Accusations fly as pro-Israel groups spend big to oust progressive House Democrat

<span>Jamaal Bowman and Bernie Sanders rally in the Bronx, New York City, on 22 June 2024.</span><span>Photograph: Olga Federova/EPA</span>
Jamaal Bowman and Bernie Sanders rally in the Bronx, New York City, on 22 June 2024.Photograph: Olga Federova/EPA

It was one of the hottest days of the year in New York City on Saturday – but as Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez took to the stage in the Bronx, you wouldn’t know it.

At a rally to support Jamaal Bowman, the progressive Democrat facing a primary campaign that has seen pro-Israel lobbying groups pump more than $15m into the race, Ocasio-Cortez was amped up.

Bowman’s fellow progressive member of Congress – one of America’s most recognizable politicians – sprinted on to the stage and jumped around to a Cardi B track, drawing cheers and applause from the crowd.

“Let’s go, Bronx!” she shouted.

“Are you ready to fight? Are you ready to take this borough back? Are you ready to win this country back? Are you ready to fight for peace on earth and ceasefire in Gaza?”

The reception from the crowd of more than 1,000 people suggested that the crowd was very ready.

Related: Race to unseat New York progressive ‘most expensive House primary ever’

Voters go to the polls in New York’s 16th district on Tuesday, in what has become the most expensive House primary in US history. The race between Bowman and his challenger, George Latimer, has been ugly: beset by accusations of antisemitism and racism. Of the almost $23m that has been spent on ads so far, more than $15m has come from pro-Israel groups, in a bid to oust the Democratic incumbent, Jamaal Bowman.

Bowman has represented the district in the House of Representatives since 2020, one of a wave of progressive Democrats who have won victories in recent years. Popular among young Democrats and left-leaning voters, the 48-year-old became a high profile member of the Squad – a group of progressive politicians who include Ocasio-Cortez and Rashida Tlaib – after he arrived in DC.

But with greater attention comes greater vulnerability. Bowman has been one of the few Democrats to consistently criticize Israel since it began its war in Gaza, accusing the country of committing genocide and calling for the Joe Biden White House to “stop all funding” to Israel. That has attracted the attention of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, or Aipac, a formidable force in US politics not afraid to spend millions to unseat candidates it deems insufficiently supportive of Israel.

Bowman, dressed in a bright yellow T-shirt, acknowledged the challenge at the rally, held at St Mary’s Park in the south Bronx.

Introduced by Ocasio-Cortez, he rapped along to the Wu-Tang Clan track Triumph to roars of appreciation.

“This is the birthplace of hip-hop. I am the hip-hop congressman,” he announced.

It was clear that this was a rally designed to rouse the faithful, with Bowman urging supporters to canvas and win votes ahead of Tuesday’s vote, before turning to Aipac.

“We are gonna show fucking Aipac the power of the motherfucking south Bronx,” Bowman said.

“People ask me why I got a foul mouth. What am I supposed to do? You coming after me, you coming after my family, you coming after my children, I’m not supposed to fight back?

“We’re gonna show them who the fuck we are.”

Since the start of the primary, the United Democracy Project (UDP), a Super Pac connected with Aipac, has spent almost $15m to defeat Bowman, who is facing a primary challenge from Latimer, a pro-Israel Democrat. DMFI Pac, another pro-Israel group, has spent more than $1m to support Latimer and unseat Bowman, helping to turn the race into an unprecedentedly expensive contest.

Bowman, a former school principal in the Bronx, unseated the incumbent Democrat Eliot Engel in 2020, in what was seen as a big win for the progressive wing of the party.

But in Latimer, he faces an opponent with more than three decades of experience in New York politics.

Related: Hillary Clinton endorses challenger for Jamaal Bowman’s New York House seat

At 70, and with a list of endorsements from centrist Democrats, including Hillary Clinton, Latimer is far from the exciting prospect Bowman was four years ago. He is, however, a vocal advocate for Israel – in the final debate between the pair he declined to criticize Israel, something Biden has previously done – who visited the country before launching his campaign against Bowman in December. He has won the support of Aipac, and was endorsed by the Jewish Democratic Council of America in March.

Ironically, given Aipac’s campaign, Bowman angered some on the left during his first year in office by voting in favor of the US giving $1bn to Israel for the country to fund its Iron Dome defense system. But after Hamas militants killed almost 1,200 people on 7 October, to which Israel responded with a military campaign in Gaza that has killed more than 37,000 Palestinians and led to charges of genocide in the international court of justice, Bowman has found himself under fire.

In the weeks following the attack Bowman was denounced by some Jewish leaders in his district for condemning the Hamas attack and Israel’s response. He drew further ire in late October, when he was one of only 10 members of the House to vote against a resolution to codify support for Israel while stating that the House “condemns Hamas’s brutal war against Israel”.

Other “no” votes included Tlaib, the Palestinian American congresswoman from Michigan, and Ilhan Omar, who was elected in Minnesota in 2018. Tlaib and Omar have been more outspoken in their criticism of Israel than Bowman – last year Tlaib was censured by the House after she defended the use of the phrase “from the river to the sea”, which is seen by some as antisemitic. Aipac has spent some money opposing both women, but it is NY-16 where the pro-Israel organization has really gone all out, breaking all its previous records.

Aipac has said it will spend $100m this year on ousting politicians it deems to be anti-Israel. The American electoral system allows Super Pacs to dump as much cash as they want into any election with a few restrictions, and in NY-16, spending has been prodigious.

The result has been visible for anyone with a television in the district, which covers part of the Bronx in New York City and half of Westchester county, just to the north.

Much of the money has been spent on attacking Bowman. The UDP has invested $14.5m in the race – $9.8m of which has gone towards knocking Bowman, and just $4.8m on promoting Latimer.

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An ad from late May featured the son of Elie Wiesel, the Holocaust survivor, Nobel winner and staunch Israel supporter, who died in 2016.

“My father taught me that antisemitism begins with lies and conspiracy theories, and it ends with violence that consumes any society that tolerates it,” Elisha Wiesel says in the ad. “Will you make your voice heard? Will you confront Jamaal Bowman’s lies and conspiracy theories, or will you sit by silently?”

The ad did not reference any specific conspiracy theory, but may have reminded some viewers of Bowman’s comments in November, when he said reports of Hamas committing rapes during the October 7 attack were “propaganda”. Bowman has since apologized.

Aipac has been around since the 1950s, and spent decades as a fairly typical lobbying firm, chipping away at politicians behind the scenes, trying to win favorable policies and deals for Israel.

But in 2021 Aipac announced that it had formed a political action committee, known as Aipac Pac, and a Super Pac, the UDP. Super Pacs can receive limitless money in donations, and spend it on any political races they like, as long as they do so without coordinating with campaigns. Since a contentious supreme court decision legalized Super Pacs in 2010, they have become extremely powerful – across 2023 and 2024, Super Pacs in the US raised nearly $1.5bn in donations, according to Open Secrets.

It is the UDP that has been doing most of the heavy lifting as Aipac attempts to defeat Bowman, spending nearly $15m in this district of 756,711 people. With Bowman’s district considered a safe Democratic seat, it would be a lucrative prize for Latimer, and for pro-Israel advocates.

With a diverse population including large numbers of Black, Hispanic and Jewish voters, allegations of racism and antisemitism have been to the fore.

Bowman has suggested Latimer’s campaign has darkened his skin in campaign literature, and has accused Latimer of pushing the “angry black man” stereotype. In the final debate between the pair on Tuesday, Bowman accused Latimer of dragging his feet on desegregation as Westchester county executive. Latimer, who has claimed Bowman has an “ethnic benefit”, said Bowman has “cornered the market on lies”.

Latimer was also accused by Bowman of relying on Republican money, pointing to donors who have contributed to Latimer and the Republican candidate who ran to replace the shamed fantasist George Santos in Long Island, New York.

Latimer, with $5.8m in fundraising, may have the big money from Aipac, and those Republican donors, but Bowman has raised plenty of cash of his own. Since the start of his campaign, Bowman has raised $4.3m and has support on the ground from progressive groups, including Justice Democrats, a progressive organization which backed his campaign in 2020 and has spent $1.3m to support Bowman this election cycle.

Local polling is notoriously unreliable, but one recent survey found Bowman trailing Latimer by 17 points among likely Democratic primary voters – although 21% of respondents were undecided.

If Bowman is defeated, there is a potential impact beyond just politics in the Middle East. Some younger, progressive Democrats feel that the primary campaigns against Bowman and other Squad members could drive young voters away from the Democratic party.

“We believe that the Squad is just the start of our voice being truly represented in the halls of Congress,” said Ella Webber, an activist with Protect our Power, an organization which seeks to keep progressive Democrats in Congress and has spent time campaigning in Bowman’s district.

“The threat of them not winning is gen Z as a whole continues to lose faith in our political process. That’s definitely not what we want, and I don’t think that’s what the Democratic party wants.”

At the rally on Saturday, others were also worried about what the loss of a progressive Democrat could mean.

“I’m a transgender woman, and I’m really existentially terrified about the rise of the far right in America,” said Genevieve Rand, 27.

“And Jamal Bowman’s race is the frontlines of that fight in this country right now. And so it’s really, really important to me that he wins so that the far right can’t buy an election and kick out somebody who stands for peace and for life.”

While Latimer would baulk at the suggestion that he is far right, Rand argued that the Republican party “is captured by the far right”.

“That’s who controls the Republican party and whoever is taking their donations is complicit with that,” she said.

Pro-Israel spending has come to define the race, but there have been unforced errors from Bowman. In September he was criticized after pulling a fire alarm before a crucial House vote; Bowman pleaded guilty to a misdemeanour and agreed to pay a $1,000 fine, the maximum applicable under Washington DC law. Early this year the Daily Beast reported that Bowman had touted 9/11 conspiracy theories on a since-deleted blogpost.

In a poem posted in 2011, Bowman wrote about world events and the controversial Florida recount in the 2000 presidential election, before riffing on 9/11.

“2001/Planes used as missiles/Target: The Twin Towers,” Bowman wrote.

“Later in the day/Building 7/Also Collaspsed [sic]/Hmm.../Multiple explosions/Heard before/And during the collapse/Hmm…”

The passage makes reference to the debunked conspiracy theory that Building 7 at the site of the World Trade Center was downed in a controlled demolition, rather than collapsing as a result of the plane crashes into the Twin Towers.

Bowman apologized, sort of, after the Daily Beast unearthed the post, saying he had merely “processed my thoughts in a personal blog that few people ever read”.

“Having since learned how misinformation spreads, I regret posting anything about any of these people,” Bowman said in a statement.

There was only support for the congressman on Saturday, however – aside from a small group of pro-Palestine protesters outside the rally. The protesters – somewhat ironically given Aipac’s campaign – accused Bowman, Ocasio-Cortez and the progressive US senator Bernie Sanders, who appeared with Bowman on stage, of being soft on Israel.

Some attendees clustered under trees to avoid the heat that was blasting New York City. Others braved the scorching temperatures in the park’s concrete amphitheater. Some waved “Re-elect Bowman” banners, others held placards that said “For the many, not the money”, while one group waved signs that said “Jews for Jamaal” as Bowman launched an attack on Aipac, which suggested he will not soften his stance on Israel’s war in Gaza any time soon.

“Aipac is scared to death. That is why they are spending records amounts of money in this race – because they are afraid. They have already lost because the district, the American people and the world are with us,” Bowman said.

“They are in this race because we called for a permanent ceasefire in Gaza, and we are going to keep calling for a permanent ceasefire.

“We are not going to stand silent while US tax dollars kills babies, and women, and children. My opponent supports genocide. My opponent and Aipac are the ones destroying our democracy, and it is on all of us to save our democracy.”

Additional reporting by Will Craft