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US lawmaker who ran to represent marginalized in Bronx finds himself talking Hebron

Colleagues of Rep. Jamaal Bowman say he’s most driven by domestic affairs, but his district’s large Jewish constituency has forced him to weigh in on Israel-Palestine

Jacob Magid is The Times of Israel's US correspondent based in New York

Rep. Jamaal Bowman during a visit at a Palestinian school in Hebron, on November 10, 2021. (Jamaal Bowman/Twitter)
Rep. Jamaal Bowman during a visit at a Palestinian school in Hebron, on November 10, 2021. (Jamaal Bowman/Twitter)

NEW YORK — Few lawmakers in Congress have had their views on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict more scrutinized than Jamaal Bowman.

The freshman representative of New York’s 16th District has sought to stake a unique position, supporting US aid to Israel and opposing the Boycott Divestment and Sanctions movement while harshly criticizing Israel’s treatment of the Palestinians and co-sponsoring legislation barring American assistance to Israel from being used for various IDF activities in the West Bank.

But the relatively nuanced approach has not won Bowman lots of friends. Pro-Israel America PAC and Democratic Majority for Israel spent millions against the 45-year-old ex-middle school teacher in the 2020 election that saw Bowman primary the district’s longtime representative Elliot Engel. On the other side, local chapters of Democratic Socialists of America across the US have called to have Bowman’s membership and endorsement stripped over his views on BDS, support for replenishment of Israel’s Iron Dome and a trip to Israel and the West Bank that he took last month with the dovish pro-Israel lobby J Street.

But what may be most surprising about Bowman’s engagement with the lightning rod issue is that it wasn’t what he came to Congress to focus on. The Times of Israel spoke with sources in Bowman’s office as well as those he’s recently worked with in various capacities who told the story of a lawmaker who is much more driven by domestic issues.

“He ran to represent the most marginalized children in the Bronx and Westchester,” said one associate familiar with Bowman’s thinking, who added that the congressman’s significant engagement with the issue “was never the plan.”

“Every time he opens his mouth on Israel-Palestine, no matter what he says, it causes a storm. He hates it,” said a Democratic aide in another office that works closely with Bowman’s office.

Rep. Jamaal Bowman (second from right) met with Israeli Prime Minister Naftali Bennett (center) during his recent trip to Israel with a delegation. (Haim Zach/GPO)

Asked why then Bowman chooses to engage with the issue anyway, the colleague told ToI that the makeup of the congressman’s district demands that he weigh in.

“He recognizes his unique role in this conversation,” the colleague explained. He represents a diverse and large Jewish district where this issue is a big topic, and he needs to be able to go back to his district and engage and work toward peace.”

Ten percent of 16th District’s 740,000 residents are Jewish. Twenty-thousand of them live in Riverdale with its large Orthodox, pro-Israel community.

“He wants to engage and move people in the conversation toward understanding Palestinian rights, and he has. It’s hard work, but we are moving people,” said the colleague familiar with Bowman’s thinking.

In meetings the congressman has taken with rabbis and Jewish leaders in his district, Bowman has pushed participants on Israel’s treatment of the Palestinians, using terms seen as taboo among Israel advocates such as “occupation” and “Naqba,” said a participant in several of those meetings, referring to the Arabic word for “catastrophe” that Palestinians use to describe Israel’s 1948 War of Independence.

Bowman’s colleague said there has been “movement” among pro-Israel constituents as a result of his candid engagement. “The way it’s happening is small, but he’s asking hard questions. He’s learning.”

The colleague familiar with Bowman’s thinking said the congressman recognizes that he doesn’t have the luxury of remaining silent on the issue as other prominent progressives have done.

“We’ve learned that he has his own role in the work for peace and ending the occupation,” they said. “In order for this to happen, we have to tell the truth.”

Bowman tweeted twice about his trip to Israel and the West Bank last month in what seemed to encapsulate the position on the conflict he has sought to take back home.

One post was about his “chilling and debilitating experience” on his visit to Jerusalem’s Yad Vashem Holocaust museum.

“The faces of the millions of Jewish people are remembered here. Their memory and their lives serve as a sobering reminder that we can’t allow anti-semitism and hatred of any kind to exist,” he wrote.

The other was about his visit to the flashpoint city of Hebron where he visited an elementary school.

“There are streets they cannot walk and places they cannot go, simply because they are Palestinian,” Bowman tweeted. “When I asked about their dreams, their answer was simple: freedom. The occupation must end.”

Discussing the matter in a private speech leaked to the media, Bowman was animated in his shock over what he had seen.

“If you can’t move freely, you do not have your freedom, if you do not have your freedom, you are incarcerated, and that’s what occupation is,” he said.

The emotion in his voice did not appear to be of someone looking to avoid the issue. While he may have run for Congress to focus on matters at home, circumstances have drawn his focus abroad, and that doesn’t seem poised to change.

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