Israel Dispute Pits Progressive Squad Members Against Establishment in Democratic Race

Paul Froggatt /
Paul Froggatt /

Representative Jamaal Bowman’s stance on Israel has made him a prime target in his primary race, which has escalated into a significant conflict within the Democratic Party.

The House primary between Representative Jamaal Bowman, a prominent left-wing Democrat, and George Latimer, a more moderate challenger, was expected to highlight the party’s divisions over the Israel-Hamas conflict. With early voting underway, the June 25 contest in New York became a proxy war for the Democratic Party’s future, revealing deep divides over race, class, and ideology during a presidential election year.

Nearly the entire local Democratic establishment, including Hillary Clinton, has backed Latimer, the Westchester County executive. The largest pro-Israel PAC in America, AIPAC, has poured $12 million into defeating Bowman over his criticism of Israel.

On the other side, Ocasio-Cortez, other members of the House’s left-wing “squad,” and their progressive coalition are fighting to save Bowman. Polls indicate that Latimer has opened a commanding lead, leading to a desperate effort by Bowman’s allies to drain bank accounts and level increasingly personal attacks.

Bowman’s supporters fear that his loss would not only remove a charismatic spokesman but also embolden forces attempting to shift the party toward the center on issues like climate change, immigration policy, and the Gaza conflict.

The race has become exceedingly contentious, with accusations of antisemitism and racism flying between the candidates. Latimer, who is white and has been in politics since the Reagan era, has belittled Bowman’s record and labeled him an extremist more interested in social media fame than governance. Bowman, a former middle-school principal, has accused Latimer of selling out to “a genocidal organization like AIPAC and racist MAGA Republican” donors.

Bowman is not the only “squad” member facing a primary challenge this year due to their stance on Israel’s war in Gaza. Representative Summer Lee of Pennsylvania won her primary in April, while Representative Cori Bush faces a formidable opponent in St. Louis later this summer.

The New York race carries potent symbolism. The 16th District includes some of the wealthiest suburbs in the country and a large Jewish population; the majority of the 16th District is nonwhite, with many Black and Latino voters. These communities propelled Bowman to a surprise 2020 primary victory over longtime incumbent Eliot L. Engel, a staunch Israel supporter. Bowman campaigned on “jobs and education, not bombs and incarceration” during the pandemic and after George Floyd’s killing.

Bowman seemed to be heading toward a third term last fall, relying on his record of fighting evictions and gun violence. Although he condemned Hamas’s Oct. 7 attack forcefully, he emerged as a leading champion of the Palestinian cause in Congress. His allies note that most Democratic voters, including some Jews, support a cease-fire and agree with his criticism of Israel’s government under Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

The conflict caused hard divisions, ending a tenuous truce between Democratic factions. AIPAC and local rabbis then recruited Latimer into the race.

Supporters of Israel have given Latimer a substantial financial edge, with AIPAC helping him amass $2.5 million in cash for the race’s final sprint, compared to Bowman’s $1 million. AIPAC’s super PAC, United Democracy Project, has spent significantly more, potentially making this the most expensive House primary in history.

Groups backing Bowman, including Ocasio-Cortez’s Courage to Change PAC, have spent about $2 million. The United Democracy Project, determined to highlight Bowman’s anti-Israel record, has focused its ads on various issues, including Bowman’s vote against President Biden’s infrastructure bill.

AIPAC’s spending has become central to Bowman’s critique of Latimer, accusing him of aligning with a group that supports conservative Republicans and receives substantial funding from Republican donors. Bowman’s allies argue that such financial influence undermines democratic processes.

However, some of Bowman’s allies, including Democratic House leaders focused on protecting incumbents, believe his troubles are partly self-inflicted. Unlike other Democrats with large Jewish constituencies, Bowman has doubled down on his pro-Palestinian views, being one of the first to call for a cease-fire and accuse Israel of genocide.

Bowman has also faced embarrassing episodes, such as old poems and essays resurfacing that included conspiracy theories about the Sept. 11 attacks. He also pulled a House fire alarm, leading to his censure and a guilty plea to a misdemeanor charge.

Latimer has run a more scripted campaign, taking safe Democratic positions on abortion and gun safety while avoiding contentious issues. He has evaded questions about Israel’s wartime conduct and Netanyahu and refused to support raising taxes on the wealthy, a popular Democratic stance that Bowman embraces.

Latimer’s remarks have also caused controversy. Opponents accused him of race-baiting when he said Bowman’s “constituency is Dearborn, Michigan,” a large Arab population area. Latimer, who lives in suburban Rye, accused Bowman of ignoring the whiter, affluent suburbs added to the district in 2022.

Some local officials agree that Bowman seems disconnected from certain district segments. Paul Feiner, town supervisor of Greenburgh, said he rarely gets a response from Bowman’s office. Bowman insists he prioritizes Black and Latino communities he believes are neglected by politicians like Latimer. Polls and interviews suggest voters are splitting along racial and geographic lines.