In August 2014, I helped organize and moderated a gut-wrenching panel on Capitol Hill during Israel’s ferocious Operation Protective Edge, its 50-day spree of war crimes unleashed against Palestinians in the besieged Gaza Strip.
The panel featured searing testimony from Tariq Abukhdeir, the Florida teen who had been viciously beaten by Israeli border police while handcuffed the previous month after his cousin Mohammed had been savagely murdered by Israeli extremists, and author Laila El-Haddad, who had received the horrific news that very day that the Israeli military killed eight members of her family.
C-SPAN covered the event live, a move so disconcerting to Israel’s supporters on Capitol Hill that the network was forced to temporarily cut away from the panel to cover a rambling, impromptu paean to Israel delivered by Sen. Barbara Boxer to a largely empty chamber.
The room was so packed to capacity with Members of Congress, Hill staff, media, and the general public (former Rep. Keith Ellison, currently Minnesota’s Attorney General prosecuting the case against the police officers who killed George Floyd, took an unassuming seat on the floor) that we decided to run another panel immediately afterward to accommodate the crush of people who could not get in.
During the break between the panels, I stepped into the corridor of the Rayburn House Office Building to try to decompress after these devastating testimonies. Lo and behold, Rep. Eliot Engel (D-NY), that bastion of old school, pro-Israel Democratic orthodoxies, strode toward me. I buttonholed him by the elevator and told him he needed to come across the hall and listen to these powerful witnesses to the atrocities committed by Israel with the weapons and political support he so munificently helped provide.
Naturally, he declined because ignorance is bliss. So I entered the elevator with him and continued to harangue him about the need to end US funding for Israel. “Cut funding to Israel?” he asked as if he misheard. “No, I support increasing funding to Israel,” he smugly replied.
I reflected on this brief encounter as I woke up to the joyous news that Jamaal Bowman, the progressive Democratic primary challenger, holds a commanding lead–61 to 36 percent–over Engel with more than 90 percent of precincts reporting as of this writing. Official results will not be available until after absentee ballots are counted on June 30, which could conceivably, but are unlikely to, sway the election for Engel.
Bowman’s apparent victory is not a setback for the Israel lobby–it is a monumental collapse. Engel is not an interchangeable automaton regurgitating AIPAC talking points. As the eighth-ranking Democratic Representative in seniority, Engel has a more than three-decade-long track record unmatched by any other Democrat in the House of Representatives of introducing, sponsoring, and successfully legislating dozens of bills and resolutions to cement unequivocal US support for Israel apartheid rule over the Palestinian people.
From 2013 to 2019, Engel served as the Ranking Member (the most senior committee member of the minority party) of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, and as its Chair for the past two years. The centrality of these positions is difficult to overstate in the formulation of congressional foreign policy. The chair and ranking members determine who gets called to testify, which pieces of legislation are brought before the committee, how legislation gets “marked up” (amended), and which pieces of legislation are brought forward to leadership for a floor vote. His leadership of the committee ensures, for example, that Rep. Betty McCollum’s (D-MN) legislation promoting the human rights of Palestinian children, would never get a vote.
Engel’s primary defeat, combined with the upcoming retirement of Rep. Nita Lowey (D-NY)–another bastion of pro-Israel Democratic policy-making -who Chairs the Appropriations Committee and ensures Israel’s annual military funding, presents an opportunity to better align Democratic policy-making toward Israel and the Palestinian people with the growing pro-Palestinian sentiments of the party’s base.
Engel’s apparent loss is also seminal because it punctures the Israel lobby’s carefully cultivated mythologizing of omnipotence and invincibility that serves to cow other Members of Congress into quiescence. A handful of names of defeated Senators and Representatives–Charles Percy, Paul Findley, Pete McCloskey, Cynthia McKinney, Earl Hilliard, and Dennis Kucinich–are routinely trotted out by friend and foe alike as purported proof of the Israel lobby’s seeming ability to knock out those deemed friendly to Palestinian rights.
This mythologizing ignores the opportunistic nature of the Israel lobby’s role in the electoral defeats of these incumbents. Although Israel lobby support undoubtedly played an important part, attributing sole causality ignores changes in district demographics, redistricting, and veteran politicians losing touch with their constituents–more prosaic, yet undeniably important, multi-variable explanations for their vulnerabilities.
For many years, Engel appeared to be a prime candidate to become the poster boy demonstrating the converse vulnerability of the Israel lobby. The lumbering dinosaur had become badly out-of-touch with the changing political sensibilities and demographic evolution of his district. This disconnectedness was perfectly encapsulated by his recent callous hot mic admission that he only wanted to speak at a Black Lives Matter rally because he had a primary challenger.
If Bowman espoused standard AIPAC talking points, then his victory over Engel would not have been such a crushing defeat for the Israel lobby, but rather merely an inconvenient loss of a key player.
However, Bowman’s official platform firmly places him within the most progressive circle of current Democratic Members of Congress and is worth quoting in detail:
We must also have honest conversations about our government’s role in enabling the continued occupation of the Palestinian people. Our taxpayer dollars should not be going toward subsidizing settlement expansion, home demolitions, the detention of Palestinian children, or in any way supporting the threatened Israeli “annexation” of the West Bank. Past presidents like Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush used our financial leverage to promote peace in the region as well. We must ensure that U.S. support is used to address the very real security threats Israel faces, not to entrench the occupation.
The fact that pro-Israel PAC’s, including Republican Super PAC’s, spent millions of dollars in a futile attempt to stave off Bowman’s momentum and apparent victory is a humiliation for the Israel lobby. More importantly, this signals to Democrats that they do not need to fear the purported power of the Israel lobby any longer, and that they can speak to and reflect the growing base of support for Palestinian rights within the base of the party even in a contest against an old-school Democratic Party stalwart supporter of Israel like Engel.