Pro-Israel heavyweight far behind as votes are counted in New York

Masked man with raised fist along with masked crowd

Jamaal Bowman campaigned through the COVID-19 pandemic. He promoted a grassroots effort against Congressman Eliot Engel and is now on the brink of victory.

Gina M. Randazzo ZUMA Press

A pro-Israel political heavyweight with backing from the Democratic Party establishment looks set to lose his seat in Congress.

As votes are counted in New York’s primary election held Tuesday, progressive challenger Jamaal Bowman has opened up a 26-point lead over incumbent Eliot Engel, with 698 of 732 districts reporting.

But the final tally won’t be known until thousands of absentee ballots are opened and counted on June 30.

If Bowman’s lead of nearly 12,000 votes holds, this would be a major upset.

Engel’s loss would be a blow both to right-wing supporters of Israeli policy and to establishment Democrats such as Hillary Clinton, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Senate Democratic Leader Chuck Schumer who all supported Engel.

Lobby group DMFI PAC – an offshoot of Democratic Majority for Israel – also actively backed Engel, though its anti-Bowman ad campaign did not mention Israel.

Bowman drew strong opposition from pro-Israel advocates over his suggestion that aid to Israel be conditioned on its treatment of Palestinians.

In defending his concerns about Palestinian rights, Bowman wrote recently that “the uprising we’re witnessing across the country against police violence also makes me empathize with the everyday experience and fear that comes with living under occupation.”

He added, “Just as the police force is a violent intimidating force in so many Black communities, I can connect to what it feels like for Palestinians to feel the presence of the military in their daily lives in the West Bank.”

And noting the “crushing poverty and deprivation in the Gaza Strip,” Bowman affirmed that “Palestinians have the same rights to freedom and dignity as my Jewish brothers and sisters.”

Such a bold comparison of the US uprising against police violence to Israeli military rule may be unprecedented language from anyone this close to joining Congress.

These are remarkably powerful words and may be reckoned with for a long time to come by both Palestine-rights activists and Black Lives Matter activists – as well as those seeking to limit freedom and equal rights.

Despite how Bowman only supports the boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS) movement as a free speech right, his language is a sea change from anything offered by Engel.

And it suggests that Bowman will be far more open to activists pushing him to take substantive action for Palestinian rights than almost all other members of Congress.

An Engel defeat and Democratic retention of the House of Representatives would mean a new chair of the House Foreign Affairs Committee.

Ted Deutch, who is closely connected to the Israel lobby group AIPAC, may be the leading candidate to replace Engel as committee chair.

If Engel is ousted, it would be reminiscent of the 2018 primary, which saw Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez unseat another establishment-backed senior Democratic lawmaker.

Since entering Congress two years ago, Ocasio-Cortez has become one of the key figures in the Democratic Party’s progressive wing.

Ocasio-Cortez handily won her own primary on Tuesday.

Not all the news coming out of New York pointed to changing sentiment on Palestinian rights.

Ritchie Torres, who has called himself the “embodiment of a pro-Israel progressive” and stands against the BDS movement for Palestinian freedom and equal rights, appears to have won his Democratic primary against Rubén Díaz Sr. and Samelys López, an advocate for Palestinian rights.

Torres has claimed that “BDS poisons whatever it touches.”

BDS is a Palestinian-led freedom movement calling for an end to the Israeli occupation, equal rights for Palestinian citizens of Israel and the right of refugees to return. It expressly opposes anti-Semitism and all forms of racism.


Michael F. Brown

Michael F. Brown is an independent journalist. His work and views have appeared in The International Herald Tribune,, The San Diego Union-Tribune, The News & Observer, The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, The Washington Post and elsewhere.