Jamaal Bowman speaks at New York's 16th Congressional District in Yonkers, New York, US Image Credit: Reuters

“This is, in my view, the most important election in the modern history of the country”, Bernie Sanders said in an interview with the New York Times on Friday.

No, Sanders — the plain-speaking US senator from Vermont who, since the time he sought the Democratic Party’s nomination for president in 2016, has kept engaged Americans focused on the values that matter most in public life — was not referring to the presidential election in November but to the Democratic primary in New York’s 16th Congressional District, pitting the incumbent Jamaal Bowman against George Latimer, Westchester County executive, which was to take place four days later, on Tuesday, June 25.

If you believe that Sen. Sanders was not resorting to hyperbole, then you’re left wondering what on earth would make a local primary contest in a congressional district in New York “the most important election in the modern history of the county”. The answer to this question is that, well, the devil is in the details.

Four years ago, Bowman, then 45, did the unthinkable — he ran for a seat in the House of Representatives and defeated 73-year-old Eliot Engel, a 6- term incumbent, which was a major win for the progressive wing of the Democratic Party and a feat unheard of in the political establishment, where an incumbent, long secure in office, is rarely known to face a challenger and lose.

Read more by Fawaz Turki

Progressive stand on issues

Bowman, then a middle-school principal with exceptional stage presence and roots in his community, was an African American progressive who held strong pro-Palestinian views. Engels, who had served as Chairman of the Foreign Affairs Committee, was one of Congress’s most ardent and most reliable supporters of Israel. And his defeat rankled the America-Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) and other pro-Israel pressure groups no end. And it didn’t take long for Bowman to become these folks’ bête noire.

Soon after Bowman was sworn in, he joined the Squad, an informal group made up of nine House Representatives who are not known to be shy about flaunting their progressive stand on issues national and international.

During a congressional trip to Palestine and Israel in 2021, Bowman was reportedly horrified at his encounter with Israel’s occupation practices in the West Bank and, after the Zionist state launched its military assault on Gaza eight months ago, anguished at the unspeakable suffering endured by people who lived there — and he minced no words when he identified the brutalities inflicted on Gazans as genocide.

Now these groups had reason to go to war against Bowman, ensuring that he would meet defeat at the primary election on Tuesday. And AIPAC had already invested a staggering $14.5 million in his opponent, the most money ever spent in a congressional primary in American history, much of it on campaign ads vilifying Bowman as an anti-Israel politician (in the US a stigma for a legislator) and an anti-Semite.

If the race between Bowman and Latimer was not “the most important” ever held in this country, it certainly was a critical one. Some political strategists saw it as a referendum on Israel. In short, if Bowman lost, the message to progressives on the Hill would be, “Criticize Israel at your peril”, and if he won, the win would mean that the number of progressives willing to publicly express support for Palestine and its people’s struggle for freedom would grow, changing the very landscape of American foreign policy in the Middle East.

Serving Israel’s interests

Other political analysts, however, saw the race through a narrower lens, that is, a Bowman win would merely be a victory for the Squad while a loss would be more a loss to the incumbent’s campaign than to the progressive movement as a whole.

In Westchester County, the polls opened at six o’clock on Tuesday morning. By early evening, both Bowman and Latimer were still doing the rounds, shaking hands at diners and other public locations, with Bowman hawking his progressive agenda to voters, at one point telling a small crowd of them, as reported by a local ABC affiliate, “We are rooted in democracy, in love, in compassion and in humanity, [in order to serve] all people from Brooklyn to Haiti to Gaza and back to Westchester County”.

It didn’t work. Soon after the polls closed at 9:00pm, it became clear that Bowman had lost the race. And Latimer, the politician AIPAC had picked to toe its line, and whose campaign it had poured historic amounts of money into, knowing all along that in American politics money makes the mare go, won.

This column began with a quote from Sen. Bernie Sanders and it will conclude with another.

“This is the message of this campaign: stand up to powerful interests and they’ll bring you down”, he said in the same interview. “Today, they [Israel’s pressure groups] are in the Democratic primary. Tomorrow, they’ll be in the Republican primary, They don’t care?”

They don’t care whom they bring down or whom they ally with when it comes to serving Israel’s interests.

— Fawaz Turki is a noted academic, journalist and author based in Washington DC. He is the author of The Disinherited: Journal of a Palestinian Exile