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Jamaal Bowman’s anti-Israel posture fuels primary opposition back home

Westchester County executive George Latimer has been courted by Israel supporters to challenge the second-term congressman

Rep. Jamaal Bowman (D-NY) has long had a contentious relationship with Jewish community leaders in his district, many of whom have vocally objected to his increasingly hostile positions toward Israel.

The last few days, however, have contributed to a new level of frustration with the Bronx progressive, who is facing scrutiny from Jewish voters for opposing a House resolution rejecting claims that Israel is a racist state and subsequently boycotting Israeli President Isaac Herzog’s address to a joint session of Congress.

“The Jewish community is furious, and it comes from a long and recent chain of events,” Justin Brasch, the Democratic president of the White Plains Common Council, said in an interview with Jewish Insider on Thursday. “People text, email and call me every single day expressing frustration with Congressman Bowman.”

For months, Jewish activists and establishment Democrats in New York’s 16th Congressional District, which includes Westchester County and the Bronx and is home to a sizable Jewish community, have been looking to recruit a viable primary challenger to run against Bowman in 2024, when he will be seeking his third congressional term. 

“The recent vote and joint session issues have spiked interest in finding an opponent,” said one prominent Democratic leader in Westchester who has taken issue with Bowman’s approach to Israel. “There’s been a lot of consternation and disappointment.”

Now, one potential challenger has stepped forward to confirm he has been approached, even if he has yet to announce his plans. In an email to JI on Thursday, George Latimer, a Westchester County executive who served in the state legislature, said that “a number of individuals” have been urging him to oppose Bowman. The veteran Democrat stressed, however, that he has not “made a decision to seek the seat” and remains “fully focused” on his current job.

Jake Dilemani, a Democratic strategist who has worked on several of Latimer’s campaigns, said the county executive “would be the best candidate to run against Bowman” in the coming cycle, notwithstanding any uncertainties over a potential redistricting process that could reshape New York’s congressional lines before the primaries. “He’s an excellent retail campaigner and very popular with the Democratic primary electorate in Westchester,” which makes up most of the current district, Dilemani told JI. 

The bipartisan pro-Israel community seems to agree: AIPAC has met with Latimer in an effort to convince him to run, according to a source familiar with the outreach who was granted anonymity to discuss a confidential matter. (A spokesperson for AIPAC declined to comment.)

It would be noteworthy for AIPAC if its political action committee works to defeat Bowman, who assumed office in 2021 after unseating Rep. Eliot Engel (D-NY), a pro-Israel stalwart who chaired the House Foreign Affairs Committee and served in the House for more than 30 years. While Bowman, 47, has become one of the most outspoken critics of Israel in the House, AIPAC’s affiliated super PAC has — with just a handful of exceptions — typically chosen to engage in open-seat races rather than opposing relatively safe incumbents.

Last cycle, AIPAC’s PAC decided to stay on the sidelines as Bowman handily defeated two moderate Democratic challengers who had drawn support from local Jewish activists. The pro-Israel lobbying group had conducted polling in the district and correctly concluded that Bowman would win the nomination unless one of his opponents dropped out of the race. Neither was willing to do that. 

“The reality is that at present no credible candidate has stepped up to take on Bowman,” said a Jewish activist who opposed Bowman last cycle.

In the next primary, local activists who are currently involved in recruitment efforts are eager to avoid another split field that some believe stymied their chances of defeating Bowman. Bowman won the 2022 primary with 54% of the vote, hardly a commanding total for an incumbent lawmaker.

But even if Latimer could dissuade other challengers from entering the race, some organizers expressed skepticism that he will ultimately have the appetite for what could be a messy primary battle. “After a career in public service, he may well demur,” said a Jewish activist who opposed Bowman last cycle. “The reality is that at present no credible candidate has stepped up to take on Bowman.”

For their part, the two pro-Israel Democrats who opposed Bowman in 2022 told JI on Thursday that they had no plans to run again. “I will not be running for Congress or any other office at this time,” said Vedat Gashi, who was recently elected chairman of the Westchester County Board of Legislators and no longer lives in the district. Meanwhile, Catherine Parker, who previously ran for Congress in a neighboring district, confirmed she is “not contemplating running” but is “willing to work with others to try to” unseat Bowman.

Michael Gerald, a pastor and corrections official in Westchester who briefly entered the race last cycle, has engaged in conversations about another challenge, according to a Democratic source familiar with the matter. In a text message to JI on Thursday, Gerald said he would “refrain from making any statement on the 2024 race,” even as he took a swipe at Bowman that suggested a potential bid. “I really hoped that the congressman would have hit his stride and become more responsive to the district’s needs.”

Bowman would be difficult to beat in 2024, particularly as New York Democrats are now moving forward with a court challenge to redraw the state’s congressional maps, leaving potential challengers guessing what the future lines will be. Based on prior iterations of the maps, however, one local Democratic leader speculated that Bowman’s district would probably remain largely intact and that any possible changes — including the relocation of such communities as White Plains and Scarsdale to a neighboring district — would be unlikely to “hurt him at all.”

While Bowman only raised $260,000 last quarter and had $121,000 on hand, the former Bronx principal is among the prominent progressives in the House and has previously drawn endorsements from Democratic leadership.

But his positioning on Israel has only strengthened the resolve of pro-Israel Democrats and members of the organized Jewish community who are hopeful that Bowman could be vulnerable — if the right challenger emerges

Earlier in his congressional tenure, Bowman had enjoyed warmer relations with Jewish community leaders in his district. He engaged in ongoing dialogue about Middle East policy with a group of local rabbis, who were encouraged by his opposition to the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement against Israel, his vote to provide supplemental funding for Israel’s Iron missile-defense system and a trip to Israel he took with J Street during his first year in Congress.

The trip and the vote, however, drew intense backlash from the Democratic Socialists of America, which backs BDS. The group, which supported his first House campaign, subsequently announced it would not endorse his reelection bid.

“Congressman Bowman’s recent boycott of President Herzog and his ‘no’ vote on the recent congressional bill supporting Israel and condemning antisemitism did not occur in a vacuum,” said Bill Schrag, the president of the Westchester Jewish Council, who supported Gashi last cycle. “This is not the first time Congressman Bowman has disappointed us.”

Since then, Bowman has become increasingly outspoken against pro-Israel legislation. In February 2022, for instance, he withdrew his support for bipartisan legislation aimed at strengthening and expanding the Abraham Accords, which he had previously co-sponsored. Months later, he signed on to a resolution calling for the U.S. to formally recognize the “Nakba” — the Arabic term denoting the mass Palestinian exodus in 1948, the same year as the founding of Israel — and endorsing the Palestinian right of return to Israel.

More recently, Bowman voted against a resolution commemorating the 75th anniversary of Israel’s founding and opposed further legislation to bolster the Abraham Accords.

“Congressman Bowman’s recent boycott of President Herzog and his ‘no’ vote on the recent congressional bill supporting Israel and condemning antisemitism did not occur in a vacuum,” said Bill Schrag, the president of the Westchester Jewish Council, who supported Gashi last cycle. “This is not the first time Congressman Bowman has disappointed us.”

Emma Simon, a spokesperson for Bowman, wouldn’t comment on the congressman’s relationship with Jewish voters. Instead, she shared recent statements in which Bowman sought to clarify his approach to the boycott as well as the resolution, which was led by Republicans in response to comments from Rep. Pramila Jayapal (D-WA), who called Israel a “racist state” during an appearance last weekend at a progressive conference in Chicago.

“My decision to not attend in no way stems from a lack of support for the existence of the State of Israel,” Bowman emphasized in a statement shared on Monday. “On the contrary, it is out of concern that there is no sense of urgency about ensuring the safety and security of all Israelis and Palestinians in the region and finally achieving a two-state solution.”

“There is no place for antisemitism or any form of hate,” Bowman said in a tweet on Tuesday defending his vote. “Today’s vote was not about peace or anti-hate. It was a bad faith attempt by Republicans to shame a Democratic leader and silence human rights and civic orgs globally. I refuse to play into their idiotic game.”

With regard to the boycott of Herzog, whom he had met in Israel, Bowman said his decision was motivated by a perception that the Israeli president has “remained silent” as Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s far-right governing coalition has “expanded settlements” while pursuing other extreme measures.  

“My decision to not attend in no way stems from a lack of support for the existence of the State of Israel,” he emphasized in a statement shared on Monday. “On the contrary, it is out of concern that there is no sense of urgency about ensuring the safety and security of all Israelis and Palestinians in the region and finally achieving a two-state solution.”

Brasch, the White Plains councilman, said he has a “working relationship” with Bowman and recently exchanged “many texts” with the congressman in an effort to explain the Jewish community’s concerns about his approach to Israel. “He says he wants to build nice relations,” Brash told JI. “But he feels there’s too much talk of helping the Palestinians but no action.”

“I honestly don’t understand his position,” Brasch, who is the only Orthodox Jewish elected official in Westchester, said of Bowman’s recent votes, citing his opposition to recognizing Israel’s 75th anniversary as a particular source of confusion. “He responded that it didn’t address the Palestinian issue at all.”

Micah Sifry, a local writer and Democratic organizer who helped create a group called “Jews for Jamaal” last cycle, said he believes that Bowman “is doing a solid job amid difficult circumstances.” When the congressman “speaks out against the occupation and on behalf of Palestinian rights,” he said in an email to JI on Thursday, “it offends the Jewish establishment but it also earns him support from more progressive Jews.”

“There’s no doubt that this constant approach of Congressman Bowman’s that’s against Israel has had a tremendous impact on the community,” Brasch said. “Many people are actively looking for a strong candidate to oppose him.”

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