follow up

Bowman staffer penned second letter to assure DSA over congressman’s Israel position

Fraught relationship between Bronx congressman and socialist group on display in follow-up letter

Stephanie Keith/Getty Images

Jamaal Bowman greets supporters on June 23, 2020, in Yonkers, New York.

A senior policy adviser to Rep. Jamaal Bowman (D-NY) continued his efforts to assuage tensions with the Democratic Socialists of America in a second letter to a private DSA message board published in late March, acknowledging that DSA members “are very right to be angry” with the freshman congressman over his recent engagement on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

“We have work to do, we’re doing it, and it’s going to take a bit of time,” Rajiv Sicora wrote in his letter, which was recently obtained by Jewish Insider.

The letter lays out in further detail how some of Bowman’s public statements regarding Israel appear to have been at odds with his private thinking on Middle East policy.

It is a follow-up to a previous note, published a week earlier, in which Sicora had sought to reassure fellow DSA members that — despite some major differences on Middle East policy — Bowman remains committed to calibrating his approach to Israel to align with the far-left advocacy group.

“We’re making mistakes, and the risks of cooptation are real with any elected official, but we can work on these problems together,” Sicora wrote in his initial letter, which was also obtained by JI. 

In his follow-up, Sicora made a similar plea, even as he continued to fault the DSA for not having sufficiently engaged with Bowman on such issues during the freshman congressman’s first term. “A couple initial exchanges or attempts at outreach don’t constitute building a relationship,” Sicora said. “I am sure there’s stuff we could have done better here.”

“I absolutely agree that not funding the Israeli military, and demilitarizing across the board, should be as common sense as the other standard post-Bernie positions,” Sicora added, referring to Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT). “But it’s not only about the scorecard of positions. (And when it comes to the scorecard, I believe we will get to 100%). It’s also about how much, and in what manner, an elected [official] is willing to throw down to build power for socialism. That has to be weighted here as well.”

Bowman, a prominent Squad member and former Bronx principal, has frequently publicly clashed with the DSA over his approach to Israel. 

He has said he opposes the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement targeting Israel, which the DSA supports. And his vote in favor of supplemental funding for Israel’s Iron Dome missile-defense system — as well as a trip to Israel last year with J Street, the liberal advocacy group — drew fierce condemnation from DSA members, some of whom called for his expulsion.

In December, the DSA’s National Political Committee said it would not endorse Bowman’s current primary bid after having supported his successful campaign to unseat former Rep. Eliot Engel (D-NY) last cycle in New York’s 16th Congressional District.

“I maintain that Bowman had reasonable expectations about the possibility of differing from the org on Israel, and of working through such differences in a collaborative fashion,” Sicora wrote in his follow-up, “rather than under threat of an expulsion campaign that came out of nowhere.”

Sicora, who focuses on climate and energy policy — and who previously worked as a researcher for Naomi Klein, an author, progressive activist and associate professor of climate justice at The University of British Columbia — did not respond to a request for comment from JI. 

A spokesperson for Bowman’s office, also asked for comment, referred to a statement from Bowman that had been sent in response to the first letter, published by JI earlier this week.

“This staffer is speaking in their personal capacity and they do not handle foreign affairs,” Bowman told JI on Monday, referring to Sicora. “All foreign affairs are handled by the Chief of Staff.”

While Sicora had said in both letters that he was speaking in his “personal capacity” as a member of the DSA, he wrote in his follow-up that he was “very familiar with the details of all that went down” between Bowman’s office and the DSA following the Iron Dome vote and trip to Israel.

In his initial message, Sicora outlined a list of “demands” that DSA leadership had presented to Bowman in order to seek a rapprochement, including withdrawing his support for bipartisan legislation aimed at strengthening and expanding the Abraham Accords, which established diplomatic relations between Israel and a number of Arab nations.

Bowman announced in February that he was pulling his sponsorship of the bill and would vote against it in the House. He followed through on that promise the following month when he voted against one portion of an appropriations package that included the legislation.

In a press release at the time, Bowman acknowledged that there had been “elements of the defense spending section that, if voted on separately,” he “would have supported,” including Iron Dome funding.

Sicora, however, told DSA members in his original post that such language had been strategic. “I can assure you that the next time we have something like a standalone Iron Dome vote,” he said, “you will see Rep. Bowman vote no.”

Sicora defended the press release in his second letter.

“I certainly don’t think it’s cool, or just a necessary part of the game, to say different things to different audiences with any kind of regularity,” he wrote. “Nobody wants that. It should happen as infrequently as possible. What I said was, in sensitive cases where we’re going to change a previously established position, it’s important for my team to take some time to lay groundwork and communicate that shift on our own terms. The way we de-sponsored the normalization bill very clearly illustrates what I’m saying here. That was the first step.”

“To repeat what I said in the OP: the Iron Dome vote and Israel trip were worthy of condemnation and an organized response,” Sicora explained, referring to his original post.

Sicora also alluded to a “leaked campaign questionnaire” that Bowman had written when he was seeking the DSA’s endorsement in 2020. 

In the questionnaire, which was first reported by Mondoweiss in March, Bowman laid out his reasons for opposing the BDS movement. “As Congressman of NY-16, defending one strategy, namely BDS, will not advance our cause of liberating oppressed people from colonialism,” he wrote. “Our strategy should address the ground realities. If we proudly claim we are for all human rights, whether we are talking about the Bronx, Puerto Rico, Yemen, or Palestine, it is harder for the right to attack us successfully. We start from our moral position rather than getting bogged down defending a strategy.” 

“The underlying concern of the BDS movement are the rights of the Palestinian people,” Bowman added. “If we push for legislation that says we will not support countries or policies that violate individual rights, and call for an end to all aid to all countries, Zionists, Saudi supporters, and other supporters of human rights will have to argue against our criterion. As stated above this is my strategy specific for the district. It is a strategy with the same underlying goals that BDS pushes, but is specific to my position as Congressman.”

Sicora, who described himself as a supporter of BDS in the original letter, did not directly mention the movement in his follow-up, but suggested that Bowman would continue to meet the expectations of DSA members who are skeptical of the congressman’s approach to Israel.

“I am saying that you will continue to see us shift,” Sicora wrote in his response to DSA members. “I do understand if some people don’t believe me. Like I said, it’s part of my job to prove it. But it’s happening, we’re not manipulating anyone. Again, I don’t know that it’ll happen quickly or cleanly enough to earn anyone’s re-endorsement this time around, but it should be enough to earn a collective effort at deescalation.”

Read the full letter below. Some names have been redacted.

Hi comrades,

Huge thank you to everyone who engaged with my post respectfully. I also really appreciate that we’re keeping this internal to the forum, and ask you again to please not leak anything in this thread. I’m sorry I can’t do individualized responses to the many replies that warrant them. But I wanted to try to address some of the themes I noticed in the replies, again speaking only in my personal capacity. (Will probably be my last reply for a bit.)

First, let me say that I stand by everything in my original post – facts and emotions alike. I welcome that a range of people involved have been sharing their own perspectives as well. For what it’s worth, I am a senior staffer on our team and I’m very familiar with the details of all that went down. And it is important to know that, because of unworkable dynamics I described in the OP, certain key discussions happened only between my team and NPC members.

Negotiations like these are always complicated, but my OP sketched out the big picture and the decisive moments. On that note, I do want to acknowledge again that the lack of transparency has been a big part of the problem. I’m sorry that I can’t say even more here, but we’re working on figuring out how we can communicate with the broader membership about our plans.

Re: the leaked campaign questionnaire: yes, I was aware of it and don’t consider it a gotcha. To repeat what I said in the OP: the Iron Dome vote and Israel trip were worthy of condemnation and an organized response. I think people are very right to be angry. We have work to do, we’re doing it, and it’s going to take a bit of time. As someone who who comes out of the organized left – I’m quite a bit older than most House staffers, and I uprooted my life to move to DC (this is my first job in politics) to try to build power for a radical Green New Deal – I feel a personal responsibility to do everything I can here.

But we could use your help and comradeship.

I maintain that Bowman had reasonable expectations about the possibility of differing from the org on Israel, and of working through such differences in a collaborative fashion 6, rather than under threat of an expulsion campaign that came out of nowhere. (For which this seems like important context 20.)

A couple initial exchanges or attempts at outreach don’t constitute building a relationship. I am sure there’s stuff we could have done better here. But Congressional staff deal with an enormous amount of incoming, and you just have to take that into account. Even our closest partners need to fill out scheduling forms and sometimes ping us multiple times about things. In general, we talk to them constantly. I say this not to chastise or lecture anyone, but to offer based on my experience that if DSA wants to do serious organizing and establish relationships of accountability with socialist electeds at the federal level, and build on the lessons being learned in places like NYC, I think it’s crucial to set up the structures and capacities to get to know staffers (and for more of us to become staffers), and to be in touch frequently.

We also have to be able to actually offer things – to have electeds’ backs when they take risks. There are a few examples, like Bowman’s vote against the bipartisan infrastructure deal, where we did take big risks and experienced significant blowback, and DSA was nowhere to be found save for a tweet or two. That is also true of the McCollum bill conditioning aid to Israel, referenced in the leaked questionnaire (it has a different bill number this Congress), which Bowman did cosponsor early on. When I say blowback, I’m talking about constituents skillfully organizing against you, which can take up significant amounts of our time and energy. Since we’re committed to being responsive to all constituents (and that will be the case for any elected who wants to stay in office and do their job well), it can hinder our ability to advance the agenda he was elected on when criticism significantly outweighs support.

Re: the press release mentioning Iron Dome, and the observations about “double speak,” not standing up forthrightly for one’s principles, etc. Some very true and important things have been said here! It struck me that @ZachWeinstein – in a reply that I appreciated – said he didn’t find my argument about the press release compelling. But I wasn’t trying to make an argument. I was trying to convey the reality of what is happening. I certainly don’t think it’s cool, or just a necessary part of the game, to say different things to different audiences with any kind of regularity. Nobody wants that. It should happen as infrequently as possible. What I said was, in sensitive cases where we’re going to change a previously established position, it’s important for my team to take some time to lay groundwork and communicate that shift on our own terms. The way we de-sponsored the normalization bill very clearly illustrates what I’m saying here. That was the first step.

And just to be crystal clear: the Iron Dome funding that was included in the recent Appropriations bill was the exact same funding Bowman had previously voted yes on last year. It did not become law last year and required a second vote. So, whatever you think of the political wisdom of Iron Dome being mentioned in the press release, that press release was acknowledging his previous vote and did not say anything about the future. (Side note: Bernie has indeed supported Iron Dome, though he wisely leveraged it to fight for more aid to Palestine.)

The reference to “standalone” in my OP is important, it’s not evasive politician talk. Leadership is expert at bundling stuff in ways that put members in the bad position of having to vote yes – this is a problem for every member of the Squad, and it will likely be a problem even for the ideal cadre member in Congress. When it happens, we always try to push to get the bad de-linked from the good and essential. We could use more help from the outside.

Take a step back with me. How did Bowman actually vote recently – yes, or no? In what direction have you seen a public shift begin to happen, even if you think it’s very small? Does it make sense that we would go through all this trouble, when DSA does basically nothing for us and in the face of unrelenting attacks, if we were trying to trick the NPC?

I’m not asking for anyone’s appreciation and I don’t think we’re victims. I’m glad that the WG is being rechartered. But I’m worried about DSA. I am asking for people to think more about the health of the org; seek greater understanding about why strategic differences exist; ask questions that aren’t just thinly veiled attempts to score points; and help figure out how we can move beyond this instead of continuing to organize against each other. I am also asking for people to give our team a little space to keep moving in the right direction (which certainly doesn’t have to mean re-endorsing).

And I am saying that you will continue to see us shift. I do understand if some people don’t believe me. Like I said, it’s part of my job to prove it. But it’s happening, we’re not manipulating anyone. Again, I don’t know that it’ll happen quickly or cleanly enough to earn anyone’s re-endorsement this time around, but it should be enough to earn a collective effort at deescalation.

Finally, I wanted to comment on an interesting exchange between @jaschul and @maxbsawicky on a different thread, regarding DSA’s proper relationship to Bowman. I think both comrades made good points. I absolutely agree that not funding the Israeli military, and demilitarizing across the board, should be as common sense as the other standard post-Bernie positions. But it’s not only about the scorecard of positions. (And when it comes to the scorecard, I believe we will get to 100%). It’s also about how much, and in what manner, an elected is willing to throw down to build power for socialism. That has to be weighted here as well.

It would be wrong to conclude that because Bowman sometimes has a problem with red lines, he’s further to the right than other Squad members. He is motivated to pursue co-governance with social movements in ways that I think are pretty unique in Congress. What you saw on the PRO Act call 1 (linked in @MichaelBDC’s reply above) is really how he thinks. What can we do with that? Bowman has shown a willingness to not only make big demands, but put real weight behind them. Realizing this potential depends, in part, on DSA. We should engage him on our theories of change and the debates we’ve having about them. Because as I stated in the OP, he wants to simultaneously pursue all viable paths and use all viable tools that could lead to winning. This involves contradictions, but also creative possibilities. Especially if we can try to approach this as an ecosystem in which people have different roles to play, and make our plans accordingly.

There is a lot I agree with in arguments about the dangers of too much reformism. Obviously, I think socialists have to engage in some degree of reformism to stop climate catastrophe. But here’s the more important point for this discussion: socialists can benefit from our association with the Squad right now, do a variety of other things outside the electoral sphere, and build power outside of the Democratic party – under current conditions, all at once. There will be trade offs for sure, but let’s not constantly default to pitting each thing against everything else. Let’s figure out how to organize without hurting the efforts of other comrades, recognize when destructive proxy conflicts are happening, and disentangle the various organizational and strategic issues that need to be dealt with separately.

Good things are possible if we stay united. Even in Congress.

In solidarity,
Raj