The War in Gaza Is Splintering the Democratic Party

Representative Jamaal Bowman, whose district encompasses several affluent Westchester County suburbs as well as a small part of the Bronx, last week planned a “healing breakfast” with Jewish constituents pained by his pro-Palestinian politics. A member of the informal alliance of a half-dozen or so young Black and brown left-wing representatives known as the Squad, Bowman won a primary against the district’s staunchly pro-Israel incumbent in 2020, fueled largely by the energy of that summer’s racial justice protests. But now, with the conflict in the Middle East inflaming American politics, he seemed likely to face his own primary challenge in June, one that will test the coalition between liberal Jews and people of color that is key to the progressive movement both in his district and in the country more broadly.

Bowman didn’t get into politics to work on Israel and Palestine. A brash, impassioned and sometimes impetuous former middle school principal, he was motivated by education and criminal justice reform. But like other members of the Squad, Bowman has developed a sympathy with the Palestinian cause that makes him an outlier in a Congress where deference to Israel is the norm.

He was one of nine Democrats to vote last month against a resolution expressing support for Israel and condemning Hamas, because, he said, it didn’t call for a two-state solution or for military de-escalation. Speaking at a rally held by Rabbis for Ceasefire this week, he said, rather presumptuously, “By me calling for a cease-fire with my colleagues and centering humanity, I am uplifting deeply what it actually means to be Jewish.”

Plenty of Jews in his district, including some who loathe Israel’s right-wing government, disagree, and have grown alienated from their congressman and the strain of progressive politics he represents. “People like me are not being given much to work with when we go to some of our beleaguered, anxious and frightened Jewish friends, and they are saying that the left is so infested with antisemitism that they can no longer be part of it,” said Lisa Genn, a local progressive activist who is part of a group called Jews for Jamaal.

With tensions in the district high, Bowman organized the breakfast so the community could talk things out in person. “Nobody’s going,” the head of the Westchester Board of Rabbis told New York Jewish Week, adding, “The relationship with the congressman has hit rock bottom, and he knows it, we know it.” Nevertheless, so many people R.S.V.P.ed that the meeting was moved from Bowman’s office in White Plains to the nearby Calvary Baptist Church.

When I arrived at the church that morning, a small group of protesters stood outside clutching signs. “Jews are not idiots. We know this is a P.R. stunt!” said one, held by a woman in a blue “Zioness” sweatshirt. “Bowman does not protect our Jewish students,” said another, held by Nancy Weinberger, a Democrat who has two children studying in Israel, and who was particularly incensed by Bowman’s recent vote against a House resolution condemning “the support of Hamas, Hezbollah and other terrorist organizations” on college campuses. “Can’t he give us one win?” she asked. “Can’t he vote in our interest at all?”

Soon the pastor of the church showed up, saw the demonstrators, and appeared to grow worried that Calvary Baptist would be seen as anti-Zionist. He abruptly canceled the event and called the police to clear everyone out. As Bowman’s staff tried to find a new location, Guy Baron, a protester wrapped in an Israeli flag, confronted the congressman in the church parking lot. “Your actions as our representative in Washington, D.C., are so painful to our community,” he said. “You have no idea. You are so out of touch with the Jewish members of your community.”

Baron inveighed against a slogan defended by Rashida Tlaib, another member of the Squad and the only Palestinian in Congress: “From the river to the sea, Palestine will be free.” The slogan was a major reason Tlaib was censured by the House last week, with 22 Democrats joining almost all but a few members of the Republican caucus.

“That is a call to genocide,” said Baron, “and you’re on their team.”

Bowman listened, his hands folded, then thanked Baron for sharing his feelings. “We are horrified by the rise of antisemitism that is happening all over the world, right here in our country, and right here in our community,” he said. “That is why we’re having this meeting and conversation today. Because we know and we acknowledge the trauma and the pain and the fear.”

Eventually, the meeting was moved back to Bowman’s office. About 40 people, including several of the protesters, gathered in a crowded semicircle in a low-ceilinged, fluorescent-lit room. Trays of bagels, scrambled eggs and pastrami sandwiches were brought in, but they went mostly untouched. Emotions were intense — there were repeated invocations of the Holocaust — but by absorbing his constituents’ outrage and grief, Bowman was able to keep the conversation civil.

“I am deeply concerned that the people that I’ve spent my life marching with are not marching with me,” Bill Giddins, a retiree from Bronxville, said to applause. “I am deeply concerned that when a Black person is damaged in America, I want to protect that person. I don’t feel the same from you and your office.” A few days before, a man had been arrested near the site of a local rally for the victims of Oct. 7 on charges of illegally carrying a semiautomatic weapon; his car was flying a Palestinian flag and had a swastika intertwined with a Jewish star scrawled on the side.

Bowman’s Jewish constituents tried to convey how an ancestral terror of annihilation had been newly awakened. “This is Westchester!” said one mother of young children. “How can we be feeling unsafe as Jews?”

“I myself can’t keep you safe,” said Bowman. “We, in this room, in this community, and me and my colleagues in elected office can do so. Not just with words, or political pandering, or virtue signaling,” but “sleeves up, in the room, figuring it out.”

Whether Bowman can figure out how to heal the rifts in his district will have implications beyond his slice of New York. Ahead of the existentially important 2024 election — which could bring Donald Trump, increasingly unabashed in his embrace of vengeful authoritarianism, back to power — some polls show Joe Biden’s support among young people and Arab Americans collapsing, likely because of the president’s backing of Israel’s war in Gaza. “People tell me they’re not voting Democrat, without me asking,” Bowman told me.

A series of ugly primary campaigns fought over Israel will only widen the progressive political divide. But with horror at conditions in Gaza and Jewish fear both ratcheting up, an intraparty clash over the future of the Squad now looks inevitable.

From left, the Squad members Cori Bush, Ayanna Pressley, Ilhan Omar and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez at a gathering calling for a cease-fire in Gaza.Credit…Mandel Ngan/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images
The crowd at an event called the Westchester Stands With Israel Rally, held last month at Temple Israel Center in White Plains.Credit…Mark Vergari/The Journal News-USA Today Network

As the left-leaning journalist Ryan Grim points out in his forthcoming book, “The Squad: AOC and the Hope of a Political Revolution,” the politics of Israel and Palestine have bedeviled the group ever since its first members burst onto the political scene in 2018.

The most famous figure in the Squad, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, rarely spoke about the Middle East in 2018, during her first congressional campaign, which was centered on the same economic issues that powered the Bernie Sanders movement. But that May, she’d tweeted about the Israeli military’s shooting of protesters in Gaza, calling it a “massacre.” After her primary victory, she was questioned about that tweet, and her stance on Israel, on the TV show “Firing Line.” She grew visibly flustered, and afterward decided to stop doing national interviews for a while.

“At the time, she betrayed a visceral sense of just how treacherous the issue could be for her, but she could never have guessed how significantly she had underestimated it,” wrote Grim.

It was even more treacherous for Tlaib and Ilhan Omar, the first two Muslim women in Congress, who’ve both voiced support for the boycott, divestment and sanctions movement against Israel. Both spoke for many left-wing voters, especially young ones, who see in the Palestinian struggle a reflection of their own battles against various forms of oppression. Both also, occasionally, invoked what many Jews see as antisemitic tropes about Jewish power and dual loyalty. Less than a week into her first term, for example, Tlaib tweeted that Senate supporters of an anti-B.D.S. bill “forgot what country they represent.” Not long after, Omar tweeted that fealty to Israel by U.S. political leaders was “all about the Benjamins.” Some of the early weeks of the new congressional session were consumed by an attempt, eventually watered down, to officially rebuke her.

Soon after the original members of the Squad were sworn in in 2019, Mark Mellman, a Democratic pollster who once did work for the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, or AIPAC, started a group called the Democratic Majority for Israel aimed in part at stopping their influence from growing. “Most Democrats are strongly pro-Israel and we want to keep it that way,” Mellman told The Times. “There are a few discordant voices, but we want to make sure that what’s a very small problem doesn’t metastasize into a bigger problem.”

To that end, the Democratic Majority for Israel tried hard to thwart Bowman when he ran against Eliot Engel in 2020. The group spent almost $2 million in the race, much of it on ads slamming Bowman for unpaid taxes. As Grim noted, hitting “a working-class Black man for financial troubles before he’d risen to become a successful principal in the area would have been considered tone-deaf in a New York Democratic primary in any recent cycle,” but especially amid the summer’s protests over the killing of George Floyd. The attack failed; Bowman ended up winning a blowout 15-point victory.

The district, whose contours have changed with redistricting and could change again before the primary, is about 50 percent Black and Latino, and voters of color were Bowman’s base. But they were joined by some Jews, who are thought to make up about 10 percent of the district’s population. “It was the time,” said Giddins, the Bronxville retiree, who backed Bowman in the past. “We have to coalesce and give Black people power. They’re entitled to it.”

But despite Bowman’s popularity, growing disaffection among Jews — who, according to The New York Times, probably make up 20 percent to 30 percent of the Democratic primary electorate in his district — could make him vulnerable. He’s one of several Squad members facing potentially formidable primary challenges over their stances on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

Omar is going to have a rematch against a former Minneapolis City Council member, Don Samuels, who lost to her by about two points in the 2022 primary. Cori Bush, a Missouri Democrat who emerged from the Black Lives Matter movement, is facing a primary challenge from a former political ally, the St. Louis County prosecutor Wesley Bell. Summer Lee, a Pittsburgh Democrat whose district includes the Tree of Life synagogue, site of an antisemitic mass murder in 2018, is being challenged by Bhavini Patel.

Bowman doesn’t have an opponent yet, but last month 26 rabbis in his district wrote a letter to Westchester’s popular county executive, George Latimer, imploring him to get into the race. Last week, a local TV station reported that Latimer had indeed decided to jump in, though he told me he still hadn’t made a formal decision and wouldn’t until he returned from a solidarity trip to Israel.

Should a few members of the Squad lose their primaries, the blow to Democratic unity could be severe. “Many of the young people or people of color, Muslim and Arab Democrats who support the Squad will feel like the party is not a place for them,” said Waleed Shahid, former communications director of the Justice Democrats, the group that recruited Ocasio-Cortez to run for office, and a senior adviser on Bowman’s 2020 campaign. “And they’ll either stay at home or they’ll go to a third party.”

Already, there are signs that the party is fracturing over Israel. According to a recent Reuters/Ipsos poll, about three-quarters of Democrats want a cease-fire, but few in the Democratic establishment share their views. Last week, in a rare gesture of defiance, more than 100 congressional staffers walked out to demand that their bosses back a cease-fire. More than 500 alumni of Biden’s 2020 presidential campaign and Democratic Party staff members have signed a letter imploring Biden to call for a cease-fire, saying, “If you fail to act swiftly, your legacy will be complicity in the face of genocide.”

If the conflict in Israel cools down in a few months, it might recede from the center of American politics. But the wounds it’s torn open will be hard to mend, because so many people are feeling betrayed. Many liberal Jews, mourning the mass murder in Israel and shaken by the upsurge of antisemitism at home, believed they’ve been abandoned by their allies. Advocates for the freedom and safety of Palestinians, horror-struck by more than 10,000 civilian deaths in Gaza, believe that the Democratic Party is giving its approval to atrocities. Bowman’s attempt to transcend this split in his own district, knowing how much ire would be directed at him, struck me as decent and brave. But when people discover that they see the world so radically differently, better communication alone might not be enough to bring them back together.

From the time he was elected, Bowman has had to traverse a minefield on the Middle East, facing pressure from both his pro-Israel Jewish constituents and from some of the left-wing groups that backed him. He’s mostly refused to tiptoe. Coming into office, Bowman was a member of the Democratic Socialists of America, but he angered the organization when he voted to fund Israel’s Iron Dome defense system. After he traveled to Israel and the West Bank with the left-leaning pro-Israel group J Street in 2021, some in the Democratic Socialists, which has a policy of boycotting Israel, moved to expel him. He ended up dropping his membership.

For all the blowback from the left, however, the trip solidified his abhorrence of the occupation of Palestine. “I got to see the giant wall built around the West Bank,” Bowman told me. He described being turned away from a checkpoint in the West Bank city of Hebron, where Palestinian movement is curtailed to accommodate a few hundred fanatical settlers, because he wasn’t Jewish. “And I thought that was ironic, because I’m literally a sitting member of Congress voting to support funding for the state of Israel,” he said.

He saw firsthand the way settlement expansion is making a contiguous Palestinian state nearly impossible. “I left feeling pretty overwhelmed and pretty dejected,” Bowman said, adding, “The rhetoric at home didn’t match the reality on the ground there, and specifically, the rhetoric around a two-state solution.” Bowman still believes in two states, but said, “The policies of the Israeli government haven’t gotten us there, and the U.S. hasn’t held Israel accountable towards helping us to get there.”

“At Jamaal’s core, he’s someone who believes in racial and social justice,” said Shahid, his former adviser. “And I think that a lot of the ways he thinks about the world were confirmed” by his trip to Israel. Shahid compared Bowman’s experience to that of the writer Ta-Nehisi Coates, who, speaking on the left-wing broadcast “Democracy Now,” described his own shocking encounter with the brutal segregation in Hebron. “I was in a territory where your mobility is inhibited,” said Coates. “Where your voting rights are inhibited. Where your right to the water is inhibited. Where your right to housing is inhibited, and it’s all inhibited based on ethnicity. And that sounded extremely, extremely familiar to me.”

It was familiar to Bowman, too. Given the congressman’s “experience as a racially conscious Black person,” said Shahid, “it’s hard not to see the parallels.”

Before going to Israel and Palestine, Bowman had co-sponsored legislation encouraging Arab states to normalize their relations with Israel. When he returned, he withdrew his sponsorship and announced he’d vote against the bill because, among other things, it didn’t take Palestinian interests into account. The move appalled rabbis in his district. Later, Bowman angered many Jewish constituents by co-sponsoring Tlaib’s resolution commemorating what Palestinians call the nakba, or catastrophe, referring to their expulsion from Israel during the country’s founding. He angered them further by boycotting the speech by Israel’s president, Isaac Herzog, to Congress in July.

Oct. 7 brought an already simmering discontent to a raging boil. A few days after the attacks, Bowman wanted to attend an Israeli solidarity rally held by the Westchester Jewish Council, but organizers advised him to stay away because he’d be received poorly. He has spoken out repeatedly against antisemitism, denouncing, for example, an Oct. 8 demonstration in Manhattan, promoted by the New York Democratic Socialists of America, where Hamas’s attacks were celebrated. But he hasn’t backed away from his fundamental view of the conflict, leaving the mainstream Jewish community feeling as if he’s run roughshod over their interests and sensitivities. “Actions against Israel affect the safety of the Jewish people everywhere,” said Weinberger, the woman with two children in Israel, adding, “We feel so helpless in Congress because of him. He’s taken our voice away.”

In 2022, despite mounting unhappiness with Bowman among some local Jewish leaders, national pro-Israel groups sat out his primary, determining, as Jewish Insider reported, that he “was likely unbeatable.” (He ended up winning about 57 percent of the vote in a four-way race.) But pro-Israel groups — one of which received funds from the disgraced crypto king Sam Bankman-Fried — poured an unprecedented amount of money into other primaries that year, a foretaste of the resources we could soon see mobilized against Bowman.

As Politico reported, the Democratic Majority for Israel spent $2 million to defeat the Bernie Sanders-backed Democrat Nina Turner in a 2022 Ohio primary. In Michigan, the United Democracy Project, a super PAC tied to AIPAC, spent a staggering $4.3 million to help beat Representative Andy Levin, a Jewish Democrat who had been outspoken in his criticism of Israel’s occupation. Some funding for the United Democracy Project came from Republican megadonors, including the Home Depot co-founder Bernie Marcus, a Trump supporter. These are not, needless to say, people who are averse to creating lasting ill will among Democrats.

“I’ve been in politics for 30 years, local, state and federal,” said Mark Pocan, a Wisconsin Democrat and former co-chair of the Congressional Progressive Caucus. “But last cycle was the first time I saw a really disturbing new phenomenon, which was two groups — cryptocurrency folks and AIPAC — getting involved in Democratic primaries with huge amounts of money,” often more than the candidates were spending themselves. We can expect to see even more outside money from groups supporting Israel deployed against the Squad in 2024. “The level of concern and engagement on the part of the pro-Israel community is at an extraordinarily high level,” Mellman, of Democratic Majority for Israel, told me.

These big-footed donors, who are overwhelmingly targeting representatives of color, are going to exacerbate the fissures in the Democratic Party. But they did not create them. Talking to some of the disenchanted voters at Bowman’s event, I was struck most not by their anger but by their heartbreak.

Diana Lovett, a Democratic Party district leader who held a fund-raiser for Bowman last year, said polarization over the congressman was tearing apart local Democrats. Leaving the event, she told me, with great sadness, that she didn’t feel she could back him anymore. “I love him personally,” she said. She’d spoken to him in October about their disagreement over Israel. “He was lovely, and he’s amazing, and he was the same warm and openhearted person that he was today,” she said.

But Lovett, who’d recently been hanging posters of kidnapped Israelis around town only to see them being torn down, had come to believe that their views on the Middle East are irreconcilable. “I think he sees what he believes to be an injustice, a grave injustice,” and that his votes are coming from a deep “moral consciousness,” she said. “And I think the pain and suffering he is causing to his constituents is some kind of collateral damage to that higher principle.”

If Bowman were a more transactional politician, he might have compromised on an issue so fraught in his community. But he is, for better or worse, very sincere. Lovett was dreading “an insanely divisive primary,” but didn’t see any way around it. “He’s not going to convince us, and we’re not going to convince him,” she said.

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