Pro-Israel stalwart Rep. Eliot Engel (D-Bronx, Westchester) is facing a surprisingly stiff challenge heading into next Tuesday’s Democratic primary, in a race that echoes many of the tensions between old-guard Democrats and the party’s emergent progressive wing.
And while Israel has not been central to the campaigns of Engel or his challenger — education activist and middle-school principal Jamaal Bowman — the race has drawn the attention of pro-Israel activists.
Engel, a 16-term moderate Democrat and chairman of the House’s Foreign Affairs Committee, is a leading pro-Israel voice in Congress who voted against the Iran nuclear deal in 2015. He is 73 and has been in office since 1989. Bowman, 43, has said that he would condition U.S. aid to Israel and “make sure that the rights and dignity of both the Israeli and Palestinian people are respected.”
Although they are not very far apart on most issues, their differences are being played out in endorsements.
Bowman, who is African-American, has won the endorsement of progressives, including Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-Queens, Bronx) and the Progressive Change Campaign Committee, which backed Elizabeth Warren for president.
In his campaign, Bowman has taken a page out of Ocasio-Cortez’s playbook — she claimed that the long-term Democratic congressman she unseated, Joseph Crowley, had spent so much of his time in Washington serving as a House leader that he lost touch with his constituents. Now, Bowman is making a similar claim about Engel — and a recent article in The Atlantic boosted that assertion when it wondered why Engel was not out campaigning in the district.
Engel’s district is approximately 45 percent white, 33 percent African-American and 25 percent Hispanic.
Mark Mellman, CEO of the Democratic Majority for Israel, a lobbying group that promotes pro-Israel policies, pointed out that Engel “has been doing the job for the district and during the pandemic he is not supposed to be traveling around.”
Engel, meanwhile, has in recent days picked up support of key establishment Democrats. They include, significantly, Rep. Jim Clyburn (the No. 3 House Democrat and the highest-ranking African American in Congress) and Rep. Hakeem Jeffries (D-Brooklyn, Queens), who serves as the Democratic Caucus chairman, putting him three steps away from becoming the first African-American Speaker of the House.
In addition, Engel has the endorsements of the Congressional Black Caucus and the Hispanic Congressional Caucus.
Also supporting him is former Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Rep. Adam Schiff, head of the House Intelligence Committee and a leading critic of President Donald Trump. Engel helped lead the impeachment prosecution of Trump.
Yet Engel hurt himself earlier this month: At a news conference on vandalism stemming from the George Floyd demonstrations, he was heard on a hot microphone asking Bronx Borough President Ruben Diaz Jr. if he could speak. “If I didn’t have a primary, I wouldn’t care,” Engel is heard saying.
Critics insisted that the comment only reinforced Bowman’s claim that Engel lacked interest in his own district, or perhaps the issue of racial justice.
But Halie Soifer, executive director of the Jewish Democratic Council of America, said Engel’s comment was taken out of context.
“He was demonstrating humility,” she insisted. “That is authentic and endearing. He is a humble person who can relate to his constituents and what he was saying is that he wouldn’t need to speak from a microphone but that his constituents needed to hear from him at that moment.”
For pro-Israel activists, losing one of Israel’s staunchest champions in Congress would be bad enough. But the seat being vacated by retiring Rep. Nita Lowey (D-Bronx, Westchester, Rockland), another outspoken supporter of Israel, could also be lost to an occasional critic of Israel. Mondaire Jones, a 32-year-old attorney, activist and political neophyte, is said to have the edge in Tuesday’s primary. There are seven other Democrats vying for Lowey’s seat, all of whom are supporters of Israel, according to Mellman.
Jones, an African-American progressive, would be the first openly gay black man in Congress. He has won the endorsement of the Congressional Progressive Caucus’ political action committee. He said he supports aid to Israel but hopes it is not used to annex any part of the West Bank, although he is not threatening to withdraw the money should it be used for that. And he said he supports the 2015 Iran nuclear deal — which Israel vehemently opposed — and if elected would seek to find a way to resurrect it.
Jones in January was endorsed by Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.), whom he has described as his “role model.” He has raised more than $800,000, enough to mount a formidable campaign.
Also on the ballot are Adam Schleifer, 38, a former federal prosecutor who was part of the prosecution of celebrity parents who bribed their kids’ way into prestigious universities; David Buchwald, 41, a state assemblyman who once interned with Lowey; Allison Fine, a former national chairwoman of NARAL (National Abortion Rights Action League); and Evelyn Farkas, a former Department of Defense official.
The dynamics of these races have caught the attention of Jewish activists on both sides of the Israel issue.
Rabbi Avi Weiss, the founding rabbi of the Hebrew Institute of Riverdale, wrote an open letter to Bowman, asking why the candidate supports placing conditions on U.S. aid to the Israeli government of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, and accused him of singling out Israel.
“I am especially alarmed that at no time have you mentioned Palestinian violation of human rights — specifically, the Palestinian Authority’s policy of funding the families of those who have committed murderous terrorist acts,” wrote Weiss.
By contrast, Peter Joseph of Riverdale, chair emeritus of the Israel Policy Forum, endorsed Bowman in an op-ed in the Forward. Noting the Black Lives Matter protests and the “ongoing legacy of racism that mars our country’s history,” Joseph wrote, “As this election pits a 16-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.”
Should both Jones and Bowman win their primaries, they are likely to be elected in November in their heavily Democratic differences.
But Mellman says he is not worried for the future of pro-Israel activism. Although he would not want to see Engel defeated because of “the pivotal role he plays in the U.S.-Israel relationship, there are hundreds of other pro-Israel members of Congress and there will continue to be.”