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Jewish groups race to support Engel as AOC-backed challenger surges

Pro-Israel groups worried that Israel could lose an important ally have stepped up their support for New York Rep. Eliot Engel, but the national debate about race, as well as Engel’s unforced errors, put him in a weak position going into his primary on Tuesday.

The election in Engel’s 16th Congressional District, which contains parts of the Bronx and southern Westchester County, is expected to be closer than it’s been since Engel first was elected in 1988. A poll released on Wednesday found his opponent Jamal Bowman 10 points ahead, but Engel claims that his own internal polling shows him in the lead.

“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,” Harry Feder, the former president of the Riverdale Jewish Center, told Jewish Insider.

As chair of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, Engel has earned plaudits and donations from Jewish activists for his support of Israel. Israel is not an important issue in the race, which limits those allies’ ability to help him, but they are doing what they can lest a supporter of Israel be replaced with a critic. Bowman supports putting conditions on American military aid to the Jewish state.

The Jewish Democratic Council of America, for example, is assisting the Engel campaign with phone and text banking, Democratic Majority for Israel is running ads attacking Bowman for unpaid taxes and Pro-Israel America sent out a fundraising email with the subject line “Eliot Engel in Serious Danger of Losing Primary.”

Engel’s ouster would add one more person to the small caucus of progressive Democrats who support putting conditions on aid to Israel. But it would likely not affect the workings of the Foreign Affairs Committee – its vice-chair, Rep. Brad Sherman of California, is also Jewish and a supporter of close U.S.-Israel ties.

Bowman, an African-American middle school principal, is one of several New York City progressives taking on long-tenured incumbents in Tuesday’s primary, inspired by Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s shock primary victory in 2018 over incumbent Rep. Joe Crowley, then the #4 Democrat in the House, in the 14th District.

Like the neighboring 14th district when Ocasio-Cortez won, the 16th district is “majority-minority” – only 46% of residents identify as white, according to the Census Bureau – but Engel, a white man, has represented it in the House for decades. A 2014 study estimated that the district is 12% Jewish.

Bowman has sought to portray Engel as out of touch with his district — making much of the fact that the incumbent rode out the first few months of the coronavirus pandemic from his home in suburban Maryland while claiming he had been in his district.

“It’s one thing to socially distance and not remain in the district,” Bowman told the Associated Press. “It’s another thing to say you are going to be in the district handing out groceries and you’re actually in your home in Maryland. It’s disingenuous. It’s not true. And it takes voters for granted.”

After journalists started reporting on this discrepancy, Engel began saying that his duties in Washington meant that it made more sense for him to stay in the D.C. area.

Bowman has also portrayed Engel as insufficiently progressive, highlighting the incumbent’s vote for the 1994 crime bill and the congressional authorization for the Iraq War. Bowman has been endorsed by Sens. Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren, as well as Ocasio-Cortez.

Engel has defended his progressive bona fides by trumpeting his support for the Green New Deal and Medicare for All, and in the past few days, he’s rolled out endorsements from Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo and former Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton.

The congressman was also harshly criticized earlier this month when he was caught on tape asking Bronx borough president Ruben Diaz Jr. to let him speak at a press conference on local vandalism, repeatedly saying, “If I didn’t have a primary, I wouldn’t care.” The clip was viewed more than 700,000 times in less than a day, Politico reported.

Yet experts say any outcome is possible on Tuesday. John Mollenkopf, a political scientist at the City University of New York Graduate Center, told the AP that Engel’s incumbency gives him advantages, but the criticism that he’d grown aloof from the district could hurt him.

Ocasio-Cortez herself was asked by The Washington Post on Wednesday how important a Bowman victory would be for the political left.

“I always caution against any one race being a bellwether for anything else,” she said. Then she laughed. “I say that as a person who ran and won and everyone said THIS IS A BELLWETHER!”

Aiden Pink is the deputy news editor of the Forward. Contact him at [email protected] or follow him on Twitter @aidenpink

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