Jamaal Bowman on Fighting the Pro-Israel Lobby — and for ‘Collective Liberation’

Brooklyn’s Eastville Comedy Club is abuzz with banter ahead of a comedy show fundraiser for Rep. Jamaal Bowman (D-N.Y.). Ten minutes before the opening routine, the room is nearly full. The ethnically diverse, mixed-aged mass reflects the constituency that carried Bowman to a surprise 2020 win for the 16th district’s congressional seat. Most attendees looked like they weren’t venturing too far from home to hit the Prospect Heights club. A few people are considerate enough to be wearing Covid-19 masks. I see one woman with a keffiyeh.

The evening’s pre-event playlist feels unusual for a public official: Missy Elliott, Nas, The Roots, Wu-Tang Clan. But no one seems off-put by Ol’ Dirty Bastard wailing, “I like it raaaw”; it’s a progressive vibe fitting for a member of “the Squad,” a small cadre of left-leaning Democrats who represent whatever glimmer of hope many young people have for electoral politics. The guest of honor shows up in the middle of comedian Jordan Carlos’ routine, unassumingly walking toward a dark corner of the room near stage right. It’s almost 40 minutes into the event, but few could be surprised by his tardiness; he’s in the election battle of his life.

On Tuesday, Democratic primary voters in Westchester County will choose between Bowman and Westchester County Executive George Latimer, who’s being backed by the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, or AIPAC. The powerful pro-Israel lobby has reportedly pledged to spend $100 million toward taking on progressive lawmakers like Bowman who have pushed for a cease-fire in Gaza. A super PAC affiliated with AIPAC has put nearly $15 million into the race over the past month.

An Emerson College voter poll revealed that as of June 11, Latimer led Bowman 48 percent to 31 percent. Even if Bowman manages to win reelection, his fight for progressive policies will face steady headwinds — it no doubt will be contested by the same Republicans who censured him in December for pulling a fire alarm in the U.S. Capitol during a September voting session. And if Democrats win back the House, they may well lose control of the Senate, the presidency, or both.

The laughs are plentiful during Eastville’s comedy show, but Bowman’s push for progress is no joke. Bowman tells Rolling Stone that in the midst of his fight against Latimer — and AIPAC — he’s amplifying the notion of “patience and persistence.”

“I’m a middle school principal and former educator of 20 years,” Bowman says. “I’ve learned patience and persistence. We have to be persistent in ensuring that we are engaging with our colleagues around the conversations that need to be had around these progressive issues. This race against AIPAC is a really good litmus test as it relates to that, because [they’re] a big-money lobby [that’s] spending more money in this race than has ever been spent in primary history. They’re doing that because they do not want a progressive agenda to move forward.”

In 2021, AIPAC officially began raising money for politicians, and in 2022, they launched a super PAC. On their official website, the nonpartisan organization describes itself as “a national organization with more than 3 million grassroots members who want to strengthen and expand the U.S.-Israel relationship.” One of their goals is to “continue to help ensure Israel’s qualitative military edge,” which is an increasingly polarizing topic amid Israel’s ongoing military offensive against Palestine. Progressives have repeatedly called for a cease-fire in Gaza. More than 37,000 Palestinians have been killed, and Gaza has been decimated by the Israeli military — which is heavily funded by the United States — in the wake of Hamas’ Oct. 7 attack on Israel.

In November of 2023, shortly after the attacks commenced, Bowman called Israel an “apartheid state.” He upset Israel supporters by telling a White Plains crowd, “there’s still no evidence of beheaded babies or raped women but they still keep using the lie,” referring to Israel’s “propaganda.” He later said that he regretted those particular statements. Days later, he said at another rally that a cease-fire would represent “what it actually means to be Jewish.” The moment typified Bowman’s bold politics — and the opposition to them. While many progressives lauded his stance, conservative journalist Phil Kerpen called him “the worst member of Congress, and it’s a crowded field.” Media personality Tony Katz posted on X, “Don’t buy into this nonsense. A cease-fire supports Hamas. Bowman and the Squad support Hamas.” New York Magazine has deemed him the “most endangered Democrat in America” over his pro-ceasefire sentiment.

Bowman clarifies that his calls for a Gaza cease-fire aren’t about advocating for Hamas, but for Palestinian and Israeli people to live in the Gaza region in harmony. “AIPAC is pro-one-state solution,” he says. “Our position is a two-state solution where Palestinians and Israelis live side-by-side in their respective states, where they have self-determination, where they’re safe, and where they have peace.”

At Eastville, Carlos, the comedian, sets off the night with a set that cleverly treads along racial lines. He deems New York’s Catskills region “white Wakanda,” makes observations about gentrification in “F Train Brooklyn,” and highlights the whiteness of an escape room, sarcastically zinging, “if there’s one thing a Black man wants it’s false imprisonment.” The room, including Bowman, laughs heartily at his punchlines. At the end of his routine, he lauds Bowman, noting that he advocated for the candidate in 2020 and believes “we have to have the right people in D.C.” The throng of attendees roar in agreement.

That was the sentiment that spurred this loyal base to elect Bowman into Congress four years ago. After a decade as principal at Cornerstone Academy for Social Action (CASA), the middle school he founded, Bowman resigned and pursued the congressional seat in New York’s 16th district. As the adage goes, timing is everything: His fight against 16-term incumbent Eliot Engel occurred during a pivotal juncture for America, as the police killings of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor intensified calls to reform (and defund) the police. There were also increased referendums on the ways in which systemic inequality had permeated American institutions. Bowman came along as a refreshing voice for Westchester County voters who sought an alternative to Engel, who was perceived as a beacon of the Democratic establishment and disconnected with his district.

Bowman’s politics closely align with fellow Democratic Socialist and Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.), who was elected two years before him. The two — along with other “Squad” members Ilhan Omar of Minnesota, Ayanna Pressley of Massachusetts, Cori Bush of Missouri, Rashida Tlaib of Michigan; Greg Casar of Texas, and Summer Lee of Pennsylvania — have collectively sparked hope for the deep structural changes America needs to become a more equitable nation. Bowman’s website boasts 19 pieces of legislation and other accomplishments, including 2021’s Green New Deal, which seeks to invest $1.4 trillion in federal funds to public schools and infrastructure to combat climate change. Bowman also helped introduce the Ending Corporate Greed Act, which proposed a 95 percent tax on the windfall profits of major corporations; the Living Wage For Musicians Act, which seeks to give artists a penny-per-stream (instead of the fractions-of-a-penny status quo); and the RAP Act, which would hinder federal judges’ ability to use rap lyrics against artists in court. The RAP Act is an initiative of the congressional Hip-Hop Task Force, which Bowman unveiled in February.

“Going forward, we’re going to continue to align ourselves with the progressive issues that Hip-Hop has always [championed],” Bowman says of the Hip-Hop Task Force, which he says will take on issues such as affordable housing, public school funding, domestic violence, police brutality, justice reform, and wealth inequality, as well as what he calls “culturally responsive education.”

“Hip-Hop has always dealt with these issues. So we’re going to put those issues forward as part of a Hip-Hop agenda,” he says. His love for the genre runs deep; when I ask him who shaped his political praxis, he unsurprisingly mentions Dr. Martin Luther King, Angela Davis, and Malcolm X, but also name checks rappers KRS-One, Chuck D, Rakim, and Tupac. He says that two rap lines he always carries with him are Rakim’s “with knowledge of self, there’s nothing I can’t solve,” and Public Enemy’s “Fight The Power.”

Those two adages are especially relevant in his campaign against Latimer, a conservative Democrat considered one of the most formidable opponents to a Squad member this election cycle. Latimer recently told political outlet Punchbowl News that, “as a challenger to a Squad member, I’m not a wealthy guy coming from left field. I am not somebody who has no footprint in the community.” He also told Punchbowl that Bowman has an “obvious ethnic benefit,” and added, “once you get beyond a couple of constituencies that he has strength in, he’s weak everywhere else.” Latimer has been the Westchester County Executive since 2018, and has strong ties in the 16th district.

Though the Emerson poll hints at a sizable lead for Latimer, Bowman questioned its methodology, arguing that the polls his team have crafted are more representative of the district’s political pulse.

“It seems like they polled mostly people over 60,” Bowman says of the Emerson poll. “And the people polled are more aligned to my opponent as it relates to the issue of Israel. [That’s] interesting, because in terms of our polling, it shows that 69 percent [of people] support our position on Israel specifically as it relates to a permanent cease-fire. They seem to have polled a particular subset of people to create a narrative that we do not have support in the district, which we know [is false] from not just our polling, but also the 21,000 conversations we’ve had with people. We know that the vast majority of the people, when you poll them comprehensively, are with us in this race.”

AIPAC, which has been driving the outside spending in the race, looms as a major factor in how things will shake out in Tuesday’s primary. But there’s also a moderate-progressive divide that’s seeping into the fabric of the Bowman-Latimer divide. Within the last several years, Squad members have been receiving pushback from moderate Democrats representing constituents who aren’t a fan of their shake-the-table energy.

Last week, former First Lady Hillary Clinton endorsed Latimer, stating in an X post that, “With Trump on the ballot, we need strong, principled Democrats in Congress more than ever. In Congress, [Latimer] will protect abortion rights, stand up to the NRA, and fight for President Biden’s agenda — just like he’s always done.”

In 2022, Clinton backed Rep. Henry Cuellar against activist Jessica Cisneros in Texas, during the same cycle that Ohio incumbent Rep. Shontel Brown defeated Bernie Sanders-backed opponent Nina Turner. Those two battles intensified the notion of an ideological rift between the moderate democrats who seek centrist policy measures, and more progressive candidates like Bowman who push for seismic change. When asked his thoughts on the dynamic, Bowman says that he doesn’t agree with the notion of a “fracture” in the Democratic Party, but says that the internal division is reflective of a diverse populace with varied priorities.

“It’s the circle of life, if you will,” he says. “You have younger people getting more involved in politics. You have people from different backgrounds getting more involved in politics, so you’re going to have different conversations. The Democratic Party is supposed to be a big-time party accepting of all people, and sometimes my more conservative colleagues push back against that. It’s their job to push back. It’s our job to make sure that we express our collective numbers as it relates to a particular issue. The majority of Americans support universal health care, they support affordable housing, they support universal childcare and paid leave, in-home care, and they support all the things we’re fighting for. So we are aligned to the people, and the conservatives are aligned to profit, and that’s just the way that is.”

But Bowman has become a particularly polarizing figure not just for his vision of a better world, but the nature of his advocacy. During our conversation Bowman was calm and measured, but he lights up when he’s stumping; during his speech at Eastville he got the biggest pops of the night by asking the crowd to repeatedly chant “Bowman!” That passion makes him an ideal advocate for a leftist constituency that’s used to making demonstrative statements. But it can sometimes work against him, as it has with people who believe that last September he intentionally set off a fire alarm in the Capitol building to buy Democrats more time to review a stopgap funding bill. Bowman has said the pull occurred during a mistaken attempt to open a locked door. Nonetheless, he was charged with a misdemeanor. After pleading guilty, he incurred a $1,000 fine. The charge was removed from his record three months later.

In January, The Daily Beast reported that Bowman referenced 9/11 conspiracies in a free verse poem on his old blog. Bowman told the outlet that, “I regret posting anything about any of these people. Anyone who looks at my work today knows where I stand.” The next month, the outlet ran a report about his YouTube habits. In February, HuffPost reported that a “wall of honor” at Bowman’s CASA middle school celebrating Black and brown freedom fighters included “a notorious antisemite (former Rep Cynthia McKinney) and two Black militants convicted of murder and armed robbery (Mutulu and Assatta Shakur).” A Bowman spokesman replied that some of the figures on the wall “have complicated biographies,” and that it’s “a rhetorical tool of the far right to insinuate educating students on major figures of Black American history is serving to promote hateful or divisive rhetoric or actions.”

These stories have fed detractors’ notions that Bowman is an unpredictable candidate with dangerous views. Latimer and AIPAC are seeking to capitalize on that perception to unseat him. When I asked Bowman if he thinks he’s framed reductively by the mainstream media as a Black progressive politician, he says “Yes, and it sucks.”

“They minimize who I am, what I am, where I come from, what I represent, and what I’ve done to fit a status quo narrative that is harmful to the collective consciousness and the discourse of our country,” he says. ”At least be fair — be objective. Give me the open-ended space to talk about how I fight for what I fight for as opposed to trying to fit [me] into a status quo box that limits discourse and limits thinking.”

At Eastville, host Dave Kinney announces a slight audible. Instead of jumping into comedian Chuck Nice’s set, Bowman took to the stage earlier than expected. Eastville has a no recording policy, which Bowman likely had in mind during a speech where he pushed back against his opposition with more colorful language than he’d use at a public rally. During his six minute monologue, he notes that his team’s polls indicate a closer race than Emerson’s poll, reveals that his campaign is reaching out to people who “don’t normally vote,” and affirms that his campaign is seeking “collective liberation.”

“This is the people versus so-called power,” he tells the room. “But their power is empty. Their power lacks compassion. It lacks humanity. It lacks heart. It lacks love. And our campaign, our movement is rooted in heart, rooted in humanity, rooted in hope, and rooted in love, love for all people. And we are going to fight like hell until the very last day to win another historic election.”

After riling up the crowd and receiving the only standing ovation of the night, Bowman and his aides walk briskly out of Eastville to continue that fight on the streets.

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