Pro-Israel organizations trying to help embattled Eliot Engel

To a larger extent, this election seems like another aspect of the power struggle between moderate Democrats and progressive Democrats.

Rep. Eliot Engel walks past journalists as he arrives for a House Democratic Caucus meeting in the basement of the U.S. Capitol, Jan. 14, 2020 (photo credit: CHIP SOMODEVILLA/GETTY IMAGES/JTA)
Rep. Eliot Engel walks past journalists as he arrives for a House Democratic Caucus meeting in the basement of the U.S. Capitol, Jan. 14, 2020
WASHINGTON – New York will hold its primary elections on Tuesday, and one race, in particular, is drawing a lot of attention. Rep. Eliot Engel, a 16-term incumbent and moderate, pro-Israel Democrat, is facing a tough reelection bid against Jamaal Bowman, a middle-school principal.
For the pro-Israel community, the reelection of Engel, chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, is crucial in maintaining support for Israel among the Democratic leadership at a time when the relationship between the party and Israel is shaky.
To a larger extent, this election reflects the power struggle between moderate and progressive Democrats. Bowman has received endorsements from Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-MA), Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT) and Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-NY). Engel is supported by former Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton, Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-NY) and New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo.
On June 2, during a press conference in the Bronx following a night of protests, Engel was caught on a hot microphone saying he would like to speak and telling the organizer: “If I didn’t have a primary, I wouldn’t care.” According to a recent poll by Data for Progress, Engel is trailing Bowman by 10 points.
As Engel struggles, pro-Israel organizations are trying to help him get reelected. Democratic Majority for Israel, a pro-Israel PAC, has spent about $1.3 million on Engel’s reelection.
“Israel has not been a subject of debate in the campaign,” DMFI president and CEO Mark Mellman told The Jerusalem Post.
“In the closing hours of his campaign, Jamaal Bowen felt it was very important for him politically to be seen as a pro-Israel candidate,” he said. “I’m not sure that reflects his real views. I hope it does, but he certainly felt it was important to position himself that way.”
Bowman released a public letter to Rabbi Avi Weiss last week, saying he opposes the BDS movement, “but like civil rights leader US Rep. John Lewis, I also will defend the rights of all people to express their First Amendment right to peacefully organize for political change.”
“I also can understand the crushing poverty and deprivation in the Gaza Strip,” he added. “I believe Palestinians have the same rights to freedom and dignity as my Jewish brothers and sisters.”
“I believe 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,” Bowman wrote. “I also believe that Palestinians are entitled to the same human rights, safety from violence and self-determination in a state of their own.”
“I oppose Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s move toward annexation, increased settlement expansion and racist rhetoric toward minorities,” he wrote.
In an ad against Bowman last week, DMFI said: “Records show that Bowman repeatedly failed to pay his taxes… Shouldn’t Mr. Bowman pay his own taxes before he tries to spend ours?” Engel’s campaign called for the ad to be taken down, NY1 reported.
Sanders slammed DMFI for the ad and tweeted: The “Democratic Majority for Israel is a corporate/Republican-funded super PAC that runs ugly, negative ads against progressives. This is big-money establishment politics at its worst, and why we have to transform the Democratic Party.”
In response, Mellman said: “Democratic Majority for Israel PAC played a significant role in denying Bernie Sanders the Democratic nomination for president. So he’s got every reason to be angry with us. I understand his anger, but what he said is completely ridiculous. We have supported progressive candidate after progressive candidate. Our ads were completely factually correct.”
The Jewish Democratic Council of America also is actively supporting Engel.
“We came out in support of him months ago because he’s closely aligned with the Jewish community and shares the values of American Jewish voters,” JDCA executive director Halie Soifer told the Post. “And it’s not just because of his strong support of Israel, but also his leadership on a wide range of issues. We’d like to see him reelected. If he wasn’t, that would be a big loss for Democrats in the House. We’re doing what we can to help him.”
“We have digital ads that are supportive of Engel, and we have text banking and phone banking in support of him, calling Jewish voters in the district, and our digital ads are targeting Jewish voters,” she said. “But to be clear, our ads are focusing on why we support Eliot Engel. We are not out there saying anything disparaging against Jamaal Bowman.”
“There’s obviously the Israel angle,” Soifer said. “It’s disappointing to see Israel used as an issue to divide Democrats in any context. Usually it’s the Republicans using it as a wedge issue in elections. But to see it come up in this context, that has been disappointing. There has been a difference of views with regard to Israel, and that has become public in this election.”