Representative Jamaal Bowman was already facing blowback from Jewish leaders in his district and a growing primary threat for bucking his party’s stance on Israel.
But on Friday, he did not show any hesitation as he grabbed the megaphone at a cease-fire rally back home in the New York City suburbs to demand what only a dozen other members of Congress have: that both Israel and Hamas lay down their arms.
He condemned Hamas’s brutal murder of 1,400 Israelis. He condemned the governments of the United States and Israel for facilitating what he called the “erasure” of Palestinian lives. And with Palestinian flags waving, Mr. Bowman said, “I am ashamed, quite ashamed to be a member of Congress at times when Congress doesn’t value every single life.”
Forget about retreating to safer political ground. In the weeks since Hamas’s assault, Mr. Bowman, an iconoclastic former middle-school principal with scant foreign policy experience, has repeatedly inserted himself into the center of a major fight fracturing his party’s left between uncompromising pro-Israel and pro-Palestinian factions.
Mr. Bowman frames his actions as a moral imperative, but they are already courting political peril. Local Jewish leaders have denounced his approach as blaming both sides for the gravest attack against their people since the Holocaust. A potentially formidable primary challenger, George Latimer, the Westchester County executive, has begun taking steps toward entering the race.
Even some Jewish supporters publicly defending Mr. Bowman have grown wary. When a group of constituents who call themselves “Jews for Jamaal” held a private call with the congressman last week, they warned him he should be prepared to pay a political price if he does not support a multibillion-dollar military aid package for Israel now pending before Congress, according to three people on the call.
Similar coalitions are lining up primary fights across the country against other members of Democrats’ left-wing “Squad” over their views on Israel, including Representatives Rashida Tlaib of Michigan, Cori Bush of Missouri and Summer Lee of Pennsylvania.
But perhaps no race promises to be so explosive, expensive or symbolically charged a test of the Democratic Party’s direction as a potential matchup between Mr. Bowman and Mr. Latimer.
Mr. Bowman won his seat three years ago by defeating the staunchly pro-Israel chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, Eliot L. Engel, in a primary. And the district he represents is home both to one of the best-organized Jewish communities in the country and a nonwhite majority who sees him as a paragon of progressive Black leadership.
The anger toward Mr. Bowman could scarcely have come at a worse time for him. Just last Thursday, he pleaded guilty to setting off a false fire alarm in a House office building as he raced to a vote last month. To avoid jail time, he agreed to pay a $1,000 fine and apologize.
Mr. Bowman’s allies — including many Jewish ones — insist his position on the Israel-Hamas war will be vindicated. They argue that he is speaking for many of the district’s Black and Latino voters who identify with the plight of Palestinians, and that he is voicing the conflicting views harbored by many American Jews.
“He is not ‘anti-Israel,’ and to refer to him that way is to deliberately distort his record, which includes many votes in favor of military and economic aid to Israel,” 40 members of the Jews for Jamaal group wrote in a recent letter warning Mr. Latimer that a primary would be “needlessly wasteful and terribly divisive.”
On the call with the group earlier this month, Mr. Bowman framed his position as a matter of personal conviction. He said he would never be Representative Ritchie Torres, a staunchly pro-Israel Democrat who represents a neighboring district. But he also said it was unfair to lump him together with lawmakers like Ms. Tlaib or Ilhan Omar of Minnesota, who have taken far more antagonistic stances toward Israel.
Unlike them, Mr. Bowman has voted in the past to help fund Israel’s Iron Dome missile defense system. In late 2021, he traveled to Israel on a trip organized by J Street, a mainstream liberal pro-Israel advocacy group that still backs him. Both actions drew sharp blowback from allies on the left and prompted Mr. Bowman to quit the Democratic Socialists of America.
In a statement, Mr. Bowman said that he would “always stand with the Jewish community” but also would work to bridge differences among his constituents, the majority of whom remain more focused on issues like health care and gun safety.
The district, which includes more than half of Westchester County, is about 50 percent Black and Latino, according to census data; studies suggest around 10 percent of residents are Jewish, though Jews probably make up two to three times that share of the Democratic primary electorate.
“I believe that true security for everyone in the region begins with the de-escalation of violence, which means the immediate release of hostages taken by Hamas, a cease-fire, humanitarian aid to Israel and Gaza,” and avoiding military escalation, Mr. Bowman said.
Since Hamas’s attack, though, some Jewish voters and their leaders in Westchester said Mr. Bowman has been too quick to move past the carnage overseas and growing fears about antisemitic violence closer to home.
The American-Israel Public Affairs Committee, a pro-Israel lobby that has spent millions of dollars targeting Mr. Bowman’s left-leaning allies in recent cycles, has privately offered its support to Mr. Latimer. So have local business leaders who detest Mr. Bowman’s sharp critiques of capitalism.
And two dozen local rabbis have condemned his calls for a cease-fire as “a position of appeasement toward Hamas’s terror regime.”
“Since being elected, Bowman has led the effort to erode support for Israel on Capitol Hill and within the Democratic Party,” they wrote in a recent letter urging Mr. Latimer to run.