George Latimer defeats Jamaal Bowman in bitter NY primary fought over Israel
George Latimer speaks during a press conference at the Mount Vernon Democratic headquarters on June 24, 2024.
Credit: Michael M. Santiago/Getty Images

By Luke Tress
June 26, 2024

(New York Jewish Week) — George Latimer defeated Rep. Jamaal Bowman in the Democratic primary in New York’s 16th Congressional district on Tuesday, a significant setback for progressive critics of Israel in a closely-watched race with national implications.

Latimer, a centrist who hewed to a pro-Israel position during the campaign, was declared the winner by the Associated Press and other news outlets around 40 minutes after the polls closed at 9 p.m. With 70% of votes in, Latimer led Bowman by more than 11 points.

“What we see tonight is in fact the many,” Latimer said in his victory speech, in a play on a slogan used by Bowman. “This is the many of Westchester and the Bronx.”

“While this race garnered a lot of headlines, tomorrow we turn a new page. We must come together, united to defend our Democratic values from MAGA extremism,” Latimer said in a post on X.

Bowman conceded defeat and vowed to “continue to fight” for his policies, including in the Middle East.

“We will continue to fight for a free Palestine now, and God help us build a better world where everyone understands when we say ‘Free Palestine,’ it is not antisemitic,” he said.

Bowman angered many Jews in his district after Oct. 7 with his harsh criticism of Israel, and pro-Israel advocacy groups poured a record amount of funding into the primary contest. The race was seen as a referendum between the progressive and centrist wings of the Democratic Party, which are split over the Israel-Hamas war.

The district covers southern Westchester County and a sliver of the Bronx and is racially and economically diverse. The Democratic primary will almost certainly determine the winner of the November congressional election in the solidly blue area.

The American Israel Public Affairs Committee spent more than $14 million on the race, making it the most expensive House primary ever, and other groups such as Democratic Majority for Israel backed Latimer. For those groups, Bowman’s loss marked a significant victory in a year of widespread protest against Israel among progressives. They hope that a Bowman defeat will signal that his opposition to Israel — he has accused it of “genocide” in Gaza — holds little purchase among the Democratic mainstream. 

Bowman had made AIPAC a focus of his campaign, and kept up his attacks against the group after conceding defeat.

“We should be outraged when a super PAC of dark money can spend $20 million to brainwash people into believing something that isn’t true,” he said. “They spent a record amount of money, the most in U.S. history, to beat this Black man.”

AIPAC congratulated Latimer on his “resounding victory over an anti-Israel detractor.”

“This triumph by a strong pro-Israel candidate represents a major victory for the Democratic mainstream that stands with the Jewish state and a defeat for the extremist fringe,” AIPAC said in a statement.

A coalition of progressive Jews backed Bowman, forming a group called Jews for Jamaal that included IfNotNow, Bend the Arc, Jews for Racial and Economic Justice and the anti-Zionist Jewish Voice for Peace. Along with endorsing Bowman, they had trained their fire on AIPAC. Bowman repeatedly said the pro-Israel lobby was “destroying democracy” — an idea the groups echoed following their candidate’s defeat.

Jews for Jamaal said the group was “devastated” by Bowman’s defeat.

“Bowman’s positions on social justice and human rights at home and abroad are popular with Democratic voters, and outside groups spent historic amounts of money to confuse and drown out the voices of NY-16 constituents,” Jews for Jamaal said in a statement.

Bowman was elected on a progressive platform in 2020, defeating Elliot Engel, a moderate Democrat who is Jewish and was a leading pro-Israel voice in Congress. Upon taking office, Bowman joined the “Squad” of progressive Democrats that also includes Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, who represents the neighboring district and campaigned heavily for Bowman this year.  

His loss marked the first time a member of the Squad was unseated.

After initially staking out a more mainstream position on Israel when he was first elected, Bowman has moved to the left on the issue. He recently reportedly said he would endorse the movement to boycott Israel, and reconciled with the Democratic Socialists of America, which had broken with him over a trip he took to Israel in 2021 with the liberal Israel lobby J Street. The DSA has put criticism of Israel at the center of its agenda this year, and came under fire from mainstream and progressive Democrats alike for backing an Oct. 8 rally against Israel.

Backlash against those far-left policies contributed to his loss, particularly among many Jewish voters. A turning point came when the liberal pro-Israel advocacy group J Street withdrew its endorsement of Bowman in January, saying his rhetoric had “crossed a line.”

“My opponent supports genocide,” Bowman told a crowd at a Bronx rally on Saturday. “My opponent and AIPAC are the ones destroying our democracy and it is on us, it is on all of us, to save our democracy.”

Rep. Jamaal Bowman arrives at the U.S. Capitol, June 22, 2023. Credit: Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call/Getty Images

Supporters of Israel urged Latimer, a household name in the district, to enter the race in December after decades in local politics. He visited Israel on a trip organized by the Westchester Jewish Council in the weeks after Oct. 7.

A group called Westchester Unites ran a Jewish get-out-the-vote campaign, telling Jews that “antisemitism is on the ballot.” The group said on Tuesday that likely Jewish voters had cast early votes at four times the rate of non-Jews. At one synagogue, 87% of eligible voters cast a ballot prior to election day. Westchester Unites, a project of the Orthodox Union’s Teach Coalition, estimated that 9% of all eligible Democratic party primary voters were Jews.

“Jews across the country are concerned about rising antisemitism and their safety. The need to have elected officials who care about our well-being and represent these issues has never been greater,” Dan Mitzner, director of government affairs for Teach Coalition, said on Tuesday. “We tapped into this feeling and gave the NY-16’s Jewish community the tools and information to take action through voting – and they responded and acted in historic numbers.”

Other local Democrats also broke with Bowman, including former Rep. Mondaire Jones and Rep. Ritchie Torres, who are running in neighboring districts and both support Israel.

The race was marked by vitriol from both sides. Bowman accused Latimer of racism, neglecting the working class and being beholden to Republicans. Latimer charged his opponent with taking money from Hamas, seeking a national stage instead of attending to local concerns, and focusing on showmanship over legislative work.

Jewish groups accused Bowman of antisemitism after the congressman accused Israel of “genocide” and “propaganda,” voted against a House resolution expressing solidarity with Israel, called for a ceasefire on Oct. 16 in a statement that did not mention Hamas or the hostages held by the terror group, and cast doubt on Hamas sex crimes. Last week, Bowman said, “Westchester is segregated. There’s certain places where the Jews live and concentrate… I’m sure they made a decision to do that for their own reasons.” 

The discord between Bowman and the Jewish community did not start on Oct. 7 — a local rabbi said in November that even before the war, Bowman had “developed an adversarial relationship” with many local Jews.

Bowman was plagued by other scandals, particularly an infamous incident when he pulled a House fire alarm in September, earning a rare, formal censure from Congress.

Leave a Reply