Skip to main content

Staunchly pro-Israel US Congressman Eliot Engel loses primary

Progressive challenger Jamaal Bowman defeats Engel, effectively ending US legislator's 31-year career in Congress
In speech to supporters on Tuesday night, Bowman vowed to take on poverty and inequality (AFP)

US Congressman Eliot Engel, the hawkish chair of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, has lost his primary race in New York to progressive challenger Jamaal Bowman, in a blow to pro-Israel groups that spent hundreds of thousands of dollars to fend off his rival's surge in the polls. 

Bowman, an African-American former elementary school principal who had been endorsed by both Senator Bernie Sanders and Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, has all but secured a seat in Congress after his win on Tuesday. Engel's New York district is a safe Democratic stronghold.

Bowman's victory was confirmed on Wednesday by Decision Desk HQ, a website that tracks US elections, after initial results showed the progressive candidate leading by a wide margin throughout Tuesday night.

In the final stretch of the campaign, pro-Israel groups including the Democratic Majority for Israel (DMFI) stepped up their efforts to re-elect Engel, sending mailers, running TV ads and organising phone banks attacking Bowman.

Traditional Democratic figures and top legislative leaders, including former presidential candidate Hillary Clinton, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, New York Governor Andrew Cuomo as well as the Congressional Black Caucus, had endorsed Engel, who has been in Congress since 1989. 

Stay informed with MEE's newsletters

Sign up to get the latest alerts, insights and analysis, starting with Turkey Unpacked


'Poverty is by political design'

The race had been dubbed a "proxy war" between centrists and progressives over the direction of the Democratic Party.

In a speech to supporters on Tuesday night, Bowman vowed to take on poverty and inequality.

"Poverty is by political design, and it's rooted in a system that has been fractured, and corrupt, and rotten from it's core from the inception of America," he said.

The youth-led progressive Jewish group IfNotNow, which opposes the Israeli occupation, noted earlier on Tuesday that Bowman was its first congressional endorsement.

'Between a rock and a hard place': Palestine activists slam Biden
Read More »

"He led his campaign with love, heart and wisdom - it was an honor to work alongside him as he thoughtfully delved into issues important to our community," the group said on Twitter.

Justice Democrats, a left-wing organisation that backs progressive candidates and worked to help unseat Engel, also celebrated Bowman's win on Wednesday, saying in a tweet that the group "beat the machine" again, referring to the Democratic establishment.

The organisation helped elect the "Squad" of progressive women of colour - including Ocasio-Cortez, Ilhan Omar, Rashida Tlaib and Ayanna Pressley - in 2018.

The Israeli-Palestinian conflict was far from the top issue in the election. Renewed protests for racial equality and the economic fallout from the coronavirus crisis appeared to have boosted progressives' arguments for sweeping changes to domestic policies. 

"If Bowman wins, it's going to be because he has positioned himself perfectly for that moment... that he's an authentic representative of this idea that we really have to centre racial justice much more than we have up till now," Micah Sifry, an author and activist who lives in the district, told MEE last week.

Engel's record

Still, Engel's record as a key leader on foreign policy was used against him during campaigning. The congressman had voted for the Iraq war and initially opposed the Iran nuclear deal.

Bowman vs Engel: 'Proxy war' between progressives and pro-Israel centrists
Read More »

One of Bowman's campaign slogans was: "It’s time for a Democrat who will fight for schools and education, not bombs and incarceration."

On Israel-Palestine, Bowman adopted a moderate stance, supporting the two-state solution and saying that US aid should not fund annexation, home demolitions or the imprisonment of Palestinian children. He opposes the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement.

Despite the fact that the conflict was not central to the campaign, pro-Israel groups seemed heavily invested in its outcome.

When DMFI started running a negative TV ad against Bowman earlier this month, it was not about his views on Israel, but it focused on tax history, highlighting that he owed about $2,000 to the State Treasury.

"If Eliot Engel loses in his district my theory that pro-Israel politics is basically a paper tiger is looking good," journalist Zaid Jilani wrote on Twitter.

"10 years ago everyone in Washington, DC believed there was basically one thing you were allowed to say about Israel-Palestine, 4 years ago the DNC [Democratic National Committee] platform wouldn't allow the word 'occupation'; this year, it may become clear that this doesn't correspond w/public opinion."

Other races

Primary elections were held in several states, including New York, Virginia and Kentucky on Tuesday. In other notable races:

Muslim-American progressive activist Qasim Rashid won the Democratic nomination for a Republican-held congressional district in Virginia, narrowly edging out his primary opponent Lavangelene Williams. He will face off against Congressman Rob Wittman in November. Wittman won his last election against Williams by 10 percentage points in 2018.

In New York, Ocasio-Cortez won her primary with ease against two challengers, almost certainly securing another two-year term in the House of Representatives. The congresswoman, a formerly unknown progressive activist, set an example for challenging powerful legislators when she unseated top Democrat Joe Crowley in 2018. 

Muslim-American candidate Shaniyat Chowdhury fell well short in his challenge against Congressman Gregory Meeks, a senior African American legislator from Queens, who angered progressives when he endorsed former Mayor Michael Bloomberg for president earlier this year. 

Jerrold Nadler, the chair of the House Judiciary Committee and a strong supporter of Israel, fended off a primary challenge from the left by candidate Lindsey Boylan.

Mondaire Jones, a Sanders-backed lawyer, won the primary for a seat to be vacated by retiring Nita Lowey, the chair of the House Appropriations Committee and a staunch pro-Israel Democrat. Jones says he is pro-Israel, but he is to the left of Lowey on the conflict. He has called for Jerusalem to be the shared capital of both Israelis and Palestinians and voiced opposition to Israeli settlements.

By Wednesday afternoon, Ritchie Torres, a 32-year-old New York councilman, had a commanding lead in the primary for the seat of Democratic Congressman Jose Serrano, who is retiring at the end of his term. Torres, who calls himself the "embodiment of a pro-Israel progressive", won in a crowded race that included Samelys Lopez, who is supportive of advancing Palestinian human rights and opposing the occupation.

Middle East Eye delivers independent and unrivalled coverage and analysis of the Middle East, North Africa and beyond. To learn more about republishing this content and the associated fees, please fill out this form. More about MEE can be found here.