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  /  Editor's Pick   /  Tensions over Israel-Gaza war shape heated Democratic primary in New York

Tensions over Israel-Gaza war shape heated Democratic primary in New York

Earlier this month, a powerful pro-Israel group gathered donors at a summit outside Washington, where organizers played a video montage of some top targets for defeat in this year’s Democratic primaries. It ended with a clip of Rep. Jamaal Bowman (D-N.Y.) — and a surprise in-person appearance from his primary challenger, George Latimer. The crowd erupted in applause as a QR code appeared on a screen behind Latimer for donors to give to his campaign.

The appearance at the American Israel Public Affairs Committee gathering, which two attendees with knowledge of the event described on the condition of anonymity to speak about a private meeting, showed the frictions at the heart of the Democratic primary in New York’s 16th Congressional District, one of the highest-profile tests of the divisions and evolving attitudes in the party over the Israel-Gaza war. From New York to Pennsylvania to Missouri, disputes over the war and the U.S. response have become focal points in Democratic primaries.

The tensions — which span ideology, policy and race — are evident in Bowman’s district, which includes affluent suburbs of Westchester County, home to one of the nation’s densest population’s of Jewish residents, and dips into a slice of the north Bronx, a largely Black borough of New York City, where Bowman, who is Black, worked as a school principal. The voting-age population in the district is nearly half people of color.

Bowman has been one of the most outspoken critics of Israel’s military response to Hamas’s deadly terrorist attacks last fall, decrying what he calls the “slaughter of civilians” in Gaza. Some of his allies have branded Latimer “Genocide George” and questioned the challenger’s support for Muslims — a charge Latimer says is outrageous. Bowman and his supporters have also likened the Israeli military’s treatment of Palestinians to police treatment of Black Americans in the United States.

“Black people and Palestinians are criminalized just for existing,” wrote Rep. Rashida Tlaib (D-Mich.), the only Palestinian American in Congress, in a fundraising email for Bowman in February.

Powerful pro-Israel groups have rallied behind Latimer and have vowed to spend millions unseating Bowman. Latimer, the Westchester County executive, visited Israel weeks after Hamas’s attack and said he was motivated to run in part because of Bowman’s criticism of the country’s government, which he has said has the right to defend itself. He suggested in an interview last month that Bowman doesn’t care about Israelis, “only the plight of Palestinians.”

The competition comes amid growing Democratic anger with Israel’s military efforts, even as divisions remain stark in the district, according to interviews with strategists and activists. A Gallup poll conducted this month shows 18 percent of Democrats nationwide approve of Israel’s military actions, down from 36 percent who said they did in November.

After Hamas attacked Israel on Oct. 7, killing at least 1,200 people and taking hostage around 250 more, Israel swiftly launched military attacks in Gaza, where the death toll has surpassed 30,000, nearly 2 million Palestinians are displaced and the area is without adequate food, water and medicine. Many Democrats initially voiced staunch support for Israel, but recently prominent leaders including President Biden and Senate Majority Leader Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.) have stepped up criticism of the Israeli government.

Latimer has endorsed Biden’s embrace of an immediate cease-fire of at least six weeks — a reflection of the larger change in tone within the party. Bowman knocked Latimer for the time it took for him to arrive at that position and argues that Biden’s proposal still does not go far enough, as he has kept up his calls for a permanent cease-fire.

Clear disagreements remain between Latimer and Bowman. Democratic primary voters will pick a nominee on June 25, and strategists and observers see a competitive race. The winner is considered a lock to win the seat in November due to the district’s strong Democratic tilt.

National polls show voters under 40 are more likely to oppose Israel’s military actions. Noel Casey, a 29-year-old community organizer in Yonkers, said people her age are very upset about the war.

“The destruction is so uneven, disproportionate, people can’t sit by and have the Biden administration blindly support this with no end sight,” Casey said. “I think the way Jamaal has handled it is the most levelheaded you could be about this.” She added that Biden and other Democrats wouldn’t have shifted their tone “if the original folks like Bowman” had not been so vocal.

But critics of Bowman, such as Catherine Parker, a Westchester County legislator who unsuccessfully challenged Bowman in the 2022 Democratic primary, say he’s not the right fit for the district.

“What I sense and have been sensing throughout the district is people have come together in solidarity with Israel, people have been standing together, and unfortunately Congressman Bowman has been glaringly absent at much of that. Jewish constituents feel really betrayed. It’s a very deep hurt,” Parker said.

Bowman, who ousted a staunch pro-Israel hawk, Eliot L. Engel, in the Democratic primary four years ago, swiftly called for a cease-fire in the Middle East after Oct. 7. He was one of only nine Democrats to vote against a resolution weeks later avowing support for Israel and condemning Hamas. Bowman said he voted against it because it made no mention of what Palestinians in Gaza were enduring. He stood outside the White House at the end of November and accused Israel of “genocide.”

After the fighting erupted last fall, Bowman won praise for his stance from liberal activists and outrage from many Jewish constituents. Weeks after the attack he convened a “healing breakfast” in the district to try to ease tensions.

For many of the Jewish attendees, his appeals didn’t work, according to a friend of Bowman who attended.

“Jamaal was working really hard at trying to get people to see the nuance, but the disappointment and anger were there,” David Greene, who is Jewish, said late last year. The message from many people in the room, according to the liberal activist and retired teacher: “We loved you, and now we don’t.”

In January, Bowman lost the endorsement of J Street, a liberal pro-Israel group that backed away from him because its leaders felt he embraced extreme rhetoric about Israel, according to Jeremy Ben-Ami, J Street’s president. A final straw, according to Ben-Ami, was Bowman celebrating provocative anti-Israel activist Norman Finkelstein, who said on Oct. 7 that “it warms every fiber of my soul” to “see arrogant Jewish supremacist oppressors have, finally, been humbled.” The congressman later apologized for his support.

Bowman recently walked back comments Politico first reported this week that he made at a November pro-Palestinian rally, calling reports that Israeli women were raped on Oct. 7 “propaganda” and “a lie.” He said in a statement this week that the United Nations confirmed that Hamas committed rape, “a reprehensible fact that I condemn entirely.”

But as images of the death and destruction in Gaza have circulated, more Americans have come to feel that Israel has gone too far in its response, polls show. Greene said he has talked to people who were upset with Bowman’s viewpoint on Israel and have now “mellowed a bit.”

“The district and the country has evolved. We have people who want to see us take a diplomatic approach to the Middle East. And the majority of people want to see our Jewish brothers and sisters be safe, but also our Palestinian and Muslim brothers and sisters to be safe as well,” Bowman said in an interview last month.

He and his campaign have stepped up criticism of Latimer’s support from AIPAC and other well-funded pro-Israel groups, arguing they are working to unseat Black and Brown members of Congress. “This isn’t hard! The civilian death toll is catastrophic. Children are starving. We must listen to constituents. Not a closed-door room of GOP donors,” he posted on X this month.

“We really don’t want AIPAC deciding who our political representatives are,” said Peter Bernstein, chairman of the local Working Families Party and a Bowman supporter. “They don’t care about the district needs; they only care about Israel.”

Coming off the protests over the killing of George Floyd in the summer of 2020, Bowman successfully pitched himself as more attuned to the needs of the district, particularly the plight of lower-income people in Black communities. When asked in the interview last month about Israel, he pivoted to other issues that he says are more pressing to people in the district.

Bowman and his allies have also hit Latimer for drawing support from non-Democrats. The Jewish advocacy organization Orthodox Union launched a group called Westchester Unites, which persuaded 2,000 Republicans and independents to register as Democrats ahead of the primary, according to a person familiar with the group’s plans who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss strategy. The organization’s goal is to build support for Latimer, the person said.

Latimer said of Bowman: “There are a lot of people that are angry with him that predates my involvement in the race. I can’t control what those [groups] do.” He noted that AIPAC supports other Black lawmakers, including House Minority Leader Hakeem Jeffries of (D-N.Y.). “And it’s because of their position on Israel not the color of their skin,” Latimer said. Jeffries on Thursday endorsed Bowman’s reelection.

Beyond Bowman’s record on foreign policy, Latimer has portrayed his rival as a showboat.

Last March, Bowman got into a public yelling match with a Republican lawmaker over gun control, then in May had another altercation with far-right Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene (R-Ga.). He pulled a fire alarm in a U.S. House office building, forcing an evacuation that led the House the formally censure him and for authorities to charge him with a misdemeanor.

Bowman said last year if his actions bring attention to important issues then he makes “no apologies for being demonstrative and loud, and drawing national attention on myself.”

In a video launching his campaign in December, Latimer singled out Bowman’s vote against the November Israel resolution, showing the congressman on the House floor speaking against it.

In an interview later that month, Latimer criticized Bowman’s posture on Israel in sharp terms. He slammed Bowman’s early comments after the Oct. 7 attacks offering sympathy to Israel but also criticizing the Israeli government’s treatment of Palestinians.

“Everything before the word ‘but’ is bulls–t. Because what you really want to say is what comes after the word ‘but,’” Latimer said.

AIPAC is backing Latimer because Bowman had “aligned with the anti-Israel extremist fringe,” said AIPAC spokesman Marshall Wittman. Individual donations made to Latimer via AIPAC totaled around $400,000 between December 2023 and February, according to the most recent Federal Election Commission filings.

AIPAC is expected to spend as much as $100 million trying to unseat some members of the “Squad” of liberal lawmakers of color, currently focused on Bowman and Rep. Cori Bush (Mo.), but “looking hard” at other Squad members facing primaries, according to a person familiar with AIPAC’s thinking who was not authorized to speak on the record.

Another pro-Israel super PAC, Democratic Majority for Israel, is also expected to put its full weight behind ousting Bowman.

“It is the animating force behind the Latimer candidacy when it comes to where the money and the most enthusiastic support is from,” said Evan Roth Smith, a New York Democratic pollster, speaking of the pro-Israel groups backing Latimer.

In an interview in February, Latimer said that Israel “has got a lot to answer for too,” referring to the number of Palestinian deaths. But he added, “Israel did not start this with a horrific attack on Palestinian people. This began with Hamas, with a well-planned effort to murder people. And that to me is the seminal act that triggers everything else.”

A longtime presence in local politics with a penchant for campaigning in intimate settings, Latimer has been a well-liked county executive here for nearly six years and before that served in state and local government since 1987.

AJ Woodson, editor of Black Westchester, a local publication that focuses on African American issues and labeled Latimer “Genocide George,” said he had been supportive of Latimer as county executive but was angry when he decided to run against Bowman, the first Black person to represent Westchester in the U.S. House.

“This election will sort of be about Israel and it shouldn’t because it has nothing to do with the Westchester county community,” Woodson said.

When he arrived at the Scarsdale Village menorah lighting on the sixth night of Hanukkah last December, Latimer’s recently launched campaign was on the minds of many Jewish attendees gathered on a crisp evening for latkes and jelly doughnuts.

“If you’re not in favor of justice, unfortunately, you’re just not someone that I want sitting up and speaking for me,” said Sergi Flaster, 53, over pulsing music in Hebrew. Flaster, who hurried over to shake Latimer’s hand, added, “I can’t wait to see [Bowman] go and be replaced by George.”

A few days after the Oct. 7 attacks, Latimer gave an impassioned speech at a vigil in a local synagogue that left many attendees in tears and ended with a standing ovation, according to people who were there.

Nearly six months later, Latimer said that people do “want to see the bloodshed stop” but that he believes most people who support a cease-fire want to see Israeli hostages released as part of any pause in fighting.

“People are reacting to the way these issues are being framed,” Latimer said this week. “If you frame it as, remember how this began, Hamas is not an honest player. Hostage lives are still being used as a pawn and that is not right, it’s just not right.”

Clara Ence Morse contributed to this report.

This post appeared first on The Washington Post