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Congressman Jamaal Bowman—a Blast of Fresh Air in Support of the Arab Cause

posted on: Apr 19, 2023

Congressman Jamaal Bowman—a Blast of Fresh Air in Support of the Arab Cause
Congressman Bowman ran on a pro-Palestinian platform, though he supports Israel as a state, only with the equitable treatment of occupied Palestinians– Photo Word

By: John Mason / Arab American Contributing Writer

Congressman Jamaal Bowman spearheaded a letter dated April 13 from colleagues to the Biden administration counseling greater fairness towards the Palestinian people. This is a report on how Bowman’s upbringing in a Bronx, N.Y. public housing project might make him a strange bedfellow with Palestinians. But the point is that he developed his compassion for the occupied Palestinians through his own experience with police intimidation.

Congressman Bowman intends to push Biden administration towards greater fairness in treatment of occupied Palestinians

Congressman Jamaal (sometimes spelled Jamal) Bowman has already been in office for more than two years. He has recently distinguished himself via an initiative to create more balance in U.S. foreign policy towards Israel and Palestine. The vehicle for this is an April 13 three-page letter from him and 13 other progressive members of Congress to President Biden and Secretary of State Blinken. Other signers include members of the Squad, namely Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Rashida Tlaib, Ilhan Omar, Ayanna Pressley, and more recent members, Cori Bush, Summer Lee, and, the only male, Bowman himself. Prominent Senator, Bernie Sanders, also signed.

Why is it that Bowman, an African American, who is leading this effort? He shared part of his reason with Israeli news source Haaretz: “he believes the time has come for a new U.S. approach to Israel and the Palestinians.” The timing of his concern coincided with recent increased conflict in the West Bank, at which point Bowman spearheaded the letter “urging the Biden administration to fundamentally alter its approach to the [Israel-Palestine] matter.”

The Congressman suggests that because the U.S. has so fundamentally supported Israel’s right to defend itself and its right to exist, that now it needs to tip the scale towards the undefended Palestinians. He told Haaretz, “The president needs to step in. No more silence on this issue. No more two-state solution just as a talking point.” By the last statement, Bowman meant that the two-state solution has become a throwaway phrase that leaves out the fundamental issue: Israeli oppression of the Palestinian people.

Congressman Jamaal Bowman—a Blast of Fresh Air in Support of the Arab Cause
First page of Bowman-Sanders letter to Biden-Blinken requesting plan to address fairness towards Palestinians

Putting it more emphatically, the Congressman averred, “There really needs to be policy changes, pressure and relationship-building to ensure that we get to a place where Israelis and Palestinians can live in peace and justice for all people.” Bowman was prompted partly by his very meaningful visit to Israel and occupied West Bank sponsored by a J Street congressional delegation in late 2021 (J Street is an American liberal advocacy organization aiming to promote fairness towards both parties in the Arab-Israeli conflict). While there, he got to see the result of the occupation in a “close and personal way.”

Bowman met with both Israeli and Palestinian activists interested in ending the occupation, ending Jewish settlement expansion, and rendering a two-state solution. The Congressman was also hassled at military checkpoints, experiencing some of the humiliation Palestinians encounter every day. He describes his trip there as transformative, noting that he “returned feeling very strongly that the president needed to step in to really broker a potential peace, justice and two-state solution initiative that is real, has teeth and can be accomplished.”

Bowman believes the letter he sponsored along with the 13 other colleagues was the best way to represent his own experience in Israel and the West Bank but also a consensus of many others’ thinking. The letter’s intent is aimed to ensure that U.S. taxpayer funds do not go to funding Israeli settlement projects nor to support the Israeli military in violation of U.S. law, namely of human rights. It stipulates strengthened monitoring and financial tracking of funds expenditures.

Significance of Bowman’s electoral victory for the Palestinian People

How a Black man growing up in a public housing project in the Bronx could win a congressional election and how he’d translate that win into a pro-Palestinian victory is a story worth telling. Not only did Bowman beat a 16-term incumbent, Democrat Eliot Engel, who is Jewish and was Chair of the House Committee on Foreign Affairs. Bowman campaigned on a platform that specifically called for justice for Palestinians.

As James Zogby reported in an article in Common Dreams, “Bowman’s victory against an entrenched incumbent came on the heels of Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s 2018 unseating of 10 term Congressman Joseph Crowley in the nearby 14th District of New York.” Both winners were younger and, significantly, both “were community activists who had developed strong grass roots networks and the incumbent Members of Congress they were challenging had grown lazy and entitled, assuming their victories were assured.” Accordingly, Bowman and Ocasio-Cortez’ support came from individual small donations compared to PAC contributions for their opponents.

Congressman Jamaal Bowman—a Blast of Fresh Air in Support of the Arab Cause
Rep. Bowman ran successfully as a pro-Palestinian member of the Squad, including support from AOJ and Elizabeth Warren and, let’s not forget, Bernie — Photo

With his origins in a poor Bronx community and its incumbent issues with the police, Bowman saw a direct parallel with occupied Palestinians. Zogby quotes him, “Just as the police force is an intimidating force in so many black communities, I can connect to what it feels like for Palestinians to feel the presence of the military in their daily lives in the West Bank. I can also understand the crushing poverty and deprivation in the Gaza Strip.”

Bowman ran in a highly contested race since Engel was supported heavily by the pro-Israel lobby, that is by AIPAC (American Israel Public Affairs Committee). AIPAC ads were mostly character attacks on Bowman. He smartly counterattacked these and stayed on subject with a focus on values of human dignity and the parallels of the current police intimidations in American black communities and the military occupation of Palestinians. Bowman won decisively, carrying the major demographic groupings, including Jewish votes.

Bowman’s victory was historic in another way, again according to the Zogby article. It is that “Polls show that a majority of Democrats now support greater balance in US policy, oppose Netanyahu’s behavior, and believe that aid to Israel should be cut because of violations of Palestinian human rights.” Even though that quote is dated by a couple of years, it still has relevance today, perhaps even more so given the machinations of the most far-right government in Israel’s history.

Congressman Jamaal Bowman—a Blast of Fresh Air in Support of the Arab Cause
Third, signed page of Bowman-Sanders of letter to Biden-Blinken requesting fairness Palestinians

Jamaal Bowman has certainly made his mark so far in his tenure as a Congressman. And it is a very positive mark coming from an unexpected source, in which the winner, Bowman, is able to stand in the shoes of the oppressed, the Palestinians, and feel their fear, their pain, and their anger. And, then, from his now-advantaged political perch, he has been able to act in a big way on their behalf.

–“Why This NYC Congressman Is Leading the Effort to Get Biden to Act on Israel-Palestine,” Haaretz, 4/16/2023
–“What Jamaal Bowman’s Historic Win Represents for the Palestinian People,” Common Dreams (by James Zogby), 6/29/2020

John Mason, PhD., who focuses on Arab culture, society, and history, is the author of LEFT-HANDED IN AN ISLAMIC WORLD: An Anthropologist’s Journey into the Middle East, New Academia Publishing, 2017. He has taught at the University of Libya, Benghazi, Rennselaer Polytechnic Institute in New York, and the American University in Cairo; John served with the United Nations in Tripoli, Libya, and consulted extensively on socioeconomic and political development for USAID and the World Bank in 65 countries.

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