As a resident of the Bronx for more than 30 years, a proud member of the Jewish community and a strong supporter of Israel, I feel compelled to express outrage at some of the tactics that a self-identified “pro-Israel” group has used at the end of the recent primary ace to attack congressional candidate Jamaal Bowman.
U.S. Rep. Eliot Engel, the incumbent in my district for more than three decades, is endorsed by a group called Democratic Majority for Israel. As the campaign wound down, the group’s political action committee began broadcasting a shameless attack ad that digs through Mr. Bowman’s tax records to accuse him of owing roughly $2,000 in unpaid taxes, dating back to 2004.
The heavy-handed ad evidently intends to signal to voters that Mr. Bowman is untrustworthy or even vaguely criminal, highlighting tax “warrants” against him.
Mr. Bowman already has stated that he has now paid the bill, and that the unpaid taxes were the result of financial difficulties he experienced more than 15 years ago — difficulties that are surely very relatable for many thousands of people in our district. In the realm of politics, this kind of attack is, of course, hardly new.
But one has to ask: What on Earth does it have to do with Israel?
In June, in the midst of a nationwide reckoning over our country’s long legacy of systemic racism, why would a Democratic pro-Israel group stoop to using such an underhanded attack against an inspiring progressive Black man, a school principal campaigning on a platform of racist and social justice?
Democratic Majority endorses Rep. Engel because they agree with and support his views and track record on Israel, which tend to align with their own strong reluctance to seriously criticize Israeli government decisions or speak out in support of Palestinian rights. Both Democratic Majority and Engel have been very critical of Bowman’s foreign policy positions, accusing him of being “anti-Israel.”
The group has every right to endorse whichever candidates they want, and to make such arguments. But if their involvement in this race is truly about Israel, surely Democratic Majority should be running ads on the subject. Instead, they are engaging in ugly attacks totally unrelated to foreign policy while false claiming to represent the majority of American Jews. They are misrepresenting the pro-Israel community and the Jewish community in our district, falsely implying that we sanction this scaremongering against Bowman and other progressive people of color.
In fact, many pro-Israel Jewish people in our district would also strongly object to the characterization of Bowman as “bad for Israel” — as I do. Like the overwhelming majority of Jews across the country, we strongly support a two-state solution that will guarantee security, self-determination and human rights for both Israelis and Palestinians.
We believe that Israeli government policies like occupation, settlement expansion and threatened annexation in the West Bank endanger Israel’s future, trample on Palestinian rights, and undermine our Jewish and democratic values. And we believe that it’s incumbent upon those who truly care about Israel’s well being to publicly criticize and oppose these policies, and to make clear they are deeply harmful to the U.S.-Israel relationship.
The debate over what true support for Israel looks like in 2020 is an important one — and Democratic Majority should welcome it, rather than hiding behind nasty ads on unrelated subjects. On their website, they state that their mission is to “work to maintain and strengthen support for Israel among Democratic leaders, including presidential and congressional candidates, as well as with the grassroots of progressive movements.” Yet their actions are having precisely the opposite effect.
Spending hundreds of thousands of dollars to attack progressive candidate — and, in particular, candidates of color — does not win friends or influence people in progressive politics. It does not generate sympathy for Israel’s genuine needs and concerns. Instead, it harmfully exacerbates divides between American Jews and communities of color (and harms Jews of color as well).
It makes it harder to have genuine constructive debates about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and U.S. foreign policy. It makes things worse for all of us — in New York’s 16th Congressional District, and beyond.
Personally, I plan to vote for Jamaal Bowman. On a wide range of issues — including his support for Israel’s well being, staunch opposition to occupation and commitment to Palestinian rights — his views align with my own. I have friends who intend to vote for him, and others who intend to vote for Rep. Engel — and I fully respect both those choices.
But whoever we’re supporting in this race, I hope we in the Jewish and pro-Israel communities can agree that the divisive and misleading electioneering tactics employed by Democratic Majority for Israel are harmful, and call on them to stop.
The author is a member of the board of directors of the United Jewish Appeal-Federation of Jewish Philanthropies of New York, and of his Orthodox Jewish congregation.