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Criticism of Israel and AIPAC features in rally for Jamaal Bowman with AOC and Bernie Sanders

The crowd included a contingent of several dozen people from “Jews For Jamaal,” a group organized by a coalition of Jewish progressive organizations

(New York Jewish Week) — The Israel-Hamas war took center stage at a rally in the Bronx for embattled Rep. Jamaal Bowman, as speakers called for a ceasefire in Gaza and lashed AIPAC’s spending for Bowman’s centrist opponent, George Latimer.

The rally — which featured fellow progressives Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders — drew a counterprotest from Within Our Lifetime, the hardline pro-Palestinian group that objects to Bowman’s endorsement of President Joe Biden. A contingent of Bowman’s Jewish supporters were among the hundreds who gathered at the rally.

“My opponent supports genocide,” Bowman told the crowd. “My opponent and AIPAC are the ones destroying our democracy and it is on us, it is on all of us, to save our democracy.”

Ocasio-Cortez said the “establishment” was targeting Bowman because he “dared to speak up for Palestinians” and “Because he dared to join us and become one of the first members of Congress to call for a ceasefire.”

The rally in the sweltering heat was part of a last-ditch effort by Bowman to keep his seat in what has become one of the country’s most-watched primary races. Bowman is behind in the polls against Latimer in the overwhelmingly blue district, and the race is seen as a bellwether in the national debate between the progressive and centrist wings of the Democratic party, which are split over the Israel-Hamas war.

Latimer, the Westchester County executive, has staked out a staunchly pro-Israel position, while Bowman, a member of the progressive “Squad” in Congress, has been a vocal critic of Israel’s conduct in the war. His early call for a ceasefire drew criticism from Jewish groups because it did not mention Hamas or hostages in Gaza. He has repeatedly accused Israel of “genocide.”

Along with grassroots support from the many Jews in the district who oppose Bowman’s rhetoric on Israel, the American Israel Public Affairs Committee has spent millions to defeat him, an effort he and his surrogates have decried as meddling by moneyed interests in the election.

The leading progressives who have rallied around Bowman’s campaign sought to drive home that message at Saturday’s event, which notably did not take place in Bowman’s district. Along with free bottles of water and ice cream, organizers passed out signs saying “For the many, not the money,” a slogan of Bowman’s campaign.

“Jamaal also understands that what’s going on in Gaza today is totally unacceptable,” Sanders, who is Jewish, said at the rally. “Israel had the right to defend itself against the terrorist attack but it does not have the right to go to war against the entire Palestinian people.”

He added, “Never before in history have powerful special interest groups spent so much money trying to defeat a candidate.”

The crowd included a contingent of several dozen people from “Jews For Jamaal,” a group organized by a coalition of Jewish progressive organizations, most of which have harshly criticized Israel. One Jewish Bowman supporter, Jon Mermelstein, grew up in an affluent neighborhood in Scarsdale, north of New York City, and lives in Bowman’s district, but teaches in an impoverished part of West Harlem. He said that economic dichotomy has motivated him to support Bowman.

“I’m someone who sees both sides of our unequal status quo,” said Mermelstein, a 30-year-old activist with the progressive group Jews for Racial and Economic Justice. “Jamaal Bowman’s the first politician in my lifetime that represents Westchester who can honestly and insightfully speak to this dynamic.”

Jews who support Bowman said the war was one of many issues that drew them to him.

“I’m definitely on the more Palestine-sympathetic side of things but my focus is far more domestic,” said Mermelstein, citing Bowman’s support for taxing the wealthy, universal health care and affordable housing.

Zoe Goldblum, 28, who lives outside the district in Brooklyn, said she came out to support Bowman because of his positions on health care, environmental policy and his push for a ceasefire in Gaza.

“Jamaal Bowman is one of the few brave voices in Congress that we have who is standing up for Palestinian rights,” said Goldblum, an activist with the progressive Jewish group IfNotNow, which like JFREJ and Bowman has accused Israel of genocide.

“We need more people to be brave and speak up in spite of the enormous pressures that people like Jamaal Bowman are facing,” Goldblum said.

Along with IfNotNow and JFREJ, the Jewish coalition supporting Bowman included Bend the Arc and the anti-Zionist Jewish Voice for Peace. The coalition has been making phone calls and canvassing neighborhoods in support of the campaign most weekends since April, said Eva Borgwardt, a spokesperson for IfNotNow. (There’s also a Jewish get-out-the-vote drive whose volunteers oppose Bowman,)

“People are coming from all different perspectives so some people are really here because they support a ceasefire and they are really frustrated that AIPAC is pouring in all this money,” Borgwardt said. “Also a lot of people are here because their top issues are the top issues of Jewish voters around the country like climate, abortion and gun control.”

The Jewish activists said they were also motivated to show support for Bowman to oppose the funding from AIPAC. Mermelstein said the district is ideologically diverse, but harsh rhetoric around the race had divided neighbors.

“One thing that’s made me sad about this race, I’ll say, is how divisive it’s been and I blame conservative forces and AIPAC for driving that wedge within my community,” he said.

Dozens of anti-Israel protesters led by Within Our Lifetime also staged a protest outside the event, holding banners that said “Long live the Palestinian resistance” and “Resist colonialism from the Bronx to Palestine.”

The group is protesting progressive lawmakers, Israel’s harshest critics in Congress, due to their support for President Joe Biden, who the activists accuse of committing “genocide” in Gaza. Some of those protesters defaced Ocasio-Cortez campaign signs, writing “Zionist” and “Funds Israeli war crimes” across an image of her face.

During her speech, chants of “Globalize the intifada” were faintly audible in the background, and an activist wearing a facemask passed out fliers from Within Our Lifetime that said, “AOC, Bernie, Bowman: Stand with Palestine! Drop your endorsement of Genocide Joe.”

“AOC, you can’t hide, you’re supporting genocide,” the protesters chanted.

The protesters were largely ignored by the crowd, and were kept separate from the audience at the end of the event by police.

After the event, despite the heat, the Jewish activists headed to District 16 to canvas neighborhoods in support of Bowman.

“We need to think boldly. We need to actually work towards our aspirational goals,” Mermelstein said.

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