(JTA) — Jamaal Bowman shocked the political establishment by defeating incumbent Rep. Eliot L. Engel in the 2020 Democratic primary, and will soon represent New York’s 16th Congressional District, which straddles the Bronx and Westchester County.
Usually described as one of the progressives challenging the Democrats’ old guard, the former middle school principal recently spoke with Yehuda Kurtzer, president of the Shalom Hartman Institue, on “Identity/Crisis,” a podcast about Jewish news and ideas produced in partnership with the Jewish Telegraphic Agency.
Below are excerpt from their conversation. You can read the full transcript here.
You challenged a long-tenured congressman, which is a really bold thing to do. What made you think you could actually win?
[laughs] Well, my school, the school that I founded, is actually located in the northeast corridor of the district, so I had 10 years of experience working directly with people who were most impacted by bad policy that came from Washington during Congressman Engel’s tenure.
It was not just about Congressman Engel and who he was as an individual. It’s about him being a part of a system that continued to disenfranchise and marginalize Black and Brown communities — I mean, policy that goes back way before Engel, like redlining and the GI Bill and the Homestead Act and other policies that just centered growing white wealth in the white community and didn’t do the same for Black and Brown communities.
I knew I had good roots in the district as an educator. Also living in Yonkers for a number of years, I had good roots there. While I may have been unknown in the “political arena,” I was an organizer, I was a major contributor to the opt-out movement in public education, fighting for culturally responsive curriculum, restorative justice, trauma-informed schools, fighting for equitable funding with the Alliance for Quality Education. So I was known in those circles pretty well. I got a lot of support actually initially to run, not from the “establishment,” but from the grassroots organizations.
I’d love to talk a little bit about the conversation that started with the Jewish community during the primary campaign. There was an exchange of letters or articles, [starting with one] written by Rabbi Avi Weiss, that put on the table in a serious way what certain members of the Jewish community’s concerns were about losing Engel in Congress and his role in the Foreign Affairs Committee and getting any newcomer, but certainly a newcomer who didn’t necessarily have the bona fides on issues like Israel, which they cared about.
Tell us a little bit of how that exchange came about, what motivated you to respond and to respond the way that you did.
I was happy with the open letter from Rabbi Weiss because it gave me an opportunity to respond very publicly to maybe a part of the community that they didn’t have a chance to meet me in person or engage with me beyond maybe a quote they read somewhere or an interview they saw me conduct on a particular outlet. It gave me the opportunity to respond very publicly.
What I wanted to convey was empathy and compassion and an understanding of the plight and the fears of the Jewish community, being a Black man in America. I mean, that’s something that I felt throughout my entire life, like an existential threat from the establishment, from the system, from others, simply because of who you are.
I also wanted to draw the line between not just the Jewish community and the Black community, but the Palestinian community as well — how there’s a fear, there’s a distrust, there’s a worry in terms of losing our homeland and our humanity as we go through engaging with each other.
I felt it was an opportunity to respond with that level of empathy and compassion and to hopefully draw parallels and connections between our three communities in a way that can continue a conversation that gets us to a place of peace and justice for all people, regardless of background, because I truly believe that that’s where we can go.
We just have to figure out how to get there despite a hard history. I’m a Black man in America; I can’t ignore or disown or seek to harm white people on my path to justice and freedom and equality. We have to live together and work together and figure out what that looks like.
I’m very thankful that from the very beginning of our campaign, there were members of the Jewish community that opened themselves up to me as resources, as mentors, to help me learn about Jewish issues generally and the issue of Israel very specifically.
I’m very thankful that from the very beginning of our campaign, there were members of the Jewish community that opened themselves up to me as resources, as mentors, to help me learn about Jewish issues generally and the issue of Israel very specifically. What I learned is, there’s diversity in the Jewish community like there is in every community, and that was very helpful towards my understanding, but also just affirming what I believed in the beginning: This is about humanity and this is about human rights, and we need to uplift the human rights of everyone and figure out how to live in the world together and love and compassion.
Do you think it worked?
I think it moved the ball forward where people are open to different conversations and to engaging me in those conversations. I was very moved throughout the campaign as I met different segments and individuals of the Jewish community.
I met one person, a mom who happened to be in Rye on this particular day with her daughter, and we had a nice conversation, and she said, “I already voted for you, but I wanted to know your position on BDS.” That was pretty moving because, wow, she actually voted for me without knowing what my position on BDS [the movement to boycott, divest, and sanction Israel] was.
And then I reaffirmed that it was not a movement that I support and I explained to her why, but that touched me because it was like, OK, and this is what I learned.
The Jewish community cares about a lot of things in addition to Israel. Israel is very important, but they care about housing and jobs and health care and education and family and community, and all of the things that really led to me running for office in the first place. So I was happy that who I am was continuously communicated throughout the campaign, despite people knowing all the details of every policy position that I support.
It’s interesting that the Palestinian cause is viewed as being so central to this progressive term in America. Why do you think it’s so important, and do you think there’s a way to maintain that arms length on this issue?
Well, it’s important in this district in particular because of the large Jewish constituency in this district —
And a large constituency that cares about Israel. If we’re talking about Israel, we have to talk about Palestine, right? If we’re talking about Jews in Israel, we have to talk about the Palestinians in Israel as well. We have to talk about annexation and occupation and the behavior of Benjamin Netanyahu, if the progressive cause is rooted in human rights, which I think it is.
A threat to anyone’s human rights is a threat to everyone’s human rights. And one of the things I would say often throughout the campaign is, if we’re really serious about the long-term safety and security of Israel, we have to uplift the human rights of the Palestinian people, and we have to do better than we’re currently doing with regard to that issue.
That’s what I feel; that’s what I believe. I think that’s why you can’t talk about one without the other. Some groups try to do that, and I think that’s wrong. I think it’s ignoring the power dynamic and it’s ignoring some of what’s happening right in front of our face. Whether it’s Palestinians, Jewish people, African-American people, the LGBT community, women, the poor, the indigenous, Latinx — if oppression is happening anywhere, or the perception of oppression is something that we have to deal with, especially as the United States of America, which claims to be the most powerful nation in the world. If we are the most powerful nation, we have a responsibility to respond to potential human rights violations that are happening anywhere in the world. That’s my take.
From a policy standpoint, one of those particular policy issues that’s emerging among the progressive camp is the argument to condition aid to Israel. America has [given] historically billions of dollars of foreign aid, principally through military contracts, to Israel, especially since the peace treaties of the late ’70s with Egypt.
If we are serious about a two-state solution and serious about a Palestinian state and investing there and building that up and uplifting that, we can never get there if Netanyahu continues to do what he’s currently doing.
I think the conversation of conditioning aid is one of many strategies that have been discussed to dissuade him from doing that, and dissuading this sort of far-right ideology that leads to the occupation and annexation to continue.
That’s where I think the conversation is coming from. We’ve been saying for several decades, “We want a two-state solution.” We are no closer today than we were several decades ago, arguably, and Netanyahu’s making it worse. What can we do? I think that’s where the idea of conditioning aid has entered the conversation because maybe it’s only through that method that Netanyahu will stop.
There are probably other methods that need to be explored, but that’s one that I’ve heard and even shared that I may potentially support to stop what’s happening in terms of the undermining of a true two-state solution. But it’s complicated, man.
I would love to see a push from the progressive caucus on Israel/Palestine that sounds more like when you talk about [it]. How do we open up more resources from the federal government and equalize the resources from the federal government to solve this problem, as opposed to the withholding resources strategy?
No, you’re right. Authorize the investment in spending toward establishing a true Palestinian state where they can have safety and security and self-determination as well. And the messenger there is going to be key. The messenger — in my opinion, I think Joe Biden is a better messenger and person to facilitate that than Donald Trump and who he was working with. To be continued.
We’ve been overdue for a serious reexamination of how we build ties between the Black community and the Jewish community. What’s the next step to move this forward?
What I’ve learned also throughout the campaign is to be Jewish is to be someone who cares about social justice in all its forms. I appreciate and love that, and know that many African-Americans who identify as being followers of Christ, or even Muslim or other, also care about social justice as well. So, for me, regardless of what community you are a part of, if you care about social justice, you also care about racial justice, and if you care about justice, you care about equality and you care about the human rights of everyone.
So how do we come together as people who care about human rights and social justice to fight for social justice in all its forms?
So how do we come together as people who care about human rights and social justice to fight for social justice in all its forms? Centered in America’s institution is the legacy of racism in our country and the legacy of slavery. I’m mentioning slavery not because I want to live in the past and have America respond to what happened in the past, but what’s happened to Black people in America is a continuation of that legacy that has evolved to include wealth inequality, mass incarceration, police brutality and missing education very explicitly.
When we look at housing infrastructure, when we look at health outcomes, all of this is rooted in our beginning as a country that enslaved African people, but continued through policy to marginalize, oppress and terrorize African-American communities through slavery by another name. Because of that legacy, we welcome, and we would love all communities to be a part of, pushing back against that legacy that continues to harm us.
One of the things that I’ve been talking a lot about is reparations: the need for it, the need for a process of truth, reconciliation and restitution, and telling the story of other groups that received reparations. We’re a part of a process of truth and reconciliation, and one of the main groups is the Jewish community, both here as American Jews, but also in Germany. Right?
Borrowing from what we’ve done here for Japanese Americans and Jewish Americans, borrowing from what happened in Germany as part of reparations, they did truth and reconciliation there, borrowing from Rwanda, borrowing from South Africa, we need the process to happen here for African-Americans in order for us to reach the ideals of our democracy for everyone.
I would love for the Jewish community to get behind that and support that. That’s a big one, but that’s the one I think we ultimately need so we never have a Donald Trump again, and we never have people who support initiatives like QAnon running for office and winning and becoming representatives in our Congress.