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Is Jamaal Bowman pro-Palestinian enough for pro-Palestinians?

AIPAC has pumped money into a Democratic primary challenge against Bowman over his criticism of Israel — the left must rally behind him

It’s rare to see AIPAC and pro-Palestinian activists protesting the same event. And yet, when it comes to one heavily contested Congressional primary — which has pit an avowed opponent of Israel’s attacks on Gaza and the Palestinian people against a vocal supporter of Israel — that was exactly what they did.

Or so I observed on X last weekend, after a Palestinian-led activist group, Within Our Lifetime, protested a rally to re-elect Congressman Jamaal Bowman; I noted, in a post, that “AIPAC has unlikely new allies.” Bowman, who represents a district in Westchester and the Bronx, has consistently spoken out against Israel’s attacks on Gaza and today faces a highly contested Democratic primary against George Latimer, whose campaign has received the largest influx of funding that AIPAC has ever contributed to a Congressional campaign. 

It was a joke I regret. Those who join in the struggle for Palestinian liberation, especially Palestinians, are far from aligned with AIPAC — even if they shared the same target that day. I disagreed with their choice. I still do. But the simplistic joke was a mistake born of frustration.

I’ve spent months volunteering for the Bowman campaign. Had he never uttered a word about Gaza, his campaign would have sailed smoothly back into Congress. 

Instead, he chose to stand by his principles. He was among the first members of Congress to demand a ceasefire — an action too few have taken to this day — and one of the few to cite human rights groups’ findings of genocide, call for an end to Israel’s apartheid tactics and insist on the right to self-determination of the Palestinian people. 

For that brave stand, he, his family and his staff have spent months weathering death threats from the right. Yet to some on the left, it’s not enough that Bowman stands apart from almost all of his colleagues by demanding justice for Palestinians, even as he represents a Congressional district that includes one of the most pro-Israel communities in the U.S. 

To some activists — who, to their credit, have every reason not to believe electoral politics will save us or Palestinians — he should be protested until he’s publicly aligned fully with them. Which Bowman, who continues to support President Joe Biden — whose backing of Israel’s attacks on Gaza has alienated many on the left — is not.

To others — including the only Palestinian in Congress, Rashida Tlaib, and Palestinian leaders like Linda Sarsour —electoral politics are one of many imperfect tools of power on the table. Those with that view, which I share, believe political leaders can work alongside street movements to bring about an end to a genocide. That when opposing these atrocities, and advocating for the liberty of an entire people, we must use every tool we can. That we may not necessarily elect our friends, but instead choose the politicians who will be most open to our activism. We vote today for who we will protest tomorrow.

After I compared WOL’s choice to protest Bowman to AIPAC’s, I was flooded with criticism both from WOL members — one WOL leader asked if I “need to be dog-walked” — and right-wing Zionists, who were eager to discredit anti-apartheid Jews like me and dehumanize Palestinians fighting for the lives of their people. These comments tapped into a series of untruths: that anti-Zionism is secretly antisemitism; that Palestinians are not motivated by their lives and freedom, but by antisemitism; and that Jews like me who stand with Palestinians must eventually part ways with them.

My answer to the right is I will always stand with Palestinians in their struggle for justice and liberation at any cost to myself, and against the people cheerleading the ethnic cleansing and subjugation of Palestinians. 

My answer to some factions of the left upset that I dared to question a decision of a Palestinian is that, in practice, I believe standing with Palestinians must involve supporting the few politicians who are willing to take risks to advocate for them — even if those politicians fail certain litmus tests, as Bowman, for some, has done. I’ve arrived at that conclusion through the leadership of Palestinian activists. If we were to act only at the direction of the last Palestinian we heard from, we wouldn’t reach one goal before being directed to another. As with any social movement, opinions on how best to achieve the goal of Palestinian liberation differ wildly. Following the lead of all would leave us effectively moving in circles, rather than accomplishing anything for Gaza.

One of my leaders was my friend Refaat Alareer, a renowned Palestinian poet who was killed by an Israeli airstrike in Gaza in December. He cheered me on as I helped organize a protest of Jews supporting a ceasefire that took over Grand Central Station; another that surrounded the Statue of Liberty; yet another that blockaded the White House. He is no longer here to guide us; he knew that we must each fight for justice in every way that we can. And he also held our politicians accountable.

One thing both critics seemed to have in common was the notion that I’m in this to be liked by the other. But I’m here for Palestinians — as Rep. Jamaal Bowman is. I’m here for Palestinians because their freedom and safety is important to me as a human, and the damage some Jewish support for apartheid and genocide is doing to the Jewish people, our institutions and our faith is important to me as a Jew who loves my people. I know Bowman is also here for Black and brown Americans in his district, many of whom will face increased risks if represented by a Congressman sponsored by the right.

That’s why I volunteered with the Bowman campaign — and why I must join Palestinians who speak out against election day tactics that threaten to deflate all hope in our flawed democracy, and threaten to turn people away from the polls rather than elect the adversaries we know we can move to change it. If Jamaal Bowman is important enough for AIPAC to break all donation records to oppose, he’s important enough to vote for.

 

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