In May 2018, Ivanka Trump celebrated the U.S. embassy opening in Jerusalem against the backdrop of Israeli troops gunning down 60 Palestinians in Gaza.
In some quarters of the Democratic Party, the killings were sharply condemned. Rep. John Yarmuth, D-Ky., called the shootings a “horrific slaughter” and added, “We are witnessing the use of unabated brutality and force against civilians to stifle civil unrest.”
Other Democrats, however, reacted much differently.
Among them was Rep. Eliot Engel, a 30-year member of Congress from New York. He applauded President Donald Trump’s move to break with decades of U.S. policy and effectively recognize full Israeli control of Jerusalem, a city whose Palestinian eastern half is under military occupation.
“This move is long overdue,” Engel said in a statement, “and I look forward to visiting.” He did not mention the scores of Palestinians slain by Israeli soldiers on the same day as the embassy opening.
The statement, in its praise for Israel and lack of concern for Palestinian human rights, was classic Engel rhetoric.
Engel, who chairs the House Foreign Affairs Committee, is one of the most pro-Israel hawks in the House of Representatives. His alignment with the right-wing on Israel is increasingly out of step with a Democratic base that is younger, more diverse, and more willing to call out Israel for its violations of international law. U.S. military aid to Israel is no longer being accepted without question. A Center for American Progress poll released this year found that 71 percent of Democrats support conditioning aid to Israel if the Jewish state continues to build illegal settlements on Palestinian land. A Data for Progress poll found something similar: Sixty-four percent of Democrats support reducing aid to Israel over human rights abuses.
“There are issues that divide the leadership of the party from the base, a lot of which is also generational. You see it on health care, you see it on climate, you see it on criminal justice, you see it on immigration,” said Waleed Shahid, communications director for Justice Democrats, a group that backs primary challengers to establishment Democrats, including a challenge to Engel. “Over the past two years, you’ve begun to see it on foreign policy, most specifically around Israel-Palestine.”
Now, heading into the 2020 election, Engel is one of three staunchly pro-Israel members of New York’s congressional delegation who may — or, in one case, will definitely — be replaced in 2021, creating an opportunity for pro-Palestinian advocates on Capitol Hill.
In New York’s 16th Congressional District, which stretches from the tony suburbs of Scarsdale to the busy streets of the Bronx, Engel is facing a spirited primary challenge from two insurgent Democrats, Andom Ghebreghiorgis and Jamaal Bowman, both of whom are critical of Israel’s human rights record and Engel’s positions on Israel.
“A Congress without the three of them would have a big impact ”
Jerry Nadler, chair of the House Judiciary Committee who represents the 10th District, is also facing a primary from the left by Lindsey Boylan, a former New York state economic official. Nita Lowey, chair of the House Appropriations Committee, meanwhile, announced her retirement from her 17th District seat in October, and Mondaire Jones is running on a progressive platform to replace her. New York Democrats go to the polls for primaries on June 23, 2020.
All three Jewish lawmakers have played key roles in building the Washington consensus on Israel, and Engel and Lowey, in particular, have been helped by millions of dollars in campaign contributions from pro-Israel lobby groups and the weapons industry. They rose to power in an age when Israel was seen principally as a post-Holocaust haven for Jews, an indispensable U.S. ally, and a democracy, and they represent districts with substantial populations of Jewish Americans who share those views. As a result, they have spent their long careers ensuring that Israel receives billions of dollars in U.S. military aid and criticizing efforts to hold Israel accountable for human rights abuses. Engel, Nadler, and Lowey’s offices did not respond to requests for comment for this article.
If the members lose their seats, Democratic leadership will likely appoint other pro-Israel Democrats as their replacements to head powerful committees like Foreign Affairs and Appropriations. Still, because of the influence Engel, Nadler, and Lowey wield on congressional Israel policy, their exit from Congress would give the Palestinian rights movement a bigger opportunity to press its agenda on Capitol Hill, particularly around conditioning U.S. military aid to Israel to ensure that aid does not get used by Israel’s military to commit human rights abuses, and to beat back attacks on Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions, or BDS, the nonviolent movement to pressure Israel to end its human rights violations against Palestinians.
“A Congress without the three of them would have a big impact,” said Beth Miller, government affairs manager for Jewish Voice for Peace Action, the electoral campaign arm of Palestine solidarity group Jewish Voice for Peace. “It would open opportunities to center human rights in the conversation, so when we’re talking about Israel and Palestine, we’re talking about human rights and justice, and not other concerns that those three insert to get away from talking about human rights.”
Engel is one of the Democratic Party’s most powerful foreign policy voices. First elected to Congress in 1988, he has served on the House Foreign Affairs Committee since 1994. In 2012, Engel became the ranking Democratic member of that committee, and this year, after the Democrats took control of the House, Engel became chair.
Though he has recently voiced support for progressive domestic policies — he signed on to the Green New Deal and joined the newly formed Medicare for All caucus — he has consistently advanced a right-wing agenda on Israel. He has long said he does not believe that Israel’s settlements, built on Palestinian land in violation of international law, pose an obstacle to peace. In 2014, as Israel’s army was in the middle of a punishing assault on Gaza that ultimately killed 500 children, Engel spoke at a New York rally boosting Israel’s operation. Pamela Geller, a vociferously anti-Muslim activist, spoke at the same rally. Earlier this year, he spoke at a Capitol Hill event sponsored by the Zionist Organization of America, a far-right group helmed by Mort Klein, who has come under fierce criticism for racist comments about black people and Arabs.
“Eliot is arguably the best friend to U.S.-Israel relations, and Israel, among the Democrats,” Klein told The Intercept.
“Eliot is arguably the best friend to U.S.-Israel relations, and Israel, among the Democrats.”
While Engel supports a two-state solution — a Palestinian state alongside Israel as a way to solve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict — in 1990, he authored legislation that would put Congress on record as endorsing Israeli control over all of Jerusalem. That precludes the possibility that Palestinians would use East Jerusalem as its capital, something that would be key to a viable Palestinian state.
In 2004, Engel led a group of congressional Democrats and Republicans in calling for a suspension of U.S. aid to UNRWA, the U.N. agency for Palestinian refugees, because the agency had acknowledged that Hamas members were on its payroll. Such aid cuts — which Trump enacted 15 years later — pose a serious threat to Palestinian access to health care and schooling, which UNRWA provides to some of the most impoverished Palestinians.
Among the 21 other Democratic signatories on that letter were two New York representatives who today have reputations as staunch liberals: Nita Lowey and Jerry Nadler.
Lowey and Engel have teamed up on other pro-Israel initiatives. In 2015, they co-sponsored, along with Republican Reps. Ed Royce and Peter Roskam, a resolution decrying the European Union’s efforts to accurately label Israeli products from the occupied West Bank as settlement products. Lowey also supported Trump’s embassy move.
“Their roles cannot be understated. They’re not only supportive of Israel, but in positions of power where that support can be translated into action,” said Halie Soifer, executive director of the Jewish Democratic Council of America.
Lowey’s impact has been felt most on the House Appropriations Committee, on which she has been the ranking Democrat since 2013, and became chair of this year.
Under her watch, the U.S. has appropriated billions of dollars in unconditional military aid to Israel, as well as hundreds of millions of dollars in security assistance for the Palestinian Authority, which has used the money to create a police state bent on crushing dissent and crack down on Palestinian armed action against Israel. When Lowey announced that she would retire in 2020, she got a personal shoutout from the Israeli prime minister’s office on Twitter: “On behalf of the State of Israel and the Jewish People,” Benjamin Netanyahu tweeted, “I would like to thank you for decades of dedicated public service and for your steadfast support for Israel.”
Like Engel, Lowey voted against President Barack Obama’s nuclear deal with Iran, siding with the GOP and Netanyahu against her own party leader’s signature foreign policy effort.
Nadler has taken a somewhat different tact on foreign policy than Engel and Lowey. While he’s a staunch proponent of the U.S.-Israel relationship, he broke from his New York colleagues by voting against the Iraq War — which Engel and Lowey supported — and for the Iran nuclear deal.
Still, Nadler has taken a hard line on efforts to condemn Israel for settlement building. In 2016, he condemned Obama’s decision to abstain from voting on a U.N. resolution decrying Israeli settlements as illegal under international law. And this year, he was a lead Democratic co-sponsor on a House resolution condemning BDS. That resolution, which falsely linked BDS to anti-Semitism, passed by a 398-17 margin.
“They look to both Lowey and Nadler as the guideposts.”
As Palestinian rights advocates try to push legislation on Capitol Hill, members of Congress often cite Nadler and Lowey as reasons they cannot sponsor a particular bill, said Brad Parker, senior adviser on policy and advocacy for Defense Children International-Palestine. He has spent the last six months advocating for members of Congress to sign on to Rep. Betty McCollum’s bill to prevent Israel from using U.S. military aid to detain Palestinian children.
“In our work, specifically, with the New York delegation, the response by most of the New York members of Congress and their staff is, ‘What’s Nadler think? If you bring on Nadler, we’ll get on the bill,’” Parker told The Intercept. “Lowey presents that obstacle as well. They look to both Lowey and Nadler as the guideposts.”
Even though many Democrats consider Engel too far to the right on Israel, he maintains influence because he chairs the Foreign Affairs Committee. Parker said that Democrats like Gerry Connolly, D-Va., who sits on the committee alongside Engel, would likely co-sponsor McCollum’s bill if Engel was not the chair. As committee chair, Engel controls who heads subcommittees and has influence over which bills the committee takes up. Connolly’s office did not respond to requests for comment from The Intercept.
Engel is a “formidable obstacle to anything that’s not the decades-old establishment line,” said Parker. “Engel has been very hostile, aggressive, and outspoken to demonize activism targeting Israeli policies.”
Engel is now facing the most credible challenge to his power since 2000, when state Sen. Larry Seabrook primaried him and garnered 42 percent of the vote. Since then, Engel has coasted back to Washington again and again, but a poll released in October by Data for Progress found that 60 percent of registered Democrats in the district were not sure who they’d vote for in the primary — a foreboding sign.
Jamaal Bowman, a Bronx middle school principal known for his education activism, is forcing Engel to take the 2020 race seriously. A day after the Data for Progress poll was published, Engel sent out a fundraising letter to supporters, calling his opponents “special interests” trying to “divide” the Democratic Party. Bowman has been endorsed by Justice Democrats and Brand New Congress, groups that made their names backing New York Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, along with the environmental group 350 Action, and former New York gubernatorial candidates Zephyr Teachout and Cynthia Nixon. He has raised $190,000 to Engel’s $566,000, mostly in small-dollar donations, and has rejected taking corporate PAC money.
Bowman’s path to victory will require turning out new voters in a district that had about a 10 percent turnout in the 2018 primary race.
Bowman’s path to victory will require turning out new voters in a district that had about a 10 percent turnout in the 2018 primary race. He plans to do outreach in minority communities — which make up over half of the district’s population — and peel off votes in some areas that could be considered Engel territory, like Riverdale, the affluent Bronx enclave with a large Jewish community. Voters in Riverdale were key to Alessandra Biaggi’s upset win over state Sen. Jeff Klein in 2018. Biaggi supporters successfully painted Klein, who caucused with the GOP in Albany as part of the Independent Democratic Conference, as someone who advanced a right-wing agenda — a message that Engel’s primary opponents are echoing in pointing out his support for military intervention in the Middle East and his coziness with Netanyahu.
Bowman is running on a message of progressive change, endorsing Medicare for All and the Green New Deal and telling voters that he will fight to end the crises of poverty and opioid addiction in his district. He says that while Engel has sat comfortable taking hundreds of thousands in campaign donations from weapons companies, his district has suffered.
Bowman has also set himself apart from Engel on the Mideast conflict. He supports imposing human rights conditions on U.S. military funding for Israel, echoing a policy position that Sen. Bernie Sanders has repeatedly amplified on the presidential trail, and making sure that the U.S. is enforcing the Leahy Law, which prohibits sending military aid to foreign security units that abuse human rights, on Israel. In an interview with Jacobin, Bowman indicated support for McCollum’s bill, saying, “I just don’t understand why American taxpayers are subsidizing the detention of Palestinian children while Democrats are criticizing child detention at the Mexican border.”
“Engel … [has] not [been] calling out Netanyahu with some of his policies as they move to the right and have been more destructive in that region. Engel hasn’t really held Netanyahu accountable,” Bowman told The Intercept.
Bowman also said he disagrees with Congress passing any legislation that would impose penalties on supporters of the BDS movement. Though he does not support BDS, he also considers it a form of free speech, he said.
Andom Ghebreghiorgis, Engel’s second progressive challenger, is an Eritrean American who goes even further than Bowman on Israel. Ghebreghiorgis, who has spent time in the occupied West Bank teaching English, is a supporter of the BDS movement and a former member of Yale’s chapter of Students for Justice in Palestine, the flagship pro-Palestinian campus group.
Ghebreghiorgis doesn’t see problems in Israel as reducible to Netanyahu. He told The Intercept that Israel’s policies of settlement building, expansion into Palestinian territory, and occupation are “something that has been part of Israel’s institutional fabric.” Ghebreghiorgis, however, has raised nearly $70,000 — $120,000 less than Bowman — and has not garnered big-name progressive support, though he has been endorsed by the group People for Bernie.
Lindsey Boylan, the former chief of staff for New York state’s economic development arm now gunning for Nadler’s seat, has staked out similar positions to Bowman as she runs in the congressional district with the most Jews in the country. In her first extensive remarks on Israel with a news outlet, Boylan told The Intercept that she supports imposing conditions on U.S. military aid to Israel, a policy Nadler called “wrong” in early November.
“As a good friend would, we have to be able to say, ‘You cannot use military aid against children, you cannot use military aid to further the cause of annexation in the West Bank.’ We have to be willing and open to those conversations,” Boylan said, before adding that Israeli policy toward Gaza, “known as an open-air prison,” is “never going to produce safety for everyday Israelis.”
Mondaire Jones, the former Obama administration lawyer whose pro-Green New Deal and Medicare for All positions have garnered the most progressive excitement in the district Lowey currently represents, has taken a far more cautious stance than the other insurgents challenging pro-Israel stalwarts. He told The Intercept that he did not get in the race to challenge Lowey’s foreign policy stances, has not studied Lowey’s record on Israel, and does not currently support imposing conditions on U.S. military aid to Israel. Asked by The Intercept about whether he believes there’s a human rights crisis in the occupied Palestinian territories, he did not give a straight answer and instead decried humanitarian conditions there. He also said he had no problem with the House condemning the BDS movement, calling the vote an exercise in free speech, much as advocating the boycotts of Israel is.
Still, Jones, who would make history as the first black and openly gay member of Congress, did stake out positions to the left of Lowey’s in an interview with The Intercept. He said he supported the Iran deal from the outset — Lowey opposed it and praised Netanyahu’s 2015 speech to Congress to torpedo Obama’s signature foreign policy achievement — and said no U.S. taxpayer dollars should be used by Israel in any future annexation of the occupied West Bank.
For pro-Israel advocates, the primary races and Lowey’s retirement are a troubling sign for the future of the Democratic Party, and pro-Israel lobby groups are now beginning to back their favored incumbents for next year’s primary race. Already this election cycle, NORPAC, one of the most well-funded Israel lobby groups in the country, has given Engel nearly $40,000, its largest donation to any House member.
“There’s limited history between the newcomers, the new people we’re sending to power, and Jews and the state of Israel,” said Hank Sheinkopf, a longtime Democratic consultant and pro-Israel advocate. “If you look at demographic shifts, everybody should be concerned. The loss of any of those three would be likely a tremendous loss for the pro-Israel community.”