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Eliot Engel’s loss is good for the Jews

Ballots are still being counted in the Bronx primary fight between longtime incumbent Rep. Eliot Engel and political newcomer and public school educator Jamaal Bowman. But as of this writing, Bowman is not just ahead; he’s ahead by a comfortable margin of more than 20 points, which is unlikely to be overturned by absentee ballots.

Bowman’s victory, reminiscent of Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s surprise victory over a longtime incumbent in 2018, represents another generational changing of the guard. A progressive upstart candidate vying to replace a moderate stalwart, Bowman inspired the passions of progressives not only in the Bronx-Westchester district but around the country. As a retired New York congressman observed last night, “the political landscape is fundamentally changing in the state as a new generation uproots the establishment. It’s a realignment based on demography, diversity and ideology.”

In a fitting twist of fate, the 34-year-old State Senator Alessandra Biaggi — the granddaughter of an incumbent Engel himself defeated in 1988 — played a critical role in Bowman’s win by withdrawing her initial endorsement of Engel and encouraging other local Democrats to back the challenger.

Engel’s loss will reverberate across a nation closely watching a protracted showdown between moderate and progressive Democrats. But it will also send shockwaves through the traditional pro-Israel power centers in the American Jewish community.

Engel was a walking embodiment of all the superlatives used to describe friends of Israel — “stalwart,” “uncompromising,” and, of course, “unwavering.” I can’t think of any time or incident in which Engel did not give the benefit of the doubt to Israel’s government and assume the best of intentions in even its most questionable actions.

I wasn’t the only one paying attention. When Bowman’s primary challenge began looking serious, money poured in from outside the district to save Engel, including $1.5 million spent by the Democratic Majority for Israel PAC. Engel had recently assumed the powerful chairmanship of the House Foreign Affairs Committee and pro-Israel groups were understandably loath to lose that influence. Along with support for Engel came attempts to tar Bowman as insufficiently pro-Israel, or worse.

It was ridiculous, and now that the race is over, it is time for the panic to subside as well. Jewish leaders shouldn’t live in denial that Engel’s style of being pro-Israel is still viable in the Democratic Party, but the insinuations that Bowman is “anti-Israel” and the litmus tests for him to prove himself worthy of our community’s support must end.

There is nothing to fear in Bowman’s position on Israel, which includes supporting the two-state solution and the Palestinian right to national self-determination, opposing BDS (though not through hamfisted, illiberal legislation targeting BDS), and a guiding belief in the strength of human solidarity that very much includes Jews and Israelis. As he wrote last week, “Our fates are intertwined, and we must fight side-by-side.”

Bowman will not always stand with Israel and keep his misgivings muted. This places him where most Democratic voters are: supportive of Israel but alarmed by its government. To the generation of Democrats who supported Bowman, the Palestinian cause is not one indelibly tainted by terrorist attacks and hijackings. If he appears to be “less” supportive of Israel, it is only in comparison to Engel, whose traditional pro-Israel views on the conflict are no longer the norm in the party.

To be absolutely clear, Engel’s defeat had little or nothing to do with Israel. He was seen, both fairly and unfairly, as an absentee representative who was not in sync with the prevailing mood in his district. Bowman was an almost perfect anti-Engel candidate — charismatic, energized, and avuncular — who ran a well-funded campaign with few missteps.

However, this does not mean there are no implications for Israel in Congress. Just as it’s wrong to overreact to Engel’s loss it is also mistaken to sleep through what just happened. The era of near-unanimous resolutions in support of Israel is almost certainly over, and pro-Israel organizations, activists, and donors have important choices to make.

They can try to put Humpty Dumpty back together again, voting for and funding “unwavering” supporters of Israel in an effort to restore the political capital that such a position once afforded. But this is unlikely to succeed in the new Democratic Party, which includes ascendant groups with different perspectives on Israel — Arab-Americans, Palestinian-American, and others.

Another option is to move on from the “bipartisan” model and exclusively encourage Republicans to double down on their support for Israel. This is the position of the Republican Jewish Coalition, whose executive director recently called bipartisan support for Israel an “illusion.”

But perhaps it’s time to finally redefine and expand what it means to be pro-Israel. The panic over Engel losing was an obstinate refusal to do that. And a continued assault on Bowman’s character in the style of Democratic Majority for Israel will not serve the best interests of the Jewish community. The guard has changed and so should expectations.

Jamaal Bowman’s views on Israel and Palestine already align with those of many — if not most — American Jews. If looked at through a different prism, yesterday’s result could be the beginning of a new and brighter era.

Abe Silberstein is a freelance commentator on Israeli politics and U.S.-Israel relations. His work has previously been published in the New York Times, Haaretz, +972 Magazine and the Forward.

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