On June 23, voters in New York’s 16th district will go to the polls to pick a Democratic nominee for congress. Rep. Eliot Engel (who has been a congressman since 1989) will be squaring off against progressive challenger Jamaal Bowman, a New York educator. The race has heated up recently, as Senator Bernie Sanders and Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez have endorsed Bowman. It’s also emerged as a symbol of the growing shift within the Democratic Party over the issue of Israel.
Engel is chair of the House Foreign Affairs Committee and one of the most pro-Israel Democrats in the congress. His campaign’s website celebrates his longtime commitment to the country:
I support strengthening our close security relationship with Israel, and I support defense cooperation, such as the Iron Dome, that allows for closer collaboration in innovation and technology. I have cosponsored H.R. 1837, the United States–Israel Cooperation Enhancement and Regional Security Act, to further strengthen the U.S.-Israel collaboration on areas such as desalinization, transportation, and veterans affairs. Additionally, the Global Boycott Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) Movement has sought to delegitimize the existence of Israel as a state. I support H.Res.246, a resolution opposing efforts to delegitimize the State of Israel and the Global Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions Movement targeting Israel and supporting the two-state solution.
Additionally, Engel supported the Trump administration moving the U.S. embassy to Jerusalem, which he called “the eternal capital of the Jewish people and the State of Israel.” He also opposed the Iran Nuclear Deal and criticized the Obama administration’s opposition to settlement expansion in 2009. “I don’t see how it’s fair if a family has a house in one of the blocks of the settlements and they have more children and want to add to that house, I don’t think that ought to be stopped. This sort of ironclad clamping down on natural expansion of settlements is misguided,” said Engel.
Bowman is not a BDS supporter, but he wants the U.S. to rejoin the Iran Deal and he believes that military aid to Israel should be conditioned over its human rights record. “This is not about singling out Israel and targeting Israel,” Bowman told Jewish Insider earlier this month, “This is about any country that we provide aid to that’s committing human rights violations — we need to have a conversation about conditioning some aid if those violations continue.”
Bowman expanded on his views in an interview with Jacobin last fall:
As Netanyahu calls for expanding settlements and annexing the West Bank, we should seriously consider placing conditions on the billions of dollars of military aid our government provides him in order to make sure that the rights and dignity of both the Israeli and Palestinian people are respected. I just don’t understand why American taxpayers are subsidizing the detention of Palestinian children while Democrats are criticizing child detention at the Mexican border. The principles of the Leahy Law should be upheld.
These comments suggest that he would cosponsor Rep. Betty McCollum’s historic bill promoting the human rights of Palestinian children.
As previously mentioned, Bowman is backed by Bernie Sanders, the only Democratic nominee to consistently bring up the concept of conditioning military aid to Israel on the campaign trail and a frequent target of pro-Israel organizations and lobby groups. Bowman’s candidacy is also supported progressive organization Justice Democrats (a group that criticizes the U.S. for continuing to send Israel billions in military aid amid settlement expansion and proposed annexation) and the Jewish, anti-occupation group IfNotNow. “We need to fundamentally reevaluate our priorities, abroad and at home,” reads the IfNotNow statement endorsing Bowman, “A humane foreign policy is a necessary part of the America we are trying to win, and we know that ending the occupation and ensuring freedom and dignity for all Israelis and Palestinians is part of that fight.”
Pro-Israel lobbying groups have coalesced around Engel and seem increasingly concerned about the possibility of an AOC-level upset. FEC filings show that Pro Israel America (a PAC launched by former AIPAC officials) has spent over $56,000 on the race. Democratic Majority for Israel (DMFI), a group specifically created to stomp growing pro-Palestinian sentiment among progressives, has also spent big on Engel. You’ll recall that DMFI helped fund anti-Bernie ads after Sanders briefly emerged as the Democratic front runner.
In The American Prospect, Donald Shaw reports that Engel has received over $260,000 from dark money groups overall. Two of those groups are Avacy Initiatives and Perise Practical. Shaw writes:
The FEC disclosures filed by Avacy Initiatives and Perise Practical are signed by David Krone, a former chief of staff to former Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.). In December 2019, Krone praised an executive order from President Trump enabling the government to withhold funds from universities that do not tamp down on Boycott, Divestment and Sanction (BDS) efforts against Israel on their campuses.
The Engel/Bowman contest could end up being a watershed moment when it comes to the Democrats and Israel, as conditioning military aid to the country is emerging as the mainstream position among the progressive faction of the party. Numerous polls have shown that this development simply mirrors a wider shift among Democratic voters. As Data For Progress Senior Fellow and IfNotNow co-founder Emma Saltzberg wrote in her report on one such poll, “These results suggest that Democratic voters are not holding Israel to a different standard than they would hold any other recipient of US military aid dollars. They also suggest that Democratic politicians who float the possibility of changes to the US–Israel aid relationship do so with the support of their party’s voters.”