Eleventh hour

Bowman receives chilly reception from Jewish constituents at tense meeting

The congressman is facing the likelihood of a serious primary threat from Westchester County executive George Latimer

Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

Rep. Jamaal Bowman (D-NY) joins fellow House Democrats for a news conference to announce a bicameral resolution recognizing Banned Books Week outside the U.S. Capitol on September 27, 2023 in Washington, DC.

Rep. Jamaal Bowman’s (D-NY) last-minute effort to meet with Jewish constituents amid growing concerns over his approach to the Israel-Hamas conflict — not to mention a looming primary threat — got off to a rocky start on Monday morning.

Confronted by protestors outside Calvary Baptist Church in Westchester County, where the meeting had been scheduled to take place, the congressman was forced to abruptly relocate to a nearby district office after the head pastor, Erwin Lee Trollinger Jr., withdrew his sponsorship of the discussion.

Before leaving, Bowman spent a few minutes speaking with protestors, engaging in a tense exchange with a group of pro-Israel critics who questioned his calls for a cease-fire and his decision to boycott Israeli President Isaac Herzog’s address to a joint session of Congress this summer.

“Never say, ever, that I’m OK with the killing of Jews,” Bowman told demonstrators, his voice raised in frustration, according to an exchange caught on video by a local reporter. “This is insane.”

The meeting, dubbed “Healing Breakfast: Fighting Antisemitism and Hate,” was ultimately held at Bowman’s office in White Plains, where about 50 people, including some protestors, “sat in a big circle in a large conference room,” according to one participant who asked to remain anonymous to discuss a sensitive issue. 

“Everyone was polite to each other and to him,” the attendee told Jewish Insider after the event had concluded on Monday afternoon. “People definitely said things that were critical, or that contradicted what other people said, but everyone stayed calm and kept listening.”

Bowman’s office did not respond to requests for comment from JI on Monday.

“If there was one big takeaway,” the attendee said, “it was that many Jews in Westchester feel unsafe and want him to do more to help make them feel safe, and he said he heard that and would roll up his sleeves to do the work.”

The meeting, invitations to which were distributed on Friday, was originally scheduled to be held at Bowman’s district office in White Plains but was relocated to the local church to accommodate an influx of participants who had signed up to join. 

It was moved back to Bowman’s office when the pastor canceled on Monday, reportedly out of concern that the event would anger pro-Israel congregants. The church did not respond to a request for comment from JI on Monday.

A source familiar with the meeting, who asked to remain anonymous to protect his privacy, told JI that several attendees who had hoped to attend the meeting were unable to join because there was not enough space in Bowman’s office.

But some constituents had decided to skip the meeting altogether, citing Bowman’s strained relationship with Jewish leaders in Westchester County, who in recent months have grown increasingly critical of the congressman’s record on Israel.

The discussion came as Bowman faces new attack ads run by a pro-Israel super PAC affiliated with AIPAC, which has been encouraging a potential challenger, Westchester County Executive George Latimer, to run in the primary. Latimer has said he will announce his plans for a campaign this month.

During the meeting, Bowman, a former middle school principal, distributed a draft letter that he plans to send to the Department of Education regarding “antisemitism and hate on campus,” the attendee said, but added that the group “didn’t spend any time focusing on” the document.

In the two-page letter, a copy of which was obtained by JI, Bowman requests that the Department of Education “provide additional guidance and support for K-12 schools and institutions of higher education in the context of the ongoing war in Israel Palestine” — after noting that “schools must strike a difficult balance in times of tense and hostile public discourse.”

“Further complicating the task at hand,” Bowman continues in the letter, “many people in positions of authority and power — including members of Congress — are currently responding to incidents in higher education and K-12 settings with punitive rhetoric, aimed particularly at students defending Palestinian rights and calling out human rights abuses, that raises the temperature and puts further pressure on school leaders.”

The letter follows Bowman’s vote last week against a House resolution condemning antisemitism and disavowing support for Hamas on college campuses — which further disappointed Jewish leaders in his district who are eager to see him unseated.

“His own constituents did not want him to oppose that,” said Justin Brasch, the Democratic president of the White Plains Common Council, who did not attend the meeting with Bowman. “When you’re not willing to fight antisemitism on campus, you really start to lose credibility with your constituents.”

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