Jamaal Bowman, a first-term congressman from New York, boasts nearly impeccable progressive credentials.
He is closely aligned with “The Squad,” the five congresswomen known for their far-left views. He’s a member of the Democratic Socialists of America. And he ousted a centrist veteran last year — Eliot Engel, the former chair of the House Foreign Relations Committee.
But Bowman diverges from his Squad colleagues on Israel, rejecting the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement, and last week did what some on the far left consider unforgivable: he joined a congressional trip to Israel.
On Friday, he is meeting with the Democratic Socialists of America’s national political committee to respond to the group’s public rebuke of him over the trip. The committee, in a statement, said it is treating the trip “as its highest priority right now.”
Critics and supporters know that Bowman is walking a tightrope on Israel — trying to hold to a position that doesn’t sit right with either his BDS-supporting or pro-Israel allies.
His trips to the region and votes on Iron Dome funding and other Israel-related bills are likely to continue to come under greater scrutiny than they do for most members of Congress. In the meantime, Bowman, whose district spans parts part of Southern Westchester County and the Bronx — including a large Jewish population in the Riverdale section of the borough — is trying to defend an approach to Israel more nuanced than many appreciate.
A week in Israel
The trip Bowman and several of his Democratic colleagues took last week was sponsored by the pro-peace lobbying group J Street. It included meetings with Israeli Prime Minister Naftali Bennett and Foreign Minister Yair Lapid, and a tour of the city of Hebron in the Israeli-occupied West Bank.
“The occupation must end,” Bowman tweeted, in one of his only public comments on the trip, after meeting a group of Palestinian children. The delegation also tried to visit Gaza but were denied entry.
Bowman’s participation sparked outrage within the DSA.
On Tuesday, its national political committee said in a statement that it received letters about the trip from chapters and members, wanted to meet with the congressman and is treating Bowman’s trip as its “highest priority.”
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Bowman had already drawn the ire of others in the DSA. Last month, members of the movement’s chapter in Madison, Wisconsin called for his expulsion from the national group over his recent vote in favor of helping Israel replenish its Iron Dome missile defense system after its war with Hamas in May.
Several local chapters joined the call for Bowman to be expelled following last week’s trip. And the DSA in Portland recommended that the movement consider censuring Bowman or commit to not endorsing him in the next election.
Mark Mellman, president and CEO of the Democratic Majority for Israel, whose political action committee spent close to $2 million against Bowman in 2002, criticized the DSA for embracing “the very Stalinist antisemitism the organization used to combat.”
Another person familiar with the trip said the DSA was acting as if it did not know Bowman was going to Israel or that he was trying to hide it. “They were not caught by surprise,” the person said, speaking openly only on condition of anonymity, and adding that Bowman met with Jewish groups and rabbis from the left to the center-right and national Palestinian groups before he traveled to the region.
The socialist movement is firm in its solidarity with the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement and opposition to Israel. Last year, the DSA NYC chapter required 2021 candidates who sought their endorsement to pledge not to travel to Israel on an educational trip if elected. It later clarified that its pledge referred specifically to annual trips sponsored by the Jewish Community Relations Council.
Whose side is he on?
Bowman, 45, who was a middle school principal in the Bronx before he ran for office, has been consistent in his position that protecting Israeli lives does not conflict with his support for Palestinian rights.
“I do not support the BDS movement,” he said in May. “I do not support the eradication of Israel. Israel has the right to exist, it has a right to its homeland, it has a right to self determination.”
Bowman has met multiple times with Jewish groups in his district.
But he has also been taken to task for criticizing Israel. Earlier this year, for example, he blasted Israel for not offering to distribute coronavirus vaccines to Palestinians living in the West Bank and Gaza, a statement he later retracted.
He has also inflamed Israel supporters as one of 18 Democratic House members to co-sponsor a bill that prohibits Israel from using U.S. aid to detain Palestinian children by Israeli security forces in the Palestinian territories and for unilateral annexation of parts of the West Bank. And last month, he opposed the House leadership’s inclusion of additional funding for the Iron Dome in the stopgap spending bill. He then voted in favor of the funding in a stand-alone bill.
In a recent interview on the Mehdi Hasan Show on MSNBC, Bowman defended his support for Iron Dome funding, saying it is important to many of his constituents.
“Voting in favor of the Iron Dome defense system is not going stop me from speaking out about Palestinian rights, and for Palestinian rights, and for Palestinian humanity,” he said. “There’s inhumane treatment happening towards the Palestinians. That is a fact and that is something that we have to deal with in order to ensure the self-determination of Palestinians, and the safety and security of the people of Israel going forward.”
A political price?
Bowman’s tack on Israel may not hurt him politically, say some who know his constituency.
The area he represents in the Bronx is “not a DSA district,” said Stu Loeser, a political consultant and a resident of Riverdale. He noted that DSA and far-left candidates lost in New York City Council races this year despite having three center-left candidates dividing the vote.
“And while AIPAC can fill the largest shul in the neighborhood on a Shabbat afternoon for a talk with Congressman Richie Torres — as they did recently — most Democratic primary voters in Riverdale appreciate that [Bowman] went to the region to see things for himself and don’t care much if at all that he went with J-Street,” Loeser said, noting that J-Street’s position on Israel is to the left of some of Bowman’s constituents.
And the DSA is far from united in its opposition to Bowman’s Israel trip. A petition circulating among members is calling out those seeking to punish Bowman, despite their disagreement with some of his positions on Israel.
“Expelling Bowman could send a strong signal about our position on BDS, but it will not provide any material aid to the Palestinian cause,” the letter reads.
“Left anti-Zionist organizations in the U.S. and Palestine have not asked DSA to sever our relationship with Bowman, and many are continuing to work with Congressman Bowman to move him towards a more just position,” the petition continues. “Members should understand that this action would not necessarily be embraced by those leading the work as productive or strategic.”
But others warn that Bowman’s middle-of-the-road approach to Israel will cost him.
Jessica Haller, a former council candidate, said Bowman is trying to please everyone on Israel, and winds up contradicting himself.
“He is walking down the middle and it is both getting hotter and colder,” she said. “He is saying we need the Iron Dome, and yet in the same breath, he is clearly aligning himself with the Squad.”
Bowman said earlier this year that he’s engaged with “the robust and diverse Jewish community within the district” about his actions. But Haller questioned whether those meetings are satisfying anyone.
“He is walking straight into the fire” and has frustrated even Jewish progressives who voted for him, she said.
This post was updated
Bowman meets with DSA to defend his recent Israel trip