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A protest against Jamaal Bowman revealed the limits of progressive support for Palestine

Activists calling on Congressman Bowman to rescind endorsing Biden were accused of aiding Aipac. Palestinian groups say they're tired of fear tactics
Pro-Palestinian activists and community members in the Bronx protest a rally of Representatives Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Jamaal Bowman and Senator Bernie Sanders at St Mary's Park on 22 June 2024 (David Lee Delgado/AFP)

Over the past several days, a New York-based Palestinian organisation has faced a slew of attacks for protesting a scheduled rally in the Bronx for progressive politicians Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Jamaal Bowman and Bernie Sanders.

The political rally came at a sensitive time for Bowman, who faces a serious primary challenger in George Latimer, a more centrist Democrat who has received the backing of Aipac, the largest pro-Israel lobby in America.

Within Our Lifetime (WOL), which organised Saturday's counterrally, had several demands for Bowman, namely to rescind his endorsement of President Joe Biden, stop equating anti-Zionism with antisemitism, and to recognise the Palestinian right to resist and the right for liberation.

Nerdeen Kiswani, founder of WOL, told Middle East Eye that they weren't calling on constituents to not vote for Bowman, but rather the rally was a call to hold him accountable after the congressman had branded himself as being pro-Palestine.

"Us directly confronting them like this isn't meant to get Bowman to lose, or to get his opponent to win, or anything like that. It's to say: 'okay, you're telling us you support Palestine. Well here's how we would appreciate your support', actually," Kiswani said.

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"Our community should be following up with elected officials who give us lip service, and making sure that they're speaking with their actions and not just their words."

Despite this, WOL and the protest were targeted by several individuals and groups, from members of the Democratic Socialists of America to activists and elected officials outside of New York. The row revealed the fault lines of the wider Palestinian solidarity movement in the US, with groups focused on electoral politics on one side, and the more radical groups who have said they won't make any concessions regarding Palestinian rights on the other side.

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WOL was accused of supporting Aipac and the pro-Israel lobby by protesting Bowman, and WOL organisers were called "deeply unserious" and their strategy labeled "sheer stupidity".

"It's appalling that they draw their line on Palestinians demanding a principled stance on genocide, instead of actually doing the work. They're the ones who should be doing this work. They're the ones who should be calling in their representatives," Kiswani said of the groups criticising WOL.

"We're still in the midst of a genocide, and we're not going to pretend that so-called progressives are not Biden's secret weapon to securing a second term in office as genocider-in-chief."

But the events of the past several days have appeared to further solidify the unity of the Palestinian movement on the streets of New York and the broader US, with several other groups pouring in support for WOL and the other organisations protesting Bowman, Ocasio-Cortez and Sanders.

On Sunday night, the Palestinian Youth Movement, as well as the Columbia University chapter of Students for Justice in Palestine and City University of New York for Palestine, all issued statements of solidarity with WOL.

"There was an attempt to undermine the strategies of the Palestinian movement, which for the last eight months has been consistent in the way that we've approached the question of electeds, which is that we are not going to be giving elected officials peace," Yara Shoufani, an organiser with the Palestinian Youth Movement, told MEE.

"The Palestinian movement has been building a mass movement led by Palestinian organisations for the last nine months that is activating people and organising people," she said.

Shoufani added that over the past nine months, the issue of Gaza and Palestine has been at the core of what is mobilising Americans to the streets for protests and other political actions, and that Palestinian organisers are not going to be swayed to move on their principles to elect a "lesser of two evils".

"If progressive movements, these kinds of socialist organisations like the DSA, continue to throw Palestine under the bus, they're going to see themselves not reflected in the mass movement that's being built for Palestine," Shoufani said.

Middle East Eye reached out to the DSA for comment on the WOL rally, but didn't receive a response by time of publication.

MEE also reached out to the campaigns of Bowman, Ocasio-Cortez and Sanders for comment, but didn't receive a response.

Rally in the Bronx

On Saturday, the rally for Bowman, Ocasio-Cortez and Sanders went ahead as scheduled. The three politicians stood up on stage and spoke to a crowd of a few hundred people.

During his speech, Bowman called for a ceasefire in Gaza, and Sanders said Israel didn't have a right to go to war with the entirety of the Palestinian people.

Sanders, however, caveated this by saying that "Israel has a right to defend itself against the terrorist attack".

WOL's rally also took place as scheduled, with hundreds of protesters lined up at St Mary's Park alongside the barricades set up by the Bowman rally.

'It is all about exploiting the outrage... when it comes to Palestine and Gaza, and turning it into more votes for the Democratic Party'

- Nerdeen Kiswani, Within Our Lifetime

For Fuego Picart*, what stood out the most was that many of the rally's attendees were not from the Bronx.

"The first thing that really struck me is how no one from the Bronx was there, and this is me speaking in absolutes, not in exact numbers. But what I saw were chartered buses, people getting off of the buses. So they were brought here."

"That felt a little bit offensive," Picart said.

Picart, a member of the Bronx Palestine Solidarity Committee, accused those of attacking WOL and other groups of "cowardice", and said the attacks were indicative of a broken political system.

"What is supporting Bowman going to do? What is supporting Ocasio[-Cortez] going to do, when both of those candidates are saying, 'endorse Biden'?" Picart said.

"And then Biden is doing things, not just against Palestine, but, in the Bronx we're a migrant community. And Biden is jockeying to be the worst anti-immigration president to outdo Trump."

'Exploiting the outrage' on Palestine

Jamaal Bowman is facing a critical primary election against an Aipac-backed candidate in George Latimer, with one poll showing Latimer with a 15-point advantage against the incumbent Bowman.

As a part of his campaign strategy, Bowman has used Israel's war on Gaza to market himself as a pro-Palestine candidate that is "leading the call for a permanent ceasefire" in Gaza.

Palestinian organisers and other activists in New York, however, have shown outrage over Bowman's previous vote to continue funding Israel's military and his public statements labelling grassroots Palestinian groups as antisemitic.

"They're using the Palestinian struggle, as well as Arab and Muslim issues, as a point of difference with the centrists and Republicans to win their elections," Raja Abdulhaq, a Palestinian political organiser based in New York, told MEE referring to Bowman and other members of the Democratic Party.

In 2021, the New York congressman voted to fund Israel's Iron Dome air defence system and also went on a trip to Israel funded by the liberal Zionist organisation, J Street.

Since Israel's war on Gaza began in October, killing more than 37,000 Palestinians in the process, Bowman has made contradicting stances regarding the Palestinian solidarity movement.

He was an early supporter of a congressional resolution for a ceasefire in Gaza that was introduced in October. He has also referred to Israel's actions in Gaza as "genocide", a term few lawmakers have used.

But over the past few months, he along with other politicians were quick to label Kiswani's organisation Within Our Lifetime antisemitic when it held a rally to mourn the massacre in the Nuseirat refugee camp in Gaza, when more than 270 Palestinians were killed in an Israeli attack and operation that recovered four hostages earlier this month.

That rally was met with a counterprotest - celebrating the Israeli operation in Nuseirat - and led pro-Palestine protesters to demonstrate outside the Nova exhibit in New York City, which was held to memorialise the hundreds of people who were killed at a music festival amid the Hamas-led operation on 7 October.

Palestinians have criticised the exhibit as propaganda used to justify the war, and one exhibit shows notes calling for Palestinians in Gaza to "be wiped off the face of the earth".

Bowman also endorsed Biden in the upcoming presidential election, saying: "We need stability... Biden provides that".

"It was only after the death of 40,000 Palestinians that they realised, it may not be palatable to be so blatantly pro-Israel, so they dialed back some positions. But only in so far as securing votes for their electives," said Kiswani of Bowman and other progressive Democrats.

"For them, at the end of the day, it is all about exploiting the outrage that youth and people in our community have when it comes to Palestine and Gaza, and turning it into more votes for the Democratic Party with no concessions or real support for the Palestinian community."

* A pseudonym was used to protect the identity of this individual.

** Violet Barron contributed to this story with reporting from New York City.

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