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A moment of reckoning for Jewish voters: Eliot Engel or Jamaal Bowman

For many of us who grew up as part of the post-World War II American Jewish generation, a commitment to the concerns of the underprivileged was part of our self-definition as Jews. We took great pride in our involvement in the anti-war movement, the civil rights movement, and the war on poverty. Figures like Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, Andrew Goodman, Michael Schwerner and Heather Booth became role models as those who put their ideals of social justice into action.

The ethos of that period reinforced the links between the American Jewish community, Black Americans, and the Democratic Party which exist to this day. The coalition dating back to FDR based on concern for ethnic and racial minorities, the impoverished, the under-educated, and the under-paid, remains a central tenet of the American Jewish experience.

And yet, in recent times, the ties between the mainstream Jewish community and the other constituencies of this coalition have become frayed, largely due to a historical evolution regarding race in this nation, as well as a general frustration with the lack of progress in solving our society’s most intractable problems, like poverty and discrimination. We are witnessing that frustration in the streets today, as each of us reflects on our acceptance of a norm that is toxic to so many.

Many in our community are thinking, “What can I do to help make sure that black lives matter?” and “How can I act so as to be true to the ideals of my youth and those I have tried to teach my children?”

Jewish voters in New York’s 16th Congressional District have an unusual opportunity to answer this question when they vote in the Democratic primary next Tuesday. Eliot Engel, who has been called “the best friend to U.S.-Israel relations and Israel,” is seeking reelection after 31 years in office. He is being challenged by Jamaal Bowman, who has a Ph.D. in education and has been a middle school principal and public school advocate for twenty years.

The race presents a stark challenge to Jewish voters who wish to think of themselves as forces for a better tomorrow.

In making his case, Mr. Engel has offered little more than his seniority in Congress and his chairmanship of the House Foreign Affairs Committee. His top talking points are that his seniority has enabled him to “bring home the ‘bacon’” and that the Center for Effective Lawmaking has named him one of the ten most effective lawmakers.

This Center was founded in 2017 by, and primarily consists of, two academics who have focused on the legislative virtues of breaking deadlock, perseverance, and compromise. The Engel campaign has presented little to exhibit legislative leadership or accomplishment after 16 terms, and little attention to concerns other than Israel, which is probably not a priority issue to the 88% of the constituents of his district who are non-Jews.

Mr. Bowman, in contrast to Mr. Engel, has experienced first-hand the plight of black males in dealing with police, having himself been physically detained while driving his own car for no justifiable reason. He is running on a broad platform of responsiveness to the needs of his community, supporting initiatives for educational, economic, and social advancement for those who are disadvantaged by our current cultural, economic, and political structures.

Most importantly, when Bowman says “I was tired of children suffering and no one doing anything about it. It’s about neglect from our federal government,” he speaks for the broader community with a clarity and vision our country so needs at this moment.

Hence, this primary election provides a stark challenge to the Jewish voter. The most compelling argument for Mr. Engel appears to be his unquestioning support of Israel. But Mr. Bowman is no supporter of BDS; he supports a two-state solution on the basis of a negotiated peace agreement, while expressing sympathy with the national aspirations of the Palestinian people. It’s a position in line with most Jewish-American supporters of Israel like myself; no fair-minded observer could label him anti-Israel.

This congressional race is thus emblematic of a far larger challenge that confronts the American Jewish community today in light of the Black Lives Matter and social protest movements that are currently sweeping across America: Statistics demonstrate that the United States has the greatest economic inequality of any Western nation; the ongoing legacy of racism that mars our country’s history has been exposed by the pandemic and so many other recent events of violence against persons of color.

In this somber context, Jamaal Bowman’s candidacy asks our community to return to its formerly broad-based concerns, and demands that we recognize how urgent it is to address and repair the social, economic, and racial suffering in our nation.

As this election pits a sixteen-term white Jewish incumbent offering more of the same against a younger Black voice offering a response to this moment in America, Jewish voters should express their aspirations for a better future.

Peter Joseph is a longtime resident of Riverdale and a New York area community leader.

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