Why Jamaal Bowman's trip to Israel sparked debate on the US left

Jamaal Bowman (D-NY) rallies hundreds of young climate activists in Lafayette Square on the north side of the White House
5 min read
Washington, D.C.
14 December, 2021

When Congressman Jamaal Bowman visited Israel last month, his meeting with Prime Minister Naftali Bennett and his tour with the liberal – but pro-Israel – J Street raised eyebrows among Palestinian activists who felt he was not showing enough solidarity.

Advocates of the Boycott, Sanctions, and Divestment (BDS) movement put pressure on the Democratic Socialists of America (DSA), with its Madison chapter among the first to call for Bowman’s expulsion. This led some, most vocally on the right, to point to a rift in the left-wing of the Democratic party.

"This is being blown out of proportion by people who want to smear the Palestinian movement"

But some Palestinian and DSA activists say this characterisation is exaggerated, noting that Bowman was in the end not punished, but instead was engaged with over his policies of concern, and that such debate within the left is normal.

“This is being blown out of proportion by people who want to smear the Palestinian movement,” Raed Jarrar, advocacy director at Democracy for the Arab World Now (DAWN), tells The New Arab.

"Far right-wing pro-Israel groups tried to use this as a stunt to attack the Palestinian rights movement as a whole, to make it seem as though we're unreasonable and impossible to satisfy. It’s a very large movement with a diversity of tactics. To me, it looked like a regular internal conversation that a group (the DSA) was having about how to deal with a member of its group in congress."

Progressive members of Congress, even from deep-blue districts, are in the difficult position of navigating between their left-wing base, their mixed Democratic districts, their national Democratic party, and lastly the overall political establishment. With Israel, there is little room for nuance. Any decision is viewed with scrutiny.

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Bowman’s time in Israel and the occupied Palestinian territories included a meeting with Bennett, Palestinian activists in the West Bank, and a tour given by J Street. Though he was widely praised on the left for his meetings with Palestinian activists, some BDS advocates saw his meeting with the prime minister and his tour with an Israeli lobby group as crossing a line.

Though Bowman has never been a supporter of the BDS movement, the DSA, which endorsed him in his 2020 bid for Congress, are. Bowman, however, is a major shift from his ousted predecessor Eliot Engel, who was one of Israel’s biggest supporters in Congress.

For example, Bowman co-sponsored Representative Betty McCollum’s child detention bill, which sought to prohibit Israel from using US taxpayer dollars to carry out military detentions or the ill-treatment of Palestinian children. But, more recently, he voted in support of $1 billion extra funding for Israel’s Iron Dome.

Bowman was criticised by some for meeting with Israeli officials and organisations and has so far refused to endorse the BDS movement. [Getty]

Some see his DSA membership as possible leverage to make him more informed and a stronger supporter of the Palestinians.

“I wouldn't consider any trip to Israel, especially from elected politicians who are vocal about their critique of the occupation and their support for the two-state solution, as a violation of BDS because these trips could serve as a tool to raise more awareness about the challenges facing Palestinians and meeting Jewish and Arab activists from Israel and Palestine who are working tirelessly to resolve these issues,” Anwar Mhajne, assistant professor of political science and international studies at Stonehill College, tells The New Arab.

“Instead of alienating politicians for taking trips to Israel, the Palestinian cause needs to gather as many ideological allies as possible, especially in positions of power," she says.

Meanwhile, the DSA likes to remind people that their organisation is young, diverse in thought (including its Palestinian members) and that it has a range of issues of concern.

"Instead of alienating politicians for taking trips to Israel, the Palestinian cause needs to gather as many ideological allies as possible, especially in positions of power"

In fairness to the DSA’s critics from the right, talk of tension between Bowman and the group did not come out of thin air.

Indeed, there were about two weeks of discussions between the National Political Committee and the DSA before they issued an official statement, showing that they took seriously the concerns of the BDS movement while wanting to stay on good terms with Bowman, who has generally been a consistent champion of progressive policies, such as the Green New Deal.

“Already, we have seen considerable movement from Representative Bowman and his office, and a marked demonstration of interest in both accountability, and collaboration on an effective and strategic path forward to advance the Palestinian cause through progressive struggle on the congressional terrain,” wrote the DSA in part of its lengthy statement following these discussions.

"This is why the NPC has decided not to expel Bowman. The National Political Committee will not re-endorse Bowman unless he is able to demonstrate solidarity with Palestine in alignment with expectations we have set.”

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Bowman, for his part, he has not issued a statement on the matter.

“I think these debates are healthy debates to have publicly and an essential element of the democratic process. It sheds light on the multiple ways and understandings of what it means to be an ally to the Palestinians,” says Mhajne.

“We all have the same goal: to deliver justice and peace to the Palestinians and establish an independent Palestinian state.”

Brooke Anderson is The New Arab's correspondent in Washington DC, covering US and international politics, business and culture.

Follow her on Twitter: @Brookethenews