Politics / Column / June 26, 2024

Jamaal Bowman Didn’t Lose Because of AIPAC

Their astonishing spending mattered less than how the congressman’s Jewish constituents weighed his words and actions.

Alexis Grenell
Representative Jamaal Bowman (D-NY) lost his bid for reelection to New York’s 16th Congressional District.(Michael M. Santiago / Getty)

The American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) is absolutely slaphappy about Jamaal Bowman’s defeat on Tuesday, claiming as much credit as it can for spending an eye-popping $14.5 million to elect George Latimer to Congress. Given the group’s repeated failure to knock out members of the Squad, they’ve long been desperate for a win, but they overpaid for bragging rights. Way back in January, well before AIPAC even spent a dime, the Latimer campaign had internal polls showing him up 10 points over the incumbent: That’s a massive lead for a non-incumbent, which testifies to Bowman’s weaknesses. Latimer later won by 17 points. What really made the difference in the race were Jewish voters themselves: people who live in the district, some of whom voted for Bowman previously, some of whom did not—the majority of whom could not stomach his rhetoric around the war in Gaza, exacerbated by an indifference bordering on hostility to their fears and feedback. It’s easy to blame Bowman’s loss primarily on AIPAC, but that would be as misleading as it is for them to claim credit. The real story here is much more straightforward—and sad.

There are about 130,000 Jews in Westchester, representing 9 percent of the population, who typically account for 20 percent of the vote. This year they reached 24 percent, with more than 50 percent of the mail-in vote coming from likely Jewish constituents, thanks in large part to a GOTV operation called Westchester Unites. Westchester Unites identified a universe of 27,000 likely Jewish Democrats, focusing on those who had voted in one of the last four primaries, casual voters rather than prime voters. It then ran an aggressive organizing campaign to turn out a staggering 15,000 Jewish voters, among them approximately 2,000 Republicans and Independents whom it re-registered as Democrats—an underhanded and ultimately unnecessary move given Latimer’s margin of victory. However, as a 501(c)(3), Westchester Unites was expressly forbidden from pushing a candidate. It canvassed, phone banked, and sent mailers full of information about how to vote without any mention of a candidate, and organized throughout the 40 Jewish institutions in the district, across religious denominations. Its main message was “antisemitism is on the ballot,” betting that Jews would do their own research and find Bowman’s words and actions sufficiently motivating.

A non-exhaustive list: describing the war in Gaza as a “genocide,” a term that Bernie Sanders has explicitly resisted; disputing that the attack was unprovoked; using the settler colonialism framework that posits Jews as non-Indigenous interlopers in a land they have no claim to; praising well-known Jewish provocateur Norman Finkelstein, whose book The Holocaust Industry accuses Jews of exploiting the Holocaust and promotes conspiracy theories (he later apologized); generally promoting or aligning with groups and people who celebrated October 7 as “resistance”; characterizing Jewish settlement patterns in Westchester as segregated; using “Zionist” as a pejorative.

These are not people AIPAC “controls,” as Bowman described the group’s grip on Congress, although voters most certainly saw their Web ads, which featured truly ugly footage of Bowman denying that Hamas raped Israeli women on October 7 (he eventually apologized, sort of). Presumably, these voters were scared and offended by what they heard from Bowman, and voted accordingly.

This is where the institutional left needs to do some serious self-criticism. The explicitly anti-Zionist Jewish Voices for Peace and the Jewish Vote—the 501(c)(4) arm of Jews for Racial and Economic Justice, which counts 500 members in NY16—are simply not representative of the majority of Jewish voters. And it’s not because that majority are “AIPAC voters” or “pro-genocide” as Representative Ilhan Omar slandered Jewish students at Columbia who were not part of the encampments. Polling repeatedly shows that most Jews in America support a two-state solution, an end to the war, the hostages returned home, and Netanyahu out of power—positions well-represented by the liberal Zionist organization J-Street.

Bowman lost J-Street’s endorsement and Jewish voters who’d previously supported him not only because he moved away from this position but also because he flirted with and then fully ingratiated himself to a section of the left that does not believe in Israel’s right to exist at all, often bleeding into an antisemitism that I’ve written about extensively. Bowman went deep down this spiral when he could’ve more easily faced his voters if he’d stuck to a substantive critique of US foreign policy. Maxwell Frost (D-FL), who campaigned with Bowman in the Bronx, describes himself as “pro-Israel and pro-Palestine,” and managed to unequivocally condemn Hamas while cosponsoring a resolution calling for a cease-fire as early as October. He is neither a favorite of AIPAC nor beloved by hardline pro-Palestine activists who demonstrated against him at a concert. Conditioning aid to Israel sounds completely reasonable when it isn’t wrapped in rhetoric about settler colonialism, and extended lectures from non-Jews and the minority of Jews who agree with them about weaponizing antisemitism.

By framing the race as a proxy battle with the “Zionist regime we call AIPAC,” Bowman ended up treating Jewish voters in the district as if they themselves were foreign to it, as opposed to people with legitimate concerns about his representation of their concerns. As one Jewish, J-Street-aligned former Bowman supporter put it in a recent HuffPost story: “He created alliances that shouldn’t be created. I shouldn’t be allying with an AIPAC candidate.” Things veered into hypocrisy when Bowman rallied outside of the district with Bernie Sanders and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez—arguing that right-wing billionaires were trying to buy the district, when only 10 percent of his own contributions came from within.

Bowman is not an antisemite. The problem is that antisemitism is a conspiracy theory, and it turns out that Bowman is a little conspiracy-curious—which makes it easy to find himself spouting the kind of rhetoric that sounds warning bells for many Jews. AIPAC is a single-issue organization that lobbies Congress and spends obscene amounts of money to influence elections on the only issue it cares about: unconditional support for Israel’s current government (which for nearly 20 years has meant the corrupt, racist, expansionist Netanyahu regime). That means happily backing the January 6 insurrectionists, among others, so long as they toe the line on Israel. This has a corrosive effect on our democracy that’s unambiguously bad—but not uniquely evil. Contrary to Bowman’s claim that “they oppose the working class, multiracial, multieconomic, multicultural democracy that we are trying to build,” AIPAC really just cares about Israel. Building it up into an all-powerful front against all things good doesn’t help progressives, Palestinians, or the Jews who support them. Also considering how much AIPAC loses, turning it into an all-powerful boogeyman only redounds to its benefit. So, too, the attempt to retrofit Latimer into a racist running a Southern strategy, rather than talking more about his indefensible refusal to raise taxes on the rich. Latimer made plenty of cringeworthy comments about race, but he just wasn’t monster material. It mostly made Bowman seem disconnected from the reality on the ground. Local Black leaders endorsed Latimer in Mount Vernon and Yonkers, where he seems to won handily.

I’m not happy about any of this. I grew up in the non-Riverdale, Bronx portion of the district Bowman first won before it was redrawn, and he would’ve been my candidate (I’ve also defended him in The Nation). There are 50 Latimers already serving in Congress, and he will neither stand up to the Netanyahu government nor represent the 25 percent of the district that is Black better than Bowman. But it is Bowman’s mistake to think that he lost because AIPAC was able to “brainwash people into believing something that isn’t true,” as he said in his concession speech. The Jewish voters who could not support him are not mindless drones, and neither are the vast majority of non-Jewish voters who contributed to his 60-40 loss.

At some level he—and the movement that supported him—has to own that.

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Alexis Grenell

Alexis Grenell is a columnist for The Nation. She is a political consultant who writes frequently about gender and politics.

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