New Yorkers are heading to the polls today, and one of the most-watched contests is between Jamaal Bowman and sixteen-term incumbent Rep. Eliot Engel. The race has become the highest-profile proxy war between the progressive left and establishment Democrats — both because Bowman is backed by most of the new institutions and figures of this rising left, and because Engel represents the worst of the Democratic Party.
Engel has been endorsed by a who’s who of establishment Democrats, including Nancy Pelosi, Chuck Schumer, Andrew Cuomo, and Hillary Clinton, who gave Engel her first endorsement of the primary election cycle. Bowman, conversely, was recruited by Justice Democrats to run and is backed by Bernie Sanders, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, the Working Families Party, the Sunrise Movement, and the Democratic Socialists of America (DSA). Bowman is a dues-paying member of the DSA and says he was inspired to run by Sanders.
A major reason the race has attracted so much attention is its implications for the future of the Democratic Party on foreign policy. As chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, Engel has more influence on Democratic foreign policy than almost anyone else. He’s also one of the party’s most war-friendly elected officials, particularly with respect to the Middle East.
Engel voted for the Iraq War, announcing on the House floor in 2002 that the vote “makes me so proud to be an American” while suggesting that similar action should be considered against other Middle Eastern countries: “For me, Iran and Syria have supported terrorism and terrorists like Hezbollah and Hamas far greater than Iraq … and very little has been done to confront Syria and Iran, and I hope the looking at Iraq does not turn us away from other nations that support the evil of terrorism.”
He broke ranks with the vast majority of Democrats to vote against President Barack Obama’s Iran nuclear deal, arguing that it would “strengthen Iran’s position as … the largest state sponsor of terrorism in the world.” And while he now criticizes President Trump’s decision to unilaterally leave the deal, he continues to stand by his initial opposition to it. In 2017, he suggested that Russia and Iran, “the axis of evil today,” collaborated in the negotiations and “played us like a fiddle.”
At the same event — hosted by the Israel Project, a right-wing organization that called opposition to settlements “a kind of ethnic cleansing” — Engel said of his Republican predecessor as Foreign Affairs Chairman, “there’s not any difference in the way we think about this issue [of Iran]. I could take his speech and read it. He could take mine and read it.”
Engel’s long record of right-wing foreign policy also includes joining with Republicans to ensure Saudi Arabia could keep bombing Yemeni civilians with internationally condemned cluster munitions; supporting the brutal 2013 military coup in Egypt; supporting Morocco’s annexation of Western Sahara; helping pass crippling sanctions on Syria, Iran, and Russia; and, most recently, urging President Trump not to lift sanctions on Iran even during the pandemic.
The most defining issue of Engel’s career has been his uncompromising support of Israel, which rivals that of the most hawkish Republicans. Engel has advocated defunding the UN relief agency for Palestinian refugees and criminalizing boycotts of Israel, and has defended the “natural growth” of Israeli settlements in the West Bank, giving Israel a pretext to continue its illegal encroachment on Palestinian land.
The first legislation Engel introduced as a freshman in Congress (other than a minor amendment) was a 1990 resolution to recognize Jerusalem as Israel’s capital and give Israel full control over the city. Twenty-eight years later, he celebrated President Trump’s decision, condemned by the UN Security Council, to move the US embassy to Jerusalem.
And when asked about Bowman’s comment in an interview with Jacobin that the United States should “seriously consider” placing humanitarian conditions on military aid to Israel in response to its continued human rights abuses, Engel responded: “Conditioning aid for Israel is one of the stupidest things I’ve ever heard.”
Pro-Israel advocates have warned of the repercussions Engel’s loss would have for the Democratic Party’s alignment with Israel. Neoconservative journalist Jonathan Tobin writes that Engel’s “positions resemble more those of the Likud Party than the Democrats or Republicans, making his continued tenure at [the House] Foreign Affairs [Committee] a crucial matter for friends of the Jewish state.”
Recognizing the stakes of the race, the pro-Israel political action committee NORPAC has bundled well over $600,000 for Engel’s campaign (which has raised just 2.2 percent of its funds from small donors). Another pro-Israel PAC, the Democratic Majority for Israel (DFMI), has spent over $1.5 million on independent expenditures supporting Engel.
DFMI spent a similar amount in the presidential primary against Sanders, who this week identified it as a “corporate/Republican-funded super PAC that runs ugly, negative ads against progressives” and an example of “establishment big-money politics at its worst, and why we have to transform the Democratic Party.”
While Bowman has centered his campaign on a strong domestic platform around economic and racial justice (with a particular focus on public education), he often emphasizes how connected these issues are with foreign policy. His campaign slogan is “jobs and education, not bombs and incarceration,” and he advocates “dramatically reduc[ing] the Pentagon’s budget” because it “doesn’t align with the values of our district, especially when we have so many in need.”
And in the wake of George Floyd’s death, he’s connected the issues of policing at home and militarism abroad. “Just as the police force is a violent intimidating force in so many black communities,” he wrote, “I can connect to what it feels like for Palestinians to feel the presence of the military in their daily lives in the West Bank.”
The Left has been less effective in challenging the Democratic establishment on foreign policy than on domestic. Engel’s downfall could help change that. “The stakes are very big,” the president of NORPAC told the Huffington Post. “If the Squad members can take out a member like Engel, they’re going to be very emboldened. It’ll send shivers through the Democratic Party.”
Against an establishment committed to the imperialist status quo, the Left must indeed be emboldened to build, as Bowman puts it, “a democratic movement of working people, of poor people, coming together in unity,” a movement needed “not just because of Donald Trump but because of the entire corporate oligarchy both in America and across the world.”