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Socialist staffer on Jamaal Bowman’s team details congressman’s efforts to placate DSA

Amid pressure from Democratic Socialists, Bowman senior aide looks to reassure group that the N.Y. lawmaker is in its corner

Spencer Platt/Getty Images

Rep. Jamaal Bowman (D-NY) speaks at the National Action Network’s (NAN) three-day annual national convention on April 07, 2022 in New York City.

Since he assumed office last year, Rep. Jamaal Bowman (D-NY) has frequently found himself at odds with a high-profile far-left ally — the Democratic Socialists of America (DSA) — over differing approaches to Israel. 

While Bowman has said he opposes the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement targeting Israel, for instance, the DSA supports the campaign, which has long been central to its foreign policy messaging. More recently, the freshman congressman has seen pushback from the DSA for voting to approve supplemental funding for Israel’s Iron Dome missile-defense system and for visiting Israel in late 2021 on a trip sponsored by J Street.

In December, the DSA announced it would not re-endorse Bowman in the 2022 midterms, citing disagreements over his trip to Israel as well as his Iron Dome vote. The decision followed calls from some in the organization to expel him.

While the details of such tensions have been largely unreported, a letter written by a Bowman staffer and posted to a private DSA message board outlines the extent to which the congressman’s office has, even amid fierce opposition, worked behind the scenes to reassure DSA leadership that Bowman remains broadly aligned with the group’s approach to Middle East policy.

The letter — recently obtained by Jewish Insider — was written by Rajiv Sicora, a senior policy adviser in Bowman’s legislative office who describes himself as “a longtime socialist and one of several DSA members on the team.”

“I support BDS, and have nothing but respect and solidarity for the many people who are trying in good faith to prioritize Palestine solidarity work in DSA,” Sicora, who focuses on climate and energy policy, wrote. “I’m posting here from a place of distress about the organizational crisis we find ourselves in. I want to offer some crucial context, clear up some profound misunderstandings, and offer a plea for deescalation.”

The letter was published in mid-March, according to a source familiar with the DSA message board. It came shortly after the DSA’s National Political Committee had disbanded its BDS and Palestine Solidarity working group, following tensions with Bowman that had also exposed divisions within the DSA itself.

“Nobody is under any obligation to like Bowman, and certainly not to re-endorse him,” Sicora explained in the letter. “But please understand that throughout this process, you’ve been repeatedly lied to by certain leaders of the anti-Bowman camp.”

Sicora did not respond to a request for comment.

In a statement to JI, Bowman said, “This staffer is speaking in their personal capacity and they do not handle foreign affairs. All foreign affairs are handled by the Chief of Staff.”

Bowman, a high-profile Squad member and former Bronx principal, isn’t the only DSA-backed House candidate this cycle who has butted heads with the grassroots advocacy group. In February, JI published a letter from Greg Casar, a Democratic candidate in Texas’s 35th Congressional District, in which he expressed opposition to BDS and said he supports military aid to Israel.

The DSA’s Austin chapter subsequently announced it would “no longer be working on” Casar’s congressional campaign and that Casar was himself pulling his request for an endorsement. 

Bowman, 46, appears to have taken a more conciliatory route, notwithstanding calls for his expulsion that had left him “blindsided” and “understandably pissed,” according to Sicora’s letter. “Nevertheless, Bowman immediately entered into a discussion with” the DSA’s BDS working group “about how to deescalate and find a way forward,” Sicora wrote, noting that Bowman had been presented with a series of “demands” in order to patch things over after his Israel trip.

“The first step was de-cosponsoring the normalization bill,” Sicora wrote, referring to Bowman’s decision to withdraw his support for the Israel Relations Normalization Act. Bowman announced in February that he would vote against the bipartisan legislation aimed at strengthening and expanding the Abraham Accords, which established diplomatic relations between Israel and a number of Arab nations. 

The Bronx congressman explained in a letter to constituents at the time that while he had initially viewed the bill “as an opportunity to make progress toward justice and healing in the Middle East,” he had changed his mind after the J Street trip last November and now believes the Abraham Accords have, among other things, “unhelpfully” alienated the Palestinians.

Bowman did not mention any pressure from the DSA in his own letter, which angered Jewish voters in his current district, who make up a key constituency.

The DSA’s working group had praised Bowman’s decision to vote against the bill, but still criticized the timing of his reversal, which took place shortly after the heavily Jewish Bronx neighborhood of Riverdale had been removed from his district. In a social media post, the working group, whose Twitter account is now suspended, suggested that Bowman had “only finally” removed his name from the bill after his new “district borders” excluded “an area with a heavy Zionist constituency.”

But Sicora rejected such insinuations. “At no point did anyone on our team say that this would be contingent on the outcome of redistricting — that’s another lie you’ve been told,” he wrote. “This needed to be done in close collaboration with many different people and groups. We needed time to prepare and articulate a clearly laid out rationale, and again, we followed through.”

Sicora said that Bowman had also followed through on his “commitment” to opposing the bill when he voted against one portion of a recent appropriations package that had included the legislation. 

Bowman defended the vote in a press release in March, even as he recognized that there had been “elements of the defense spending section that, if voted on separately,” he “would have supported,” including Iron Dome funding. “However, the defense and incarceration package is bloated with substantial increases to our military spending, and even more funding for prisons and immigration and customs enforcement.”

In his letter, Sicora suggested that such language had been strategic. “As for the press release mentioning that he wanted to vote yes on Iron Dome…we had already voted yes on that bill and taken the hit,” he wrote. “Do I really have to explain what the function of such a press release might be in the middle of a tough primary in a district like ours? Notice how we went about the normalization de-sponsorship — by taking a beat to lay the groundwork in our district and tell our own story rather than letting our opponents define it.”

“I can promise that you will continue seeing results, although it’s going to be a process,” Sicora added. “I can assure you that the next time we have something like a standalone Iron Dome vote, you will see Rep. Bowman vote no.”

“We’re making mistakes, and the risks of cooptation are real with any elected official,” he said, “but we can work on these problems together.”

Last week, Bowman signed on to a resolution that calls for the U.S. to formally recognize the “Nakba” — the term Palestinians use to denote the mass Palestinian exodus that coincided with the foundation of Israel — and endorses the Palestinian right of return to Israel.

Despite recent pushback from the DSA over Bowman’s approach to Israel, Sicora suggested that such tensions ultimately stemmed from a lack of communication going back to his initial bid for Congress, when the DSA endorsed his campaign despite obvious differences over the BDS movement.

Bowman had expressed his support for conditioning aid to Israel but publicly opposed BDS, noting in an interview with JI that he was not in favor of “singling out Israel.”

“Bowman was very clear in his campaign last cycle that he did not support BDS, and that he would adopt a Bernie-esque orientation to Israel,” Sicora said, a reference to Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT). “Given this, it’s obviously debatable whether DSA should have endorsed him in the first place. But DSA did endorse. And I don’t see anyone in the anti-Bowman camp taking any responsibility for that on behalf of DSA.”

The congressman “had every reason to expect that he could diverge from the org on Israel and still work productively with it,” Sicora wrote, noting that Bowman had “nevertheless established the closest relationship — by far — that any Squad member has yet had with the org.”

“There was a real possibility of collaboration and co-governance,” Sicora said. “He often elevated DSA to the media despite political conditions in the district. He’s put real political muscle behind DSA priorities in New York State. And he has repeatedly expressed a desire and commitment to help the org expand in working class communities of color, which we had started to do with the GND for Public Schools campaign before all of this blew up.”

Sicora was referring to a $1.4 trillion education package, billed as a “Green New Deal for Public Schools,” that Bowman introduced to the House last summer. “In several ways, that campaign was more about building long-term power for DSA than advancing our bill,” Sicora said, “although it was on track to do both effectively.”

“I strongly disagreed with Bowman’s Iron Dome vote and trip to Israel,” Sicora wrote. “But our door was always open to discuss these matters with anyone. We have always wanted to work and organize with partners to overcome our political challenges on this, we want to be pushed, and we started that process right away – just not with DSA, because they never sought out that kind of relationship on Palestine organizing.”

More recently, other DSA members “have been supremely confident in passing off their incorrect assumptions as fact,” Sicora charged, “and in failing to ask basic questions about what the political realities and constraints might be.”

Those constraints, Sicora argued, include holding the congressional seat formerly occupied by longtime Rep. Eliot Engel (D-NY), a pro-Israel stalwart who had chaired the House Foreign Affairs Committee, and facing a well-funded primary challenger who has actively opposed DSA policies while casting himself as a supporter of Israel.

Vedat Gashi, a Westchester County legislator, recently confirmed that he would remain in the race following a final round of redistricting that has pushed the primary back to August. He is Bowman’s only challenger. 

“The politically convenient thing would be for Bowman to walk away from DSA,” Sicora wrote. “He hasn’t, despite considerable political pressure.”

Instead, Bowman remains “committed to working” with the DSA’s National Political Committee on Middle East foreign policy issues now that the BDS working group has been dissolved. “I realize some of you won’t take my word for it. That’s fine. Wait and see. Or better yet, reach out for a meeting and I will take it,” Sicora wrote. “But I beg you: please, do not keep looking for every little fucking reason to attack Jamaal Bowman and stir up conflict related to Jamaal Bowman. Again, you don’t have to like him. But he is a working-class Black socialist who represents both the Bronx and wealthy areas of Westchester, and will grow the reach of the socialist movement with or without DSA.”

“He is not a supporter of Israeli apartheid,” Sicora added. “He’s going to keep saying cringe stuff from time to time, and he’s going to keep saying nice things about Biden and other members of the Dem establishment. Sometimes that stuff is heartfelt, sometimes it’s strategic. Very little of it is worth a second thought or even a sliver of energy from a socialist organization that, in my estimation, needs to have its shit together to make it possible for humanity to even survive.”

Sicora noted that some opponents have claimed that “Bowman’s actions have damaged DSA’s credibility with Palestinian activists,” a charge he rejected only haltingly. “To be perfectly honest, I’m very skeptical that is true; you should be able to at least point to the overwhelming force of the reaction against him. I may be wrong about that, and I’m open to hearing more. What I do not accept, and what all members should reject out of basic comradeship, is the idea that Bowman and even his DSA supporters are morally bankrupt opportunists who are responsible for doing material harm to Palestinians.”

“The Iron Dome vote and Israel trip, though absolutely worthy of condemnation, were fundamentally symbolic actions that did not come remotely close to changing near-term outcomes — and to be clear, symbolic actions are often very important, I’m not denying that,” Sicora said. “These were mistakes that can and will be balanced with our positive contributions to the Palestinian struggle.”

Read the full letter below. The copy of the letter obtained by Jewish Insider had, in several spots, formatting that obscured some of the letter’s contents. Those passages will be noted in the letter.

Hey comrades,

I work for Jamaal Bowman as a member of his legislative team in DC. I’m a longtime socialist and one of several DSA members on the team; I focus on climate and energy policy and was lead staffer on the GND for Public Schools bill. Needless to say, I’m speaking here in my personal capacity as a DSA member. (Let me say it again with the clauses reversed: I am speaking as a DSA member in my personal capacity.) I support BDS, and have nothing but respect and solidarity for the many people who are trying in good faith to prioritize Palestine solidarity work in DSA. I’m posting here from a place of distress about the organizational crisis we find ourselves in. I want to offer some crucial context, clear up some profound misunderstandings, and offer a plea for deescalation.

Nobody is under any obligation to like Bowman, and certainly not to re-endorse him. But please understand that throughout this process, you’ve been repeatedly lied to by certain leaders of the anti-Bowman camp. I won’t speculate on their motives. Other participants have been supremely confident in passing off their incorrect assumptions as fact, and in failing to ask basic questions about what the political realities and constraints might be. Elliot Engel’s former seat is not an easy place to be pro-Palestinian, and we’re in the middle of a tough primary, which we could lose to a challenger who is running on an overtly anti-DSA and anti-Palestinian platform. The politically convenient thing would be for Bowman to walk away from DSA. He hasn’t, despite considerable political pressure.

I’ll start from the beginning. The first falsehood is that BDS WG tried in good faith to engage with us over a period of months. That simply did not happen.

Backing up even further: Bowman was very clear in his campaign last cycle that he did not support BDS, and that he would adopt a Bernie-esque orientation to Israel. Given this, it’s obviously debatable whether DSA should have endorsed him in the first place. But DSA did endorse. And I don’t see anyone in the anti-Bowman camp taking any responsibility for that on behalf of DSA. I’ve rarely seen constructive discussion about how DSA could relate strategically and carefully to Bowman and the rest of the Squad (none of whom are genuine cadre candidates or have high levels of accountability to DSA, but all of whom have massive and barely tapped potential to grow the org during this phase).

For better or worse, in light of the circumstances of his endorsement, Bowman had every reason to expect that he could diverge from the org on Israel and still work productively with it. Despite DSA not having much of a presence in his district, and not playing much of a role in getting him elected, we nevertheless established the closest relationship – by far – that any Squad member has yet had with the org. There was a real possibility of collaboration and co-governance. He often elevated DSA to the media despite political conditions in the district. He’s put real political muscle behind DSA priorities in New York State. And he has repeatedly expressed a desire and commitment to help the org expand in working class communities of color, which we had started to do with the GND for Public Schools campaign before all of this blew up. In several ways, that campaign was more about building long-term power for DSA than advancing our bill, although it was on track to do both effectively.

I strongly disagreed with Bowman’s Iron Dome vote and trip to Israel. But our door was always open to discuss these matters with anyone. We have always wanted to work and organize with partners to overcome our political challenges on this, we want to be pushed, and we started that process right away – just not with DSA, because they never sought out that kind of relationship on Palestine organizing. Before the calls for expulsion started and quickly escalated, we had one single, amicable meeting with BDS WG reps. Their main ask was to change and soften how he talked about his opposition to BDS. By all accounts, he followed through right away. And before the uproar started, that was basically the only substantial exchange.

So Bowman was blindsided by the expulsion campaign, and understandably pissed given everything I’ve just outlined. The calls to expel handed a potent tool to establishment Dems who want to portray the org as racist, and Bowman heard a lot of that personally. (The contrast with Bernie’s treatment by the org is very real, and the fact that Bernie is not a member is patently not a satisfying answer.) Nevertheless, Bowman immediately entered into a discussion with BDS WG about how to deescalate and find a way forward. He shared how the trip had strengthened his resolve to do more to fight for Palestine, and we offered to meet as many of BDS WG’s demands as possible – despite the fact that they’d gone from 0 to 10 out of nowhere, and didn’t even try to build a real relationship with us (again, the door was always open). He’s never criticized or done anything to undermine DSA in response, beyond pointing out that Twitter hate isn’t helpful.

There were so many ways we could have figured this out constructively – including a planned and managed parting of the ways between Bowman and DSA. But the WG again chose a maximalist position. They gave us an ultimatum that every single demand had to be agreed to in a matter of weeks (after previously conveying there was room to have differences), and at least twice during the back and forth, they changed and added to their demands at the last minute. There is no way we could do everything they were asking without laying some organizing and political groundwork, and the WG knew that.

[Text obscured by formatting] to was a demand to immediately cut ties with J Street and back out of an event within 48 hours – an example of a last-minute demand that was not brought up at the initial meeting with Bowman. Regarding every other ask, we were clear that we wanted to work with DSA to make it happen (some, but not all, were things we wanted to do anyway). We made it clear that we would need some time and organizing help. The WG chose to reject the offer and continue on the warpath against us – but we remained, and still remain, committed to working through the same demands with NPC, and to bringing more of you into the process. I hate that we haven’t been able to be more transparent about the details, but there are good reasons for this that you should be able to infer.

The first step was de-cosponsoring the normalization bill. At no point did anyone on our team say that this would be contingent on the outcome of redistricting – that’s another lie you’ve been told. This needed to be done in close collaboration with many different people and groups. We needed time to prepare and articulate a clearly laid out rationale, and again, we followed through.

Finally, on the recent Appropriations vote: that package did contain the Israel normalization bill folded in, so Bowman did keep his commitment to voting against it. As for the press release mentioning that he wanted to vote yes on Iron Dome…we had already voted yes on that bill and taken the hit. Do I really have to explain what the function of such a press release might be in the middle of a tough primary in a district like ours? Notice how we went about the normalization de- sponsorship – by taking a beat to lay the groundwork in our district and tell our own story rather than letting our opponents define it. I can promise that you will continue seeing results, although it’s going to be a process. I can assure you that the next time we have something like a standalone Iron Dome vote, you will see Rep. Bowman vote no.

So yes, the infamous thread was full of lies. I realize some of you won’t take my word for it. That’s fine. Wait and see. Or better yet, reach out for a meeting and I will take it.

But I beg you: please, do not keep looking for every little fucking reason to attack Jamaal Bowman and stir up conflict related to Jamaal Bowman. Again, you don’t have to like him. But he is a working-class Black socialist who represents both the Bronx and wealthy areas of Westchester, and will grow the reach of the socialist movement with or without DSA. He’s a deeply moral person and a visionary thinker who, as you all know at this point, also has a problem with red lines – he wants to work with as many people as possible, he’s impatient to get things done, he wants to make progress on incremental stuff at the same time as we organize for transformative change. He is not a supporter of Israeli apartheid. He’s going to keep saying cringe stuff from time to time, and he’s going to keep saying nice things about Biden and other members of the Dem establishment. Sometimes that stuff is heartfelt, sometimes it’s strategic. Very little of it is worth a second thought or even a sliver of energy from a socialist organization that, in my estimation, needs to have its shit together to make it possible for humanity to even survive.

Congress is an insane and endlessly difficult place to try to do anything worthwhile, and in addition to the many challenges associated with being a Squad member, Bowman faces constant hostility from the Westchester Dem establishment for being a socialist. As I mentioned earlier, it’s the basis of his main primary challenge. Nevertheless, he regularly makes the case for socialism to all kinds of people in our (again, relatively moderate) district. He is also extremely motivated to put real, sustained political weight behind campaigns for radical change. We’re making mistakes, and the risks of cooptation are real with any elected official, but we can work on these problems together.

[Text obscured by formatting] DSA has to re-endorse him; we stopped expecting that long ago. But we don’t have to continue this destructive obsession that risks tearing DSA apart, and is not helping Palestine. I’m pretty confident that even when we have genuine cadre electeds at the national level, who have better relationships of accountability with DSA – a day that I eagerly await, and that development will only have a positive impact on the Squad – we will continue to encounter some of these same problems. We have to figure out how to deal with them without resorting to the abusive tactics that have come to the forefront here.

Some claim Bowman’s actions have damaged DSA’s credibility with Palestinian activists. To be perfectly honest, I’m very skeptical that is true; you should be able to at least point to the overwhelming force of the reaction against him. I may be wrong about that, and I’m open to hearing more. What I do not accept, and what all members should reject out of basic comradeship, is the idea that Bowman and even his DSA supporters are morally bankrupt opportunists who are responsible for doing material harm to Palestinians. It would make just as much sense for me to say that anti-Bowman activists, by making it impossible for the GND for Public Schools campaign to continue, are responsible for depriving working-class Black and brown children of desperately needed investments to protect their health. Because we did come damn close to winning tens of billions of dollars in school infrastructure investment (in Build Back Better) that would have saved lives. But I would never make that accusation, because it would be fucking ridiculous. The Iron Dome vote and Israel trip, though absolutely worthy of condemnation, were fundamentally symbolic actions that did not come remotely close to changing near-term outcomes – and to be clear, symbolic actions are often very important, I’m not denying that. These were mistakes that can and will be balanced with our positive contributions to the Palestinian struggle.

It doesn’t have to be this way. We can prioritize Palestine in DSA, and we can debate and develop alternatives to electoralism, without tearing down the work of other comrades who are putting blood, sweat, and tears into projects that happen to involve electoral politics. And certainly vice versa. Some comrades are trying to use distortion, extreme moralism that is disconnected from any materialist analysis, and an unholy alliance with Twitter’s algorithm to convince you that it’s impossible to move Bowman when the process has barely begun, or even that it’s impossible to win meaningful reforms in the context of the climate crisis and rising fascism. We are not yet a powerful enough left for these conflicts and disagreements to have real stakes beyond their ability to divide and marginalize us. People can have different roles to play right now.

Our opponents are of course happy to see this infighting, at a time when the Palestinian struggle is growing stronger. What is DSA’s contribution? It can’t be about attacking Jamaal Bowman and making life hell for the NPC.

Whatever you think of this, please don’t leak it. And I’m happy to talk more with anyone.

In solidarity, 

Rajiv Sicora