We will have to wait a while for the final results, but the main lessons from the June 23 primary are clear: The recent primaries were skirmishes in an ongoing battle. The struggle to defeat the anti-Israel and anti-Semitic forces in the Democratic Party is a fight that will go the distance. There will not be a knockout blow for either side anytime soon. There will be victories and defeats along the way, but it is a battle we must win. A strong US-Israel relationship depends on bi-partisan support – support from both political parties. Fortunately, the battle is far from lost. We will miss the leadership of longtime friends but can take heart from new ones. It is self-defeating to castigate an entire party as anti-Israel and anti-Semitic, when that is far from the truth. We should reach out to the hands that have been extended to us in friendship. It is a time to build bridges, not burn them.
In the race that impacted most on our community, Congresswoman Grace Meng, one of Israel’s leading supporters, won a solid victory over her anti-Israel challenger, Mel Gagarin, taking 60% of the vote in a three-way race to 20% for Gagarin. With her spot on the crucial Foreign Operations Subcommittee of the House Appropriations Committee, Meng is primed to play a crucial role in ensuring US support for Israel.
Elsewhere in Queens, Congressman Greg Meeks, who is supportive of Israel and has built close ties to the Jewish community, easily defeated his anti-Israel opponent, BDS supporter Shaniyat Chowdhury. As a member of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, Meeks will continue to be an important supporter of Israel.
In the 3rd Congressional District, which is mostly on Long Island but covers part of Queens, Congressman Tom Suozzi turned back his progressive challenger, Melanie D’Arrigo. Suozzi is solidly pro-Israel. As Vice-Chair of the Problem Solvers Caucus, he is active in working across the aisle to build bi-partisan consensus on critical issues.
Unfortunately, the list of re-elected Queens incumbents also includes Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, who took 70% of the vote against a well-funded opponent, Michelle Caruso-Cabrera. The idea that she was beatable in her own Congressional District proved to be delusional. Our fixation with her only further empowers her. We would do well to concentrate on promoting Members of Congress who are supporters of Israel rather than focusing on one who is a media rock star but has little real power.
One Congressional race in Queens is still undetermined. Results on Primary night showed Congresswoman Carolyn Maloney narrowly ahead of her progressive challenger Suraj Patel. We will have to wait for the mail-in ballots to be counted until we know who has won this race. As the sponsor of the Never Again Holocaust Education Act, Maloney is a key supporter of Israel and the Jewish community. Patel has made his support for Israel a centerpiece of his campaign.
In other races in Queens, Councilmember Donovan Richards combined overwhelming support from the African American community with significant support from the Jewish community to defeat Elizabeth Crowley in the primary for Queens Borough President. In these difficult times, it is encouraging to see an African American with strong ties to the Jewish community who believes that the struggles against racism and anti-Semitism are one and the same empowered.
Assemblyman David Weprin, a staunch supporter of Jewish causes and a fellow graduate of the Yeshiva High School of Queens, won his primary against Mahfuzul Islam. Unfortunately, Weprin won only 46% of the vote in a three-way race, indicating that he might have had trouble in a two-way race, and raising questions about whether this will continue to be a “Jewish” seat in the future.
In the 27th Assembly District, which includes Kew Gardens Hills, Sandra Povman easily won her race for re-election as District Leader. Her husband Morton Povman, who previously served in the New York City Council longer than anyone else, lost his bid for re-election as District Leader to a Mel Gagarin supporter, Mark Morrill. Morril’s victory probably had more to do with the reluctance of voters to hand the District Leadership to a husband and wife team and the feeling that it was time for a change than support for Morril’s ideas. Nevertheless, Morrill’s victory makes him an important player on the local political scene.
In the 28th Assembly District, which includes Rego Park and Forest Hills, Karen Koslowitz and Michael Cohen, who have served the Jewish community with distinction in the City Council and the State Assembly, narrowly trailed their opponents, Maria Kaufer and Ethan Felder, in the District Leader races. Mail-in ballots will determine the results of those battles.
The most disappointing result of the night came in the 16th Congressional District, which covers the Bronx and Westchester. Congressman Eliot Engel, the Chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, considered by many to be Israel’s leading supporter in Congress, appears to have lost his re-election bid to Jamaal Bowman. Had the election been held in early May, Engel would likely have won. The murder of George Floyd created a sense of urgency to elect a black man. Bowman picked up the endorsements of Bernie Sanders and AOC. Andom Ghebreghiorgis, another progressive candidate who supports BDS, withdrew from the race, uniting progressives around Bowman. Engel did not help himself when he was caught on an open microphone at a rally following the George Floyd incident saying, “If I didn’t have a primary, I wouldn’t care.”
Engel’s leadership on the House Foreign Affairs Committee will be sorely missed, and his defeat is a blow to the pro-Israel community. Bowman has called for self-determination for the Palestinian people and using US security aid as leverage to pressure Israel to halt settlements in Judea and Samaria. As the primary drew closer, Bowman made an effort to reach out to the Jewish community, saying that he supports security aid to Israel and opposes BDS. His website contains a plan to combat anti-Semitism. While Bowman is certainly no Eliot Engel, he may yet prove to be someone we can work with.
We will also miss the leadership of Congresswoman Nita Lowey, the Chair of the House Appropriations Committee and its Foreign Operations Committee, who played a leading role in allocating US assistance to Israel. Her retirement left an open seat. The apparent winner of that primary, Mondaire Jones, is a progressive activist. While he is opposed to annexation of Judea and Samaria, he has pledged to follow in Lowey’s footsteps in supporting Israel.
One of the most encouraging results last week was the victory of Councilmember Ritchie Torres in the Bronx-based 15th Congressional District. Many of us might have preferred Councilmember Rubin Diaz, Sr., who is pro-Israel and whose views are more in line with ours on social issues. Torres is a progressive and proud of it. He is also pro-Israel and proud of it. He made support for Israel a cornerstone of his campaign, proudly proclaiming, “The notion that you cannot be progressive and pro-Israel is a vicious lie, because I am the embodiment of a pro-Israel progressive.” We will probably have our differences with him on criminal justice and religious freedom issues. But when it comes to supporting Israel, Torres is rock solid. African American, Latino, 32 years old, LGBTQ progressive, and outspokenly pro-Israel, Torres will be the perfect one to go up against AOC and the “Squad.”
In Brooklyn’s 9th Congressional District, Councilmember Chaim Deutsch, the Chairman of the City Council Jewish Caucus and founder of the Flatbush Shomrim Society, finished a distant third. Congresswoman Yvette Clarke, who has had a productive working relationship with the Jewish community, won the race and is far preferable to her progressive challenger Adem Bunkeddeko.
The leftists have certainly made gains in the Democratic Party. But they have also suffered serious setbacks, most notably Joe Biden’s victory over Bernie Sanders in the race for the Democratic Presidential nomination.
The leadership of Lowey and Engel will be sorely missed in the next Congress. But we can take heart from the victories of Meng, Meeks, and Suozzi here in Queens.
Many progressives will vent their hatred and call Israel an apartheid state. Torres will confront them with the facts as he explains why Israel is the lone bastion of freedom, democracy, and human rights in the Middle East.
This does not mean we should all go out and vote Democratic. Our loyalty should be to our fellow Jews and our fellow Americans rather than any political party. Many of us feel a sense of hakaras ha’tov to President Trump for his steadfast support for Israel. But we need to understand that Donald Trump will not be president forever. There will be future Democratic presidents and future Democratic-majority Congresses. A steady and strong US commitment to Israel depends on bipartisan support. To proclaim the victory of one party as the “coming of the Mashiach” or the victory of the other party as the second coming of Hitler is counterproductive. Democrats should welcome support for Israel from Evangelical Christians. Republicans should welcome support from progressive activists.
How can we as Torah-observant and committed Jews best use the political process to support Israel and provide for the needs of the Jewish community? We need to recognize that every winner on Primary night will almost certainly win on Election Day. New York and Queens are overwhelmingly Democratic. The reality, whether we like it or not, is that the decisions that impact on our lives are made by the winners of the Democratic Primary. If we want a voice in choosing our elected officials, we have to participate in the arena in which our elected officials are chosen. We must register and vote in the Democratic Primary.
Being registered to vote in the Democratic Primary does not require you to vote for the Democratic candidate in the General Election. We can and should vote for the Republican candidate when that candidate is in the best interest of our community.
As we look to the future, I recommend that we follow these simple principles:
We cannot sit on the sidelines when the decisions that impact on our community are being made. We must register and vote in the Democratic Primary.
Failure to support the lesser of two evils is complicity in allowing the greater evil to triumph. We should be prepared to support candidates who disagree with us on many issues when they are better than their opponents.
Our loyalty is to our fellow Jews and our fellow Americans, not to a political party. In the General Election, we should vote for the best candidate regardless of party.
People of good will can disagree. No one has a monopoly on virtue. Political debate should be conducted in a spirit of mutual respect. We may sometimes be opponents, but we must never be enemies.
We cannot do it by ourselves. We need to build coalitions. We should be prepared to work with anyone if that is in the best interest of our community.
There is One who knows better than any of us. We can all use a dose of humility. In 50 years of working in politics, I have never prayed to win an election. I do my shtadlanus based on my limited knowledge. I know that, in the end, it is the Ribbono Shel Olam who knows best and who controls our ultimate destiny. Let us beseech Him to bring about the coming of the greatest political leader of all, Mashiach ben David.
By Manny Behar