatically opposes Israel boycotts, and has even before he publicly contemplated a political career — and was able to prove it.

Suraj Patel (YouTube screenshot)

The fundraising question

A narrative emerging from Bowman’s victory is that centrist pro-Israel funding no longer matters: The Democratic Majority for Israel PAC reportedly dumped more than $1.5 million into the district, to little avail.

There is something to this, but it’s less that the impact of pro-Israel money has diminished and more that funding from other interests in the Democratic Party has increased. That’s been the case since 2004, when small online donors helped propel Howard Dean’s candidacy in the pre-primaries season, and MoveOn became a force to be reckoned with. Sanders’ endorsement of Bowman unleashed an army of donors. Outside groups spent more than $1.3 million on the newcomer’s behalf.

But pro-Israel funding still has an impact: See under Torres. See also under Joe Biden, the party’s presumptive presidential nominee who forcefully rejected making aid to Israel contingent, and whose candidacy weathered troubles in part because of his longtime pro-Israel backers.

The committee question

If Engel loses, the influential committee he chairs, the Foreign Affairs Committee, will remain in reliably centrist pro-Israel hands. His likely successors include Brad Sherman of California, Gregory Meeks of New York and Ted Deutch of Florida — all friends of AIPAC.

But that’s a “short run” prediction. What 2022 and beyond brings in terms of committee chairmanships is susceptible to the broader vicissitudes in the party.

The Black Lives Matter question

Bowman’s campaign seized on a moment of broader American unhappiness with the status of race in America, particularly in policing.

“I’m a black man who was raised by a single mother in a housing project,” Bowman said in a victory statement. “That story doesn’t usually end in Congress. But today, that 11-year old boy who was beaten by police is about to be your next representative.”

Israel has not featured large in the protests, and as Mari Cohen wrote in Jewish Currents, Jewish groups are setting aside past divides over Israel with the Black Lives Matter movement to join them in solidarity now. The issue in 2016 was over a platform by a group called the Movement for Black Lives (one that does not bind the many diffuse groups that come together under Black Lives Matter). The platform accused Israel of “genocide” and “apartheid.”

Cohen reports that a new platform is under consideration.

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