In last week’s newsletter, I wrote about early signs of an emergent post-Bernie Sanders left, citing recent examples of young progressive insurgents winning Democratic primaries in Washington, DC and Philadelphia. This week saw further evidence of that trend. Among a number of other salutary primary outcomes in New York and Kentucky, the most notable is Jamaal Bowman’s likely upset (absentee ballots have yet to be counted) of longtime Rep. Eliot Engel in New York’s 16th Congressional District, spanning parts of the Bronx and Westchester County. Bowman—who boasted endorsements from Sanders, Elizabeth Warren, and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, and whose platform includes support for Medicare for All and the Green New Deal—currently enjoys a big lead over Engel, who received endorsements from establishment figures like Hillary Clinton, Nancy Pelosi, and Chuck Schumer.
Today on Jewish Currents, Assistant Editor Joshua Leifer has a deep dive into the significance of this race, which I highly recommend. Josh notes that Engel has used his role as chairman of the House Foreign Relations Committee to block any accountability for Israel’s right-wing government, which is on the verge of annexing parts of the West Bank. Bowman, who has been an outspoken critic of Israel’s occupation, won support from many Jewish voters in the district, sending a clear signal that Jewish voters are not as reflexively pro-Israel as politicians in both parties have long assumed. The Democratic Majority for Israel (DMFI), an AIPAC-linked group that poured millions of dollars into negative ads against Bowman, has little to show for its efforts—Josh’s piece even suggests they may have backfired, with some Jewish communal leaders feeling that the ads reflected poorly on their communities. If DMFI’s strategy failed in heavily Jewish neighborhoods like the Riverdale section of the Bronx, there’s no reason to think it will work anywhere else.
Bowman’s probable win matters for other reasons; it’s exciting to see a 44-year-old Black public educator who grew up in public housing defeat a 73-year-old white 16-term incumbent who in recent years has spent little time in his district, and it’s heartening that the small but vocal segment of young left-wing Democrats in Congress could expand its ranks. But the impact on foreign policy could be especially notable.
Joe Biden’s victory over Bernie Sanders in this year’s presidential primary was, among other things, a victory for a more status quo approach to foreign policy over the more progressive, anti-interventionist policies championed by Sanders and his adviser Matt Duss, whom I profiled for The Nation last year (I’m currently reporting on what a Biden administration would mean for progressive foreign policy). While Biden and his core advisers typify the Washington foreign policy establishment—and, as Editor-at-Large Peter Beinart has documented for Jewish Currents, Biden also has a close relationship with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu—it remains plausible that progressives could influence a Biden administration in a more forward-looking direction. By exposing the weakness of groups like DMFI, a Bowman win could create more room for Democrats and mainstream Jewish leaders to openly criticize Israel.
On Tuesday morning, Jewish Currents and the Foundation for Middle East Peace (FMEP) hosted a webinar on Biden’s Middle East policy, featuring Beinart, Duss, FMEP President (and Jewish Currents contributing writer) Lara Friedman, and Joint List MK Aida Touma-Sliman. (You can find a full recording of the event here.) At one point, Friedman noted that in more than one ongoing primary contest, “we’re seeing a more open debate on Israel/Palestine,” adding that “even if these challengers don’t win, the incumbents know they’re going to have to defend their positions on this.” The tentative results that evening seem to confirm Friedman’s point. It’s not that voters are turning against Israel per se, but they’re not prioritizing whatever affinity they may have for it over more urgent domestic issues. Meanwhile, politicians like Bowman who are willing to criticize the occupation are at the very least signaling that they are guided by genuine, humane principles rather than by corporate donor networks.
Bowman is following in the footsteps of the so-called “Squad” of progressive insurgents who entered Congress two years ago, including Ocasio-Cortez, who handily defeated a Wall Street-backed primary challenger on Tuesday. Two other members of the Squad—Reps. Ilhan Omar of Minnesota and Rashida Tlaib of Michigan—are also the first two Muslim women in Congress, and are both (unlike Bowman, Ocasio-Cortez, or Sanders) supporters of the BDS movement. Both of them, especially Omar, have received vociferous, often threatening criticism and bad faith accusations of antisemitism, including directly from Donald Trump. And both are currently facing credible primary challenges—Tlaib on August 4th, and Omar on August 11th. These races will be critical tests of whether the left can keep its new momentum going—and also of whether there really is room for strident criticism of Israel in national politics.
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