It is usually a mistake to try to draw historical lessons from events just days old. It’s an even dicier proposition when it involves just the 50,000 voters who participated in last Tuesday’s Democratic primary in New York’s 16th district. But I’ve been working for years on a book about the history of the Israel/Palestine debate in the United States and I’m going to risk it, because I think American politics—specifically American Jewish politics—is undergoing a significant shift with important implications.
Whether drawn to socialism, communism, anarchism, or plain old liberalism, American Jews have always tended toward the left side of the political spectrum. And for many decades, the founding and defense of the state of Israel proved largely consistent with the social and economic liberal ethos upon which the American Jewish community eventually settled. Sure, the story that American Jews told themselves about Israel was always a distorted one, and the Zionist ideology Israel eventually embraced was far more amenable to democracy and equality in theory than in practice. But wasn’t that true of American liberalism as well? Yes, a significant percentage of the 750,000 or so Palestinians who were exiled in 1948 did not leave voluntarily and the ones who remained did not enjoy anything like the democratic rights or economic opportunities that Israeli Jews did, much less the idealistic promises of Israel’s Declaration of Independence. But there was so much else to celebrate about Israel. Despite being surrounded by nations that wished to destroy it, its pioneers were “making the desert bloom,” rejuvenating the Hebrew language, producing great literature, and, on the Kibbutzim, proving that socialism was not a pipe dream. In the wake of the Holocaust, it felt to many like a divinely inspired miracle.
In its policies on the world stage, Israel also offered a great deal for liberals to admire. Israel initially avoided taking sides in the Cold War, and, while the United States was stuck in the throes of its McCarthyite Red Scare, the country remained sufficiently democratic and committed to free speech as to allow Arab-supported Communists to be seated in its parliament. Former prime minister Golda Meir would recall that she was “prouder of Israel’s International Cooperation Program and of the technical aid we gave to the people of Africa than I am of any other single project we have ever undertaken.” (Tanzania’s Julius Nyerere called her “the mother of Africa.”)
Matters grew far more complicated after the 1967 war and the resulting occupation. Many American Jews drew far closer to Israel than before as both the threat of its potential destruction and the exhilaration of its spectacular victory struck an emotional chord. This, however, had the effect over time of hollowing out their own experience of Judaism and replacing it with Zionism. In the early 1970s, a small group of liberal Jewish intellectuals, including a number of highly respected rabbis, began to raise difficult questions about Israel’s willingness to make peace with the Palestinians and formed an organization called Breira (“Choice” in Hebrew). But they found little resonance among most American Jews and were unceremoniously quashed by the mainstream Jewish organizations, who considered public criticism of Israel akin to treason. It was not until 1982—when those admirable socialist pioneers had been replaced by the likes of Menachem Begin and Ariel Sharon, and these far less romantic figures launched their invasion of Lebanon and cruel siege of Beirut—that uneasiness with actual, existing Israel reached a sufficiently critical mass that liberals could voice their discontent in public without fear of Spinoza-like excommunication.
Since then, as anyone who has paid even the slightest attention to the question is well aware, Israel has become a conservative cause. Capitalism and creeping theocracy replaced socialism. The occupation became further entrenched and increasingly brutal. In foreign policy, Israel supported apartheid in South Africa and dictatorships in Latin America. In the United States, it became the pet cause of the most regressive elements: first neocon warmongers, then evangelical anti-Semites, and finally the likes of Donald Trump, Mike Pence, Jared Kushner, and other avatars of American fascism.
Conservatives, neo- and otherwise, have insisted for over half a century that American Jews should abandon their liberalism and join up with the right wing, where support for Israel is not merely uncontroversial but obligatory. Instead, most liberals chose just to make an exception for Israel while sticking to the rest of their left-leaning agenda. Since his first election in 1988, Eliot Engel was an extreme example of this tendency. Over and over, when Israel’s lobbyists and their funders demanded 100 percent support for Israel regardless of how much it contradicted everything else about one’s beliefs, these liberals caved. As The Nation’s Ken Klippenstein demonstrated, Engel never met an Israeli priority he couldn’t wholeheartedly back. When it came to the Iran nuclear deal, he stood with Benjamin Netanyahu over Barack Obama and Joe Biden. Later, he stood with Trump and Kushner on moving the embassy to Jerusalem and continuing to support the Saudi murderers of Jamal Khashoggi. But being AIPAC’s patsy was not enough for Engel. He even embraced the racist right-wing leader of the Zionist Organization of America—an organization that owes its existence to the far-right Trump and Netanyahu funder Sheldon Adelson and whose leader, Morton Klein, recently tweeted of Black Lives Matter, “BLM is a Jew hating, White hating, Israel hating, conservative Black hating, violence promoting, dangerous Soros funded extremist group of haters.”
As chair of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, Engel was a macher in Washington but nowhere to be found at home. His power as a committee chair and decades of schmoozing his colleagues—together with their own sense of self-preservation in opposing almost all primary challengers—led to his endorsement in his primary by almost all national Democratic politicians, including many members of the Black caucus. But his absence from the district along with its changing demographics made him the perfect target for the progressive group Justice Democrats, who famously recruited Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. Justice Democrats found a remarkable opponent to run against Engel—an African American former middle school principal named Jamaal Bowman.
Endorsed by Senators Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren, Bowman made it a point of reaching out to Jews. Bowman explained that while he believed “firmly in the right of Israelis to live in safety and peace, free from the fear of violence and terrorism from Hamas and other extremists, and support continued US aid to help Israel confront these security challenges,” he also believed “that Palestinians are entitled to the same human rights, safety from violence and self-determination in a state of their own.”
He said he also strongly objects to “Benjamin Netanyahu’s move toward annexation, increased settlement expansion, and racist rhetoric toward minorities.” And as for the Boycott Divest Sanctions movement, Bowman opposes it, though not to the point of shutting down its supporters’ First Amendment rights.
Most political reporters treat what is commonly referred to as “the Jewish vote” as entirely dependent on how “pro-Israel”—that is, how hawkish/anti-Palestinian—a candidate is. This has long been nonsense. The vast majority of Jewish voters no longer prioritize Israel over issues of economic and social justice. The fact that so many liberal politicians do is largely—though not exclusively—the product of the corrupt nature of our political funding system and the ability of the AIPACs and the Adelsons to exploit its weaknesses.
The 16th District is just under 12 percent Jewish and nearly 60 percent Black and Latino. With Engel looking vulnerable, the Democratic Majority for Israel, a PAC led by consultant Mark Mellman, spent an estimated $2 million trying to prop up Engel and smear Bowman. Progressive Jewish organizations like If Not Now and The Jewish Vote—an offshoot of Jews for Racial and Economic Justice—campaigned and raised funds for Bowman alongside Justice Democrats. The progressive Jewish City Council member Brad Lander wrote in an op-ed for the Jewish Telegraphic Agency, “To my fellow liberal Jews: please don’t take the bait…. Bowman shares our commitment to a just resolution of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict that ensures the self-determination, safety and human rights of both peoples.”
When it was over, Bowman won in a landslide. Engel could not even, it appears, carry the Jews. We don’t actually know how much of Bowman’s more than 60 percent landslide was attributable to Jewish voters, but one clue comes from the polling station at the Hebrew Institute of Riverdale: It went for Bowman 500, Engel 324.
Engel did not lose specifically because his district liked Bowman’s position on Israel better than his, though many obviously did. He lost because, given all the crises facing his constituents, Israel had lost its centrality. Engel stayed in Washington during the pandemic to keep his eye on the committee, especially no doubt its reaction to Netanyahu’s recent push to annex parts of the West Bank, rather than returning home to tend to the needs of his constituents, reeling under the threat of the pandemic and inspired by the politics of racial reawakening. Zionism and liberalism faced off, and liberalism won.
The lesson here for Jews is that the days when AIPAC directives and Mellman-like scare tactics on behalf of Israel could trump commitments to liberal principles are coming to an end. Bowman’s victory is one harbinger, and so was the strong support for Sanders and Warren, both of whom supported—with Bowman—conditioning US aid to Israel, a position that’s been anathema to the so-called “pro-Israel” community for nearly 60 years.
As Israel grows increasingly illiberal—embracing not only annexation but also official racism, theocratic governance, and increasingly anti-democratic restrictions on the freedoms of its Arab minority—the choice for American Jews will grow increasingly stark. Liberal Zionism—a cause to which I have committed myself for my entire adult life—has come to look like a contradiction. The Jews of Israel, alas, appear to have made their choice. Bowman’s sweeping victory demonstrates that American Jews will now be making their own.