Communal leaders, pro-Israel groups seek to mobilize Jewish voters to save Engel

As embattled Rep. Eliot Engel (D-NY) fights for his political life, constituents and longtime supporters of the 16-term congressman are growing nervous about his chances in the Democratic primary in New York’s 16th district, where Engel will face a challenger who has been raking in endorsements — and donations — ahead of Tuesday’s vote.

Engel’s possible ouster by Jamaal Bowman, a 44-year-old Bronx middle school principal backed by Justice Democrats, has provoked angst in some parts of the district, where constituents see Engel as a friend and a staunch supporter of Israel. 

Stu Loeser, a political  consultant and resident of Riverdale, told JI that the primary race is — for the first time in years — a topic of conversation in the community. “People obviously aren’t seeing each other as much these days, but when we talk or run into each other, the primary almost always comes up,” said Loeser, who served as spokesperson for former New York City Mayor Mike Bloomberg. 

Over the last two weeks, Bowman has picked up national endorsements from Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT), Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-MA), Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-NY) and Rep. Ayanna Pressley (D-MA). A poll published Wednesday showed Bowman leading Engel by 10 points. 

Rabbi Avi Weiss, the founding rabbi of the Hebrew Institute of Riverdale, recently published an open letter to Bowman asking him to clarify his positions on Israel. Weiss told JI on Wednesday that he was “very disappointed” that Bowman hasn’t responded to the issues raised in the letter. 

“Amongst the issues… most important to us is the well-being of the State of Israel, one of America’s greatest allies,” Weiss explained. “Dr. Bowman’s Israel policy is too questionable for me to consider sending him to Congress.” 

Harry Feder, a prominent member of the Jewish community in Riverdale and a longtime friend of the congressman, told JI that community leaders are urging members to take the race seriously and vote. “I think it’s a matter of people coming out to vote and that they realize that this election is being looked at nationally,” said Feder, the former president of the Riverdale Jewish Center. “Engel is one of the strongest — if not the strongest —  member of the House in support of Israel, and to lose him as chairman of the Foreign Affairs Committee would be a horrible thing for the Jewish community.” 

On Wednesday evening, NORPAC, a nonpartisan political action committee that supports pro-Israel candidates, held a Zoom fundraiser for Engel with 120 Jewish leaders and activists signed on as co-chairs. 

Among them is Rabbi Menachem Genack, the CEO of the Orthodox Union’s kosher division, whose son lives in the district. “We are trying to mobilize people within this district, making sure that our community is aware of [the situation] and comes out to vote,” Genack told JI, pointing to the neighboring 14th congressional district where in 2018 the incumbent, former Rep. Joe Crowley, lost his primary to Ocasio-Cortez, then a relatively unknown challenger. “In a primary, small numbers make a big difference.”

A recent mailer sent out by the Engel campaign and obtained by Jewish Insider highlights Engel’s commitment to combat growing antisemitism and his strong defense of Israel. 

Halie Soifer, executive director of the Jewish Democratic Council of America, told JI that voters in the district “don’t understand or don’t appreciate” the effect of the seniority members of Congress like Engel have. “It’s really an extraordinary opportunity that New Yorkers have to be represented by a chairman of a committee like the chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee,” she said.

JDCA endorsed Engel for re-election and is now assisting his campaign with targeted digital ads, as well as phone and text banking, to reach as many Jewish voters as possible. Similarly, Democratic Majority for Israel is running TV ads, sending mailers and operating phone banks to boost Engel’s chance on Tuesday.

A local operative, who declined to be identified by name, told JI that Engel failed to learn from the Crowley episode, choosing to live most of the time in his Maryland home rather than be present in the district. Engel’s absence was a driving factor in Bowman’s rise, the operative noted, leaving Jewish constituents exasperated and concerned about losing a friend in Washington. 

Feder dismissed that notion, pointing out that he and Engel live in the same building in Riverdale. “He was chairman of a committee,” he explained. “Foreign affairs doesn’t stop because of a virus.” 

Jack Rosen, president of the American Jewish Congress, suggested that Engel’s challenge is part of an “instinctive drive” by the some in the progressive movement to oust pro-Israel lawmakers. “We have to understand there’s a showdown here,” he explained. “Why would any of the progressives not support someone with Eliot Engel’s record? They would agree on almost anything, with the exception of Israel. So why are they targeting him? The only differentiator is Israel.” 

Soifer and Feder expressed confidence that Engel will pull off a victory next week — if his supporters turn out. 

“I think he’ll be re-elected,” Soifer predicted. But if Bowman wins, she said her group will “seek to engage” with him and address the priorities of Jewish voters. “We have not said anything disparaging about Jamaal Bowman. We have noted that there’s a difference of views when it comes to Israel.”

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