Riverdale’s congressman has withdrawn his support for a pro-Israel bill, saying that J Street, which labels itself as the “home of pro-Israel, pro-peace Americans” convinced him to change his position.
This development reveals a great deal about the reasons for the ongoing tension between American Jewish critics of Israel and the rest of the Jewish community.
The congressman in question is Rep. Jamaal Bowman, a first-term Democrat who represents a district that covers Riverdale in the Bronx and much of Westchester County. Bowman has a substantial number of Jewish constituents, which probably explains why, in the past, he has not been as harsh towards Israel as some of his ideological bedfellows.
Bowman is a proud member of “The Squad,” the self-designated handful of far-left members of Congress led by Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, whose district covers parts of the Bronx and Queens. She and its other members have been unabashedly hostile towards Israel; and some of them, such as Reps. Rashida Tlaib of Michigan and Ilhan Omar of Minnesota have even made anti-Semitic remarks. Bowman, by contrast, has steered away from Israel-bashing.
That’s not to say that he has been fervently pro-Israel; rather, his record has been mixed.
He co-sponsored a bill to punish Israel for arresting teenage terrorists. And he supported the attempt to block a US sale of $735 million in weapons during Israel’s 11-day conflict last May with the Hamas terror organization in Gaza.
On the other hand, he later supported providing Israel with funding for the Iron Dome defense system.
And, most notably, he broke from “The Squad” with regard to the Israel Relations Normalization Act, a bill directs the State Department to promote normal relations between Arab countries and Israel.
“Squad” member Cori Bush of Missouri explained her opposition on the grounds that the legislation “incentivizes neighboring nations to isolate the Palestinian people and ignore Israel’s apartheid rule.”
Bowman, however, declared his support for the bill, joining the more than 300 members of Congress who are backing it. So, too, are American Jewish organizations across the spectrum. And why not? Normalizing Arab-Israel relations should be a motherhood-and-apple pie issue. What reasonable person could oppose it? Thus, the bill has been endorsed by Jewish groups on the right, center and left. Even J Street endorsed it.
But in J Street’s case, it appears that there is a big difference between what its leaders say in public and the actual impact they are having on members of Congress behind the scenes.
Because last week, Bowman announced on his website that he is reversing his position. He officially withdrew his support for the Israel Relations Normalization Act — and he attributed his change to the influence of J Street.
In a letter to his constituents, the congressman said he changed his position as a result of participating in a recent J Street delegation to Israel. He said his “experience on the ground” in Israel with J Street helped lead him “to see that it is not the right step. … I became aware that the deals that this bill supports and seeks to pursue, have included deals at odds with human rights and safety for everyday people in the region.”
In recent years, J Street applied for membership in two major communal umbrella groups, the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations and the American Zionist Movement. They hoped that admission would serve as a stamp of legitimacy for their radical activities.
It should be noted that the Conference of Presidents and the AZM already include a number of member organizations that are left of center and critical of Israel. But J Street, unlike the others, is devoted full-time to lobbying Congress and the Biden administration to be pro-Palestinian.
Both the Conference and the AZM rejected J Street’s request for admission because J Street undermines Israel. J Streeters claimed that the rejections go against diversity and free speech. But the Bowman episode proves that the opponents of admitting J Street were absolutely correct.
When a congressman who previously had taken a pro-Israel position reverses himself as a result of J Street’s influence, it’s clear that the group has disqualified itself from having a seat at the table of the American Jewish leadership.