Democrats’ Split Over Israel Takes Center Stage in Tense Primary Debate

Democrats’ smoldering divisions over the war in Gaza flared in New York on Monday, as Representative Jamaal Bowman, one of House’s most endangered incumbents, debated a party rival over Israel’s war tactics, American military aid and a powerful pro-Israel group.

In many ways, their exchanges echoed those playing out from Congress to college campuses. But for Mr. Bowman, there was something more at stake: His sharp criticism of Israel has put him at risk of losing his seat in a primary in the New York City suburbs next month.

That possibility appeared to be front of mind as he began the race’s first televised debate in White Plains, N.Y. Mr. Bowman joined his more moderate opponent, George Latimer, in reiterating support for two states — one Palestinian and one Jewish — and condemning antisemitism. He steered clear of incendiary terms like “genocide” that have cost him key Jewish support. Both candidates let some deeper differences slide.

The comity lasted all of 25 minutes.

Friction spiked — and never really abated — after the conversation turned to the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, the influential pro-Israel lobby that helped push Mr. Latimer into the race and has pledged millions of dollars to defeat Mr. Bowman and other members of the House’s left-wing “Squad.”

Sensing a rare opportunity to go on the attack, the congressman accused Mr. Latimer, the Westchester County executive, of being “bought and paid for” by the group and its deep-pocketed funders, who Mr. Bowman said also support “right-wing Republicans who want to destroy our democracy.”

Mr. Latimer did not take the gibe kindly. The group, as he quickly pointed out, has deep ties to Democratic leadership, but its brook-no-criticism approach to Israel’s deadly counteroffensive in Gaza has alienated large numbers of Democratic lawmakers and voters.

Mr. Latimer, 70, pointed out that he had a long liberal record supporting abortion rights, gun restrictions and other issues — and then took his own shot back at Mr. Bowman, 48.

“If he had a stronger record as congressman, he wouldn’t have to attack me,” he said. “He wouldn’t even have to mention my name.”

Things quickly devolved. Mr. Latimer suggested the incumbent had done little more than “preach and scream” from the steps of the Capitol in two terms in Washington. Mr. Bowman, who is Black, accused his white opponent of playing “the Southern strategy in the North” by portraying him as “the angry Black man.”

The News 12 moderator, Tara Rosenblum, frequently intervened to try to restore order.

The fight underscored just how raw the race has become in the run-up to the June 25 primary and how a contest that began over American policy toward Israel has exposed deeper cleavages over race, class and ideology that divide the modern Democratic Party.

The safely Democratic district itself is one of the most diverse in the country, stretching from working-class precincts of the Bronx to some of the nation’s wealthier suburbs in Westchester County. The primary electorate could be roughly a quarter Jewish, making it one of the most Jewish seats in the country. But the district is also nearly 50 percent Black and Latino.

Mr. Bowman, a former middle school principal in the Bronx, had no political experience before he defeated a powerful Democratic incumbent in a 2020 primary. He has positioned himself as a champion of Black, working-class and left-leaning New Yorkers; and turned heads with viral, outspoken confrontations with Republicans around the Capitol.

Mr. Latimer, by contrast, is a fixture of the New York Democratic establishment after decades rising through state and local offices. He is a middle-of-the-road liberal and has a strong base of support in the Westchester County business community and its more affluent suburbs. He has pitched himself as a steady hand who will not generate unflattering headlines.

No public polling firms have tested the race yet. Allies of Mr. Bowman and Mr. Latimer have each leaked private survey data suggesting their candidate is ahead, but even some of Mr. Bowman’s allies worry he has become the underdog.

In addition to attracting AIPAC’s ire, Mr. Bowman has found himself explaining several unrelated embarrassing episodes. The Daily Beast turned up an old blog where Mr. Bowman dabbled in conspiracy theories about the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks. And he pleaded guilty to a criminal charge last fall after pulling a fire alarm in a House office building.

On Monday, the two men did find some common ground. Though they quibbled about their records, both said there was an urgent need to build more affordable housing, offered welcoming stances toward the influx of migrants arriving in New York and indicated support for President Biden.

But it was their differences that consumed the most time in the one-hour debate — especially related to Israel.

The candidates differed on whether a common protest chant, “from the river to the sea, Palestine will be free,” constituted hate speech. The phrase has a long, contested history.

Mr. Bowman said he knew the phrase hurt some people, but he aligned himself with those who characterize it as a hopeful cry for Palestinian freedom.

Mr. Latimer disagreed, saying that the expression’s goal was “to try to delegitimize Israel.”

As time went on, Mr. Bowman reiterated his basic outlook on the conflict, one that has alienated even some longtime Jewish allies but has also gradually gained more acceptance in his party.

He criticized American tax dollars being used to fund Israeli weapons, reminded voters that he was one of the first members of Congress to call for a permanent cease-fire and closely aligned himself with the Palestinian cause.

“Going after Hamas in this way is not going to end the cycle of conflict that has been going on for 75 years,” Mr. Bowman said. “We can have a free Palestine and fight antisemitism.”

Mr. Latimer was more defensive of Israel, but repeatedly appeared hesitant to share details about his own views. All but invited to criticize the government of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu — a stance adopted by many Democrats — he took a conspicuous pass.

He also declined to offer a substantive view on the wave of pro-Palestinian demonstrations sweeping college campuses this spring. And he said he would leave it to Mr. Biden and his administration to steer the war to its proper end.

“Statements that are made outside of that may not be helpful,” he said, “and in fact may be counterproductive.”

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