They Blamed Israel for Hamas’s Attack. Jamaal Bowman Is Touting Their Endorsement.

New York congressman embraces anti-Israel group The Jewish Vote amid rift with Jewish community

January 29, 2024

New York congressman Jamaal Bowman is touting an endorsement from an anti-Israel group that blamed the Jewish state for provoking Hamas's Oct. 7 terror attack, a move that comes as he attempts to fend off intense criticism from his district's Jewish community over his response to the attack.

Bowman on Thursday posted a photo with members of The Jewish Vote, who smiled alongside the congressman while holding signs that read, "Jews for Jamaal." The group is the electoral arm of Jews for Racial and Economic Justice (JFREJ), a left-wing nonprofit that has routinely disparaged the Jewish state and argued against sending anti-Semitic hate criminals to jail.

In its Oct. 7 statement on "escalating violence in Israel-Palestine," JFREJ said Hamas's slaughter of innocent Israelis was not "unprovoked," citing "decades of occupation" and "the stifling blockage of Gaza." Days later, the group's executive director, Audrey Sasson, accused Israel of "genocide." On Jan. 18, meanwhile, JFREJ condemned a proposal from New York governor Kathy Hochul (D.) to expand the list of offenses that can be charged as hate crimes. Those who commit hate-fueled crimes against Jews, the group said, should be met with "restorative, community-based education and healing," not "a police-driven response with criminal penalties."

Bowman's embrace of The Jewish Vote comes as he faces a difficult primary challenge driven in large part by his response to Hamas's Oct. 7 attack.

Bowman, much like The Jewish Vote, blamed the attack on Israel's "blockade of Gaza" and went on to accuse the Jewish state of "mass murder," "genocide," and "ethnic cleansing." Those comments have incensed local Jewish leaders. Twenty-six rabbis in Bowman's district, for example, wrote a letter in October urging Westchester County executive George Latimer to launch a primary campaign against Bowman, citing the congressman's "effort to erode support for Israel on Capitol Hill and within the Democratic Party."

"Many of us tried to engage the congressman early in his term, seeking constructive dialogue about the damaging positions he took—especially on matters related to America's relationship with Israel," the rabbis wrote. "Regrettably, Congressman Bowman disregarded our outreach and doubled down on his anti-Israel policy positions and messaging." Latimer formally entered the race against Bowman in December.

Now, Bowman seems to hope an endorsement from The Jewish Vote will counter claims that he's lost his district's Jewish community. Bowman on Wednesday embraced the group's support, saying it shows his "movement is strong."

"Thanks to The Jewish Vote for their endorsement and for showing up at our campaign launch!" he said. "Our movement is strong and I'm so grateful for you all."

Bowman, who did not respond to a request for comment, has done little to improve his relationship with local Jewish leaders in recent weeks. During a Jan. 14 panel discussion titled, "Palestine Oct. 7th and After," the congressman heaped praise on anti-Israel author Norman Finklestein, who celebrated Hamas's massacre as a "heroic resistance" that "warm[ed] every fiber of his soul."

"I'm also a bit starstruck, because I watch them all the time on YouTube," Bowman said of Finklestein. "You have given me the knowledge on YouTube before even coming here." After Bowman's comments prompted criticism, the congressman downplayed his affinity for the author. "I had seen a few interviews but was unaware of Norman Finklestein's completely reprehensible comments before this event," he claimed.

Bowman's New York district has also grappled with high-profile incidents of anti-Semitism in recent weeks. In Yonkers, where Bowman lives, a Jan. 4 girls' high school basketball game was canceled after members of the public Roosevelt High School team shouted "Free Palestine" and other anti-Semitic remarks at their opponents from the Leffell School, a private Jewish institution. While Bowman at first condemned the incident, he issued a follow-up statement that blamed the ordeal on unfettered social media use and argued the students should not face significant discipline over their "mistake."

Weeks later, on Thursday, local police discovered anti-Semitic graffiti sprayed onto two Jewish-owned businesses in the Golden Horseshoe Shopping Plaza, which is located across from a Jewish community center. Vandals defaced the businesses—both of which display "We stand with Israel" signs in their windows—with the message, "Genocide supporter."

Bowman responded by condemning the vandals for "stoking divisions and hatred"—though his statement omitted the fact that Bowman himself has accused Israel of "genocide." It's unclear, meanwhile, if Bowman believes those responsible for the graffiti should go to jail for a hate crime. Hochul's hate crime expansion proposal would make hate-fueled taggers eligible for more severe charges, a move JFREJ derided as "misguided."

"Expanding hate crime charges does not actually prevent hate violence; it simply means that more people will face longer sentences if convicted," the group said in its Jan. 18 statement. "And we know that incarcerating someone causes lasting damage to the individual and to their community."

JFREJ's animosity toward Israel—and its soft approach toward anti-Semitic hate crimes—was on display well before Oct. 7.

In 2019, for example, The Jewish Vote steering committee member Elana Levin likened the Jewish state to Nazi Germany, writing that the "state of Israel is doing the same thing to Palestinians as was done to Jewish people." That year also saw JFREJ leader Sasson rebuff calls to respond to a spike in anti-Semitic violence by increasing the police presence in New York's Jewish communities, arguing that Jews of color would feel unsafe as a result.

"Right now, the tools we have for safety [are] more police presence and more guns, but the question for me is how can we build other tools?" Sasson said.

JFREJ did not respond to a request for comment.