Jamaal Bowman faces primary challenge after drawing fire from Jewish constituents over Israel criticism


(New York Jewish Week) — George Latimer, the Westchester County executive, on Wednesday announced a Democratic primary challenge against Rep. Jamaal Bowman, after the congressman repeatedly sparked controversy over his approach to the Israel-Hamas war.

Latimer made the announcement following a visit to Israel late last month, and after local Jewish leaders urged him to mount the primary challenge against Bowman for the 16th congressional district, which is located north of New York City and covers a small part of the Bronx.

Bowman, a progressive, had strained ties with some Jewish constituents before Oct. 7, when Hamas attacked Israel. But his decision to join just a handful of fellow Democrats in Congress in calling for a ceasefire on Oct. 16 inflamed tensions further.

A video released by Latimer’s campaign on Wednesday touched on Israel, with the challenger decrying Bowman for the recent controversies.

“Unfortunately, instead of working for us, our congressman is making news for all the wrong reasons,” Latimer says in the video, as the footage shows a news clip about Bowman voting against a resolution backing Israel and condemning the Oct. 7 attack.

The campaign video mainly focused on other issues, such as infrastructure, property taxes and the environment, and criticized Bowman for his attention-grabbing statements.

“It’s time for Washington to stop bickering and start working for us. Let’s deliver real progressive results, not rhetoric,” Latimer said.

The war has divided Democrats, with progressives voicing criticism for Israel’s counteroffensive and demanding a ceasefire, in opposition to the Biden administration and more centrist party members, who are more supportive of the Jewish state. Bowman is a member of the progressive camp, while Latimer is among the centrists. The 16th district is home to a significant Jewish population and is around half Black and Latino.

Latimer visited Israel on a trip organized by the Westchester Jewish Council. The popular county executive visited Kfar Aza, a community ravaged during the Oct. 7 attack; visited Hamas victims at Jerusalem’s Hadassah Medical Center; spoke with families of hostages; and met with Israeli President Isaac Herzog, the Westchester Jewish Council said in a statement after the visit.

Nine days after the Hamas attack, more than two dozen rabbis in the congressional district wrote a letter to Latimer urging him to challenge Bowman due to the incumbent’s “effort to erode support for Israel on Capitol Hill and within the Democratic Party.” Several dozen Jewish community members calling themselves “Jews for Jamaal” wrote a counter letter, expressing support for the congressman and urging Latimer against running.

Bowman held a meeting with Jewish constituents focused on antisemitism early last month. There was a small protest ahead of the event, but two participants told the New York Jewish Week at the time that the meeting was productive and Bowman appeared attentive to their concerns.

Ahead of the meeting, two prominent rabbis in the area said most of the community had dismissed the event. Bowman’s relationship with the Jewish community had long been strained, and tensions boiled over after the outbreak of the war, they said.

In one decision that frustrated the Jewish community, Bowman co-sponsored an Oct. 16 resolution with fellow progressive Rep. Cori Bush calling for an “immediate ceasefire.” The resolution did not mention Hamas, terrorism or Israeli hostages, and Bowman’s backing drew condemnation from the Westchester Board of Rabbis, which said the resolution denied Israel the right to defend itself while Hamas held hostages and drew false equivalence between the two sides.

Last week, Bowman drew further criticism when he accused Israel of “genocide” and “ethnic cleansing” at a protest calling for a ceasefire outside the White House. He is a member of the “Squad,” the group of progressive Democrats that has directed harsh criticism at Israel both before and since Oct. 7.

Bowman also landed in hot water for pulling a fire alarm inside a House building in October. He agreed to plead guilty to a false fire alarm charge and pay a $1,000 fine.

Bowman, a former school principal, won the district from longtime Jewish incumbent Eliot Engel in 2020. Bowman’s current term ends on Jan. 3, 2025. Congressional primaries in New York typically take place in the summer.