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Pro-Israel money and flip-flops on Palestine: How Jamaal Bowman lost his primary election

Aipac spent $14m to support Bowman's challenger. However, Bowman has made several contradicting stances on his support for Palestine
US Congressman Jamaal Bowman speaks during a rally at St Mary's Park on 22 June 2024 in the Bronx borough of New York City.
US Congressman Jamaal Bowman speaks during a rally at St Mary's Park on 22 June 2024 in the Bronx borough of New York City (David Dee Delgado/AFP)

Jamaal Bowman, a progressive incumbent in the US House of Representatives, lost his primary election to the more centrist Democrat candidate George Latimer, the latter of whom's campaign was flooded with millions of dollars from the pro-Israel lobby Aipac.

Bowman's loss poses a huge setback for "the Squad", the small cadre of progressive lawmakers that first came to Congress in 2018.

However, the loss is also indicative of a tenure in office that lacked consistent political positions and an ability to straddle the line between maintaining the support of the larger progressive movement, the grassroots movement in support of Palestine, and his constituency, much of which exists outside the Bronx and in the majority white county of Westchester.

Much of this could be seen in the fact that Bowman took several political stances, only to quickly walk them back, particularly on the issue of Palestine and Israel's war on Gaza.

The election results on Tuesday for New York's 16th congressional district were clear early into the night. Latimer, who previously served as the county executive for Westchester, easily defeated Bowman by 17 points.

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The American-Israel Public Affairs Committee (Aipac) spent a total of $14m in the race in support of Bowman, and with a total of around $23m spent on the race from all sides, the primary election was the most expensive in the history of the House of Representatives.

According to Politico, Bowman attacked Aipac for entering the election, saying the pro-Israel lobby helped to “brainwash” voters.

The coverage of the race had been filled with the politician's stance on Israel and its war on Gaza, with Bowman repeatedly referring to Latimer as being bought out by Aipac.

Flipping on Palestine

Bowman entered the national political scene in 2020 when he defeated the incumbent candidate Eliot Engel, one of the most prominent pro-Israel voices in Congress and an influential politician that had previously chaired the House Foreign Affairs Committee.

His election to Congress was seen as a huge victory for the progressive movement, and he was added to a growing list of "Squad" members that included Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Ilhan Omar and Rashida Tlaib, among others. 

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Before coming into office, he spoke publicly in an interview with Jacobin about his criticisms of US military aid to Israel.

But just months into his tenure, rifts began to emerge between him and other progressives. In September 2021, Bowman voted in favour of funding Israel's Iron Dome missile system, a vote that came just after Israel's 2021 war on Gaza. He was the sole member of the Squad to do so.

Then in November 2021, Bowman travelled to Israel and met with then-Israeli Prime Minister Naftali Bennett in a trip sponsored by the liberal Zionist organisation J Street.

That trip violated the principles of the Democratic Socialists of America (DSA), of which Bowman was a member. Bowman, like other progressives, publicly said he does not support the Palestinian-led Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement targetting Israel's occupation of Palestine.

The DSA ultimately voted not to expel Bowman but added that it would not endorse Bowman in the 2022 election. However, the decision caused internal outrage within the organisation and the larger progressive movement, and would have ripple effects over the next few years.

Criticising Israel, then apologising

Since Israel's war on Gaza began in October, Bowman has criticised the Israeli military for its actions in the besieged enclave.

He has accused Israel of committing genocide in Gaza, and was an early proponent of a ceasefire in Gaza.

But the congressman took several steps that saw him anger the pro-Palestine community, while also upsetting his pro-Israel Jewish constituents.

In November, Bowman referred to the reports that Hamas used rape as a weapon of war as Israeli propaganda — several claims of rape during the 7 October attacks have been denied and debunked, including one in which an Israeli kibbutz spokesperson denied the allegations of rape in a New York Times article.

After receiving attacks for his comments, he walked them back and apologised, saying: "I apologise for my comments and now we're continuing to do the work to fight sexual violence and domestic violence in all its forms."

In January, Bowman reportedly said that he was "a bit starstruck" when he met Norman Finkelstein, the author of many books on Israel and Palestine and a foremost critic of Israel's treatment of Palestinians.

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However, Bowman then faced several attacks over his comments, which denigrated Finkelstein for laying part of the blame for the 7 October attacks on Israel for its longstanding treatment of Palestinians and siege on Gaza.

Again, the politician quickly apologised, and went on to refer to Finkelstein's comments as "reprehensible" and said he condemned them.

Several weeks ago, Bowman, along with other progressive lawmakers including Ocasio-Cortez, denigrated a rally held by the Palestinian organisation Within Our Lifetime and labelled it antisemitic.

That rally, which was being held to mourn for the more than 270 Palestinians massacred in an Israeli hostage operation in central Gaza, moved to confront the Nova exhibition, which was created to memorialise the hundreds killed at a music festival held near Gaza on the day of the 7 October attacks.

The exhibition holds notes calling for the annihilation of the Palestinian people in Gaza.

A few days before the primary election between Bowman and Latimer, Bowman held a rally in the Bronx alongside Ocasio-Cortez and Senator Bernie Sanders in an attempt to raise last-minute support for the campaign, which was already behind in the polls.

In response, Within Our Lifetime held a protest against the three politicians, with several demands, namely calling on them to rescind their endorsement of President Joe Biden and to stop equating anti-Zionism with antisemitism.

The rally received the support of several grassroots organisations including the Palestinian Youth Movement, and was endorsed by the Gaza solidarity encampments at several universities in New York.

However, progressive political organisers including several DSA members attacked the rally, saying it was aiding Aipac and the pro-Israel lobby against Bowman.

Ultimately, Bowman's campaign unsuccessfully attempted to gain the support of the larger pro-Palestine movement that has taken over the streets of the US, while also trying to curry favour with the pro-Israel members of his own constituency.

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