What Would Jamaal Bowman’s Win Over Pro-Israel Eliot Engel Mean for Palestinian Rights?

Bowman’s ouster of Engel, an influential pro-Israel hawk, is on its own a game-changer. Whether Bowman will be a pro-Palestinian ally is less clear.

YONKERS, NY - JUNE 23: New York Democratic House candidate Jamaal Bowman greets supporters on June 23, 2020 in Yonkers, New York. Jamaal Bowman is running to unseat Representative Eliot Engel (D-NY) for the 16th congressional district. (Photo by Stephanie Keith/Getty Images)

New York Democratic House candidate Jamaal Bowman greets supporters on June 23, 2020, in Yonkers, N.Y.

Photo: Stephanie Keith/Getty Images

Jamaal Bowman’s declared victory over Rep. Eliot Engel this week marked an incontrovertible defeat for the Israel lobby, with which Engel has had a cozy relationship for several decades. But what is a clear loss for the Israel lobby isn’t an outright win for the Palestinian rights movement. Instead, the New York race’s contours offer a window into the limits of the movement’s influence on electoral politics, and how far American politics still has to shift for the movement to be able to shift the debate on Palestine forward in Washington.

For 31 years, Engel has embodied the Democrat Party establishment’s hawkish politics on Israel: staunchly opposed to any U.S. pressure on Israel over human rights abuses, nominally in favor of negotiations with Palestinians, and dismissive of suggestions that Israeli settlement building on Palestinian land is a core obstacle to those very same negotiations.

Pro-Israel groups, in turn, worked closely with Engel as he rose through the Democratic Party ranks and spent about $2 million to save the Bronx congressman during this election cycle, ramping up their support as Bowman’s challenge became an increasingly viable threat. As chair of the Foreign Affairs committee, Engel was in a position to shape House Democrats’ positions on the U.S.-Israel alliance, and that he will no longer be in that position is on its own a game-changer for Palestinian rights groups. 

“Representative Eliot Engel has been among the most hawkish of legislators when it comes to US policy toward Israel with very little to distinguish him from his Republican colleagues,” said Palestinian human rights lawyer Zaha Hassan. “With a Democratic Party that prioritizes promotion of democracy and human rights abroad and a base that is growing increasingly progressive, Engel, sitting as a gatekeeper on the House Foreign Affairs Committee, took positions in line with Israel’s extreme right-wing government.“

Hassan and other Palestinian rights advocates are hopeful that Engel’s exit from Congress will mean a more open debate on Israel on Capitol Hill, and the end of the days when AIPAC’s reputation as a political career maker or ender cowed politicians into following their right-wing line on Israel. What’s less clear is whether Bowman, a progressive educator, will become an ally to the movement.

The Palestinian rights movement has undoubtedly helped move Democratic public opinion away from unquestioned support for Israel. Groups that have a presence on Capitol Hill, like American Muslims for Palestine and Jewish Voice for Peace, have developed close relationships with a small group of progressive members of Congress. 

But running an electoral campaign is different than Capitol Hill lobbying, especially in a district that is 11 percent Jewish. The Bowman-Engel race’s debate on Israel was deeply constrained, in part because Bowman and his backers did not want to alienate the Jewish parts of the district, a community that ended up being important to his eventual apparent victory (absentee ballots are still being counted, but Engel is unlikely to overcome Bowman’s massive lead).

The campaign, then, was not a forum for questioning the basis of the U.S-Israel relationship or the U.S. pursuit of fruitless Israeli-Palestinian talks that saw Israel build settlements under the cover of engaging in peace talks

While Israel lobby groups attempted to paint Bowman as some kind of wild-eyed anti-Israel extremist, his rhetoric was moderate on the Jewish state, much closer to the rhetoric of J Street, the liberal Jewish pro-Israel group, than to any Palestinian group. As the campaign reached its closing days, an influential Riverdale rabbi, Avi Weiss, penned a letter to Bowman questioning his pro-Israel bonafides and criticizing his position that U.S. military aid should not be used to fund Israeli human rights abuses against Palestinians. Weiss also criticized Bowman for having an unclear position on the boycott Israel movement.

Bowman’s response in the Riverdale Times, a community newspaper, was telling. He criticized Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and compared the policing of Black people to the military occupation of Palestinians. 

Yet he also sidestepped his past statements on conditioning aid, instead emphasizing that he “support[s] continued U.S. aid to help Israel” confront “violence and terrorism from Hamas and other extremists.” 

Most notably, Bowman said, “I personally oppose the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions [BDS] movement,” while adding that he supports Americans’ constitutional right to boycott.

BDS, the Palestinian-led civil society movement that calls for boycotts, divestment, and sanctions on Israel over human rights abuses, is perhaps the central dividing line between the Palestinian rights movement and Bowman. For Palestinians and their allies in the U.S., supporting boycotts of Israel is a litmus test for whether a politician is listening to the people most affected by Israel’s policies: Palestinians themselves. 

Bowman is surely aware that Israel advocacy groups have turned BDS into something of a scarlet letter by equating support for boycotts to anti-Semitism. The only two members of Congress who openly support BDS, Reps. Rashida Tlaib and Ilhan Omar, have been mercilessly attacked because of it.

Given that, it’s unsurprising that Bowman does not support BDS. Still, there’s a difference between active opposition to the Palestinian-led movement and strategic silence. (Another leftist Engel challenger, Andom Ghebreghiorgis, did unequivocally support BDS, and did not limit his criticism to Netanyahu; instead he saw Netanyahu as the latest in a long line of Israeli leaders who pursued land grabs and territorial expansion. Ghebreghiorgis’s campaign did not take off in the same way Bowman’s did, and he endorsed Bowman in early June, helping consolidate the progressive vote.) 

To Palestinian rights advocates, Bowman’s opposition to BDS underscores just how privileged Israeli concerns remain in the Washington debate, and how much work remains to be done to change the frame from Israeli security to one of freedom for people who live under a repressive system that denies Palestinians human rights on the basis of their ethnicity.

Those groups are gearing up to push Bowman on the issue once he reaches Congress.

“Bowman does not come out of the Palestinian rights movement, nor was Israel/Palestine a key issue for him or this race, but he is starting from a values-driven understanding that all people should be treated equally,” Beth Miller, Jewish Voice for Peace’s government affairs manager, told me. “On the issues where we differ — such as support for the BDS movement as a social justice organizing tool — we’re ready and looking forward to what I’m sure will be many conversations with him as a sitting member of Congress.”

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