Racist, pro-Israel campaign unseats Rep. Jamaal Bowman in Democratic primary

Photo: Jamaal Bowman speaks at the launch of a Congressional initiative for a Green New Deal in public housing in March. Photo: @JamaalBowmanNY

Backed by an avalanche of spending by pro-Israel groups, Westchester County Executive George Latimer has prevailed over Representative Jamaal Bowman in the Democratic Party primary for the 16th Congressional District of New York. Supporters of the Israeli regime and its genocidal war against Gaza are celebrating this development and hoping that it has a chilling effect that extends far beyond the district. At the same time, those who seek to maintain white racist domination of Westchester County politics – at the core of a decades-long struggle that has been the subject of intense legal battles – are also viewing this as a key win. These two objectives are especially compatible considering that AIPAC has staked its credibility this election cycle on a drive to unseat Black social democratic politicians who have expressed any criticism of Israel. 

The key advantage Latimer had in this election was enormous, record-breaking sums of money spent attacking Bowman. In just one month, AIPAC – the largest pro-Israel organization in the United States – spent $14.5 million on the race. This works out to about $17,000 an hour. Democratic Majority for Israel contributed another $1 million. Never before in the history of U.S. politics has so much money been spent in a single Congressional election. 

Although the money was spent in a Democratic primary, half of the enormous sum AIPAC (through its “United Democracy Project” front) spent on the race came from donors who typically support Republican candidates. Getting Bowman out of Congress was a top priority for the right wing, both because of his criticism of Israel and because of across-the-board opposition to his policies on economic inequality and racial justice. 

AIPAC’s list of top targets for 2024 also included Pennsylvania Representative Summer Lee, who prevailed over her opponent in April, and Missouri Representative Cori Bush, who faces a tough election in August. Total AIPAC spending in 2024 is expected to amount to around $100 million. Together with incessant attacks on Ilhan Omar, AIPAC’s campaign is effectively an all-out offensive to remove the most progressive Black members of Congress.

Despite being the target of AIPAC’s attack, Jamaal Bowman has stood against the Palestinian liberation movement in several important instances, typical of Democratic party politicians. Most recently, Bowman attacked pro-Palestine protesters who were falsely smeared as anti-Semitic in the media after holding a demonstration outside of a pro-Israel exhibit on June 10. In the opening days of the genocide, Bowman rejected a pro-Palestine rally that was held on October 8 in Times Square, announcing he was no longer a member of Democratic Socialists of America – which was falsely identified in the media as the group organizing the rally. In 2021, Bowman voted in favor of U.S. funding for Israel’s “Iron Dome” missile system. Bowman has also endorsed Joe Biden, the facilitator of the ongoing genocide. 

But to AIPAC, this wasn’t nearly enough. Bowman is one of only a handful of politicians in Washington who have condemned Israel’s atrocities as a genocide, recognized the apartheid character of the regime, and demanded a ceasefire as well as an end to the siege of Gaza. Bending to pressure in these instances did nothing to cool the anger of the pro-Israel lobby towards Bowman or any of AIPAC’s other primary election targets. 

The existence of a bloc of Black politicians espousing progressive politics who are openly critical of Israel is simply unacceptable to AIPAC and a range of other establishment forces, including leaders of the Democratic Party. It is no coincidence that of the very few members of Congress with broadly pro-Palestinian politics, most are Black. AIPAC is highly aware of the long history of Black-Palestinian solidarity in the United States, and desperately wants to avoid unity between the two freedom movements. 

The long fight to preserve white rule in Westchester

The national and international dynamics at play in AIPAC’s attacks on Bowman have merged with a long-standing local struggle over desegregation. Bowman was elected in 2020, but since then the borders of his Congressional District have been changed so that it encompasses less of the Bronx and more of the suburbs of Westchester County. Westchester is home to some of the wealthiest and most heavily white areas of New York state. Bowman’s district in 2020 was 30% Black and 34% white, but as a consequence is now 21% Black and 42% white. 

Indicating that the electorate broke down along class and race lines, in Westchester, Latimer won 62% of the vote to Bowman’s 38%. In the parts of the Bronx that are in the district, Bowman registered 84% support compared to Latimer’s 16%.

Local officials in Westchester have resisted efforts at desegregation for generations. Bowman’s opponent, George Latimer, is part of this racist political establishment. 

As far back as 1986, a judge ordered Yonkers (the largest city in Westchester) to construct affordable housing to reduce residential segregation. But the Yonkers city government defied the order, and Latimer himself voted in 1997 as a county legislator to block the use of municipal land to build the court-mandated housing.

The entirety of Westchester County was the subject of another judicial desegregation decree in 2009, which yet again was defied by authorities. When Latimer was elected the county executive in 2017, some held out hope that he would finally implement the terms of the decree. Yet by the time the decree was revoked, Latimer’s administration had failed to build the minimum number of affordable housing units, and about one-third of the county’s municipalities had failed to repeal discriminatory zoning ordinances. 

For Latimer’s backers in AIPAC, the issue that matters is Israel. But for the section of the electorate that they wanted to mobilize, the key issue was the prospect of Black people moving into their neighborhoods and exercising political power. So the AIPAC-funded campaign actually had very little to do with Israel. Attack ads against Bowman sought to portray him as an “extremist” who is insufficiently loyal to Joe Biden. Voters were told that they should reject Bowman because he “has his own agenda” and “refuses to compromise”.

One ad attacks Bowman on the basis that the school where he used to be the principal had a “Wall of Honor” commemorating Black heroes that included Assata Shakur. “What happened to decency?” the narrator in the ad says, “Jamaal Bowman put a cop killer up on a middle school’s wall of honor, calling the killer ‘a tremendous figure’”.

Latimer’s win in Tuesday’s election is a reminder that the forces committed to Israeli genocide and occupation remain a formidable force, and even more aggressive than before. Since October 7, there has been a historic sea change in consciousness, with support for Palestinian freedom reaching unprecedented heights. Far from a taboo issue, solidarity with Palestine is now a strong enough factor in American politics that it could be decisive in the outcome of the presidential election.

But these huge advances for the movement have only made supporters of apartheid more aggressive. Feeling their grip slipping, the pro-Israel lobby is doubling down using the favorite tools of the U.S. ruling class: money and racism. As we struggle to end the genocide along with the occupation once and for all, the movement in solidarity with Palestine should be prepared to wage a protracted fight for public opinion that will inevitably go through many ups and downs before victory. 

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