Guest ColumnsThe White Plains Examiner

How Latimer’s Support for Israel, Bowman’s Response to Oct. 7 Spurred a Primary Challenge

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Former Examiner editor Andrew Vitelli lived in Israel during two previous wars, in 2012 and 2014, first as a media fellow for the Government Press Office in Jerusalem and later while earning a master’s degree in Middle Eastern Studies from Tel Aviv University.

Westchester County Executive George Latimer had been considering a run for Congress for most of 2023. But by Labor Day weekend, he says, he was leaning against it.

Latimer had been approached early in the year by supporters urging him to challenge Congressman Jamaal Bowman, the incumbent, in a Democratic primary, according to Latimer’s account. They were frustrated that Bowman, a 47-year-old former New York City middle school principal first elected in 2020, was focused more on leading a divisive national movement than representing the district.

But challenging an incumbent in a primary is difficult enough, and the optics of an entrenched 70-year-old white man taking on a younger Black progressive would make it even more so.

Then came the terror attacks of Oct. 7. Hamas, an Islamist terrorist group dedicated to Israel’s destruction, invaded southern Israel and slaughtered some 1,200 Israelis, mostly civilians, and took another 253 hostages. Bowman, who had already established himself as one of Israel’s biggest critics in Congress, responded with a mealy-mouthed statement, condemning the attacks, but in the next sentence attacking Israeli policy toward Gaza.

“When somebody says they ‘denounce Hamas,’ that’s like if you witness a murder in front of you and you say, ‘Well, I denounce you for murdering this person,’” Latimer said in an interview with The Examiner, comparing the Hamas attack to September 11. “This is horrific. This focuses your attention on how terrible an organization it is.”

“What it did in the Jewish community is it made it more urgent not because of the attack, but because of the response to the attack,” Latimer continues. “When they feel outraged by this, to respond in sort of an offhanded or a cold way is to diss them.”

I lived in Israel during two previous wars, in 2012 and 2014, first as a media fellow for the Government Press Office in Jerusalem and later while earning a master’s degree in Middle Eastern Studies from Tel Aviv University, so I was eager to hear Latimer’s approach. I sat down last month with the county executive, specifically to discuss this topic.

Latimer emphasizes that Bowman’s policy toward Israel is far from the only reason he entered the race. The county executive sees Bowman’s approach to governance as divisive and “too much performance art, and not enough performance,” and says he plans to get into the weeds on issues directly impacting New York’s 16th Congressional District if elected. He has especially criticized Bowman for voting against the bipartisan infrastructure bill.

“Your time in Congress has to focus on things that won’t get you press,” Latimer says. “You will not be on MSNBC by doing the things I’m talking about.”

On the national stage, Bowman is best known for pulling a fire alarm in a House office building, then preposterously claiming he thought it would open the exit door. Video that later emerged poured cold water on that claim, and Bowman eventually pled guilty to a misdemeanor and was censured by the House.

But it’s been Israel that has brought the race national attention, and the issue was a significant factor in Latimer’s decision to run.

Bowman and Israel: ‘A big deal for Jewish Westchester’

Bowman is one of at least three Squad members – along with Reps. Cori Bush (D-Missouri) and Summer Lee (D-Pennsylvania) facing a serious primary challenge this year, with the issue of Israel looming large in each case. Bowman entered Congress by beating longtime incumbent Eliot Engel, a staunch supporter of Israel, and quickly emerged as one of the chamber’s leading antagonists of the Jewish State.

He backed out of supporting a bill pushing expansion of the Abraham Accords – efforts that normalize relations between Israel and the rest of the Arab world – but co-sponsored one declaring Israel’s founding a catastrophe, or “Nakba.”

Bowman has occasionally split from the most anti-Israel Squad members, including voting to fund Iron Dome, Israel’s missile defense system. After Oct. 7, he briefly seemed to give a nod of consideration to his Jewish constituency, revealing that he had let his membership in the rabidly anti-Israel Democratic Socialists of America (DSA) lapse and condemning a rally the group held celebrating Hamas’s attacks.

But Bowman has since doubled down on his anti-Israel venom. He absurdly accused Israel of genocide, even as the IDF took unprecedented measures to avoid civilian casualties in response to Hamas’s use of human shields, resulting in a civilian-to-combatant casualty ratio remarkably low for urban warfare. Bowman’s genocide claim cost him the backing of J Street, a left-wing group highly critical of Israel’s government that has long defended Bowman and his fellow Squad members.

The congressman was one of just 10 House members to vote against a bipartisan resolution standing with Israel. Last month, Bowman formed a joint fundraising effort with Rep. Rashida Tlaib, an anti-Israel firebrand who was the only voting member of Congress to refuse to condemn Hamas’s rape and sexual assault against Israeli women on Oct. 7.

Bowman has repeatedly left his Jewish constituents feeling ignored and alienated, said Rabbi Evan Hoffman of Congregation Anshe Sholom in New Rochelle. In response, the Jewish community has made unprecedented efforts to mobilize against Bowman.

“It has become almost a cultural phenomenon. It is a big, big deal for Jewish Westchester, the likes of which no race has ever taken on before,” said Hoffman, who is president of the Westchester Board of Rabbis. “It’s just one congressional seat, and yet the rank-and-file members of the Jewish community recognize that they have a significant role to play in deciding the outcome.”

Hoffman says he received a call from Bowman on his cell phone five days after the attacks, with the congressman asking the rabbi about the feeling on the street in the Jewish community. Hoffman responded that congregants were concerned for their safety, particularly over an upcoming planned “Day of Rage” against Israel and its supporters, and urged the congressman to issue a statement saying that the local Jewish community should not be harmed. Bowman, according to Hoffman, responded by saying “interesting,” but never issued such a statement.

“Usually when there is a politician that doesn’t reflect one’s communal viewpoint, you try to have overtures to that officeholder and at least bring them along part of the way,” Hoffman explained. “In the case of Jamaal Bowman, it has been the complete opposite. In every possible case he has, with great relish, jumped in the opposite direction.”

In October, 40 rabbis signed onto a letter urging Bowman to do more for the Jewish community.

“There were things before Oct. 7 that alienated (Bowman) to the Jewish community; Oct. 7 amplified it,” Latimer said.

I e-mailed a spokesperson for Congressman Bowman to ask about Hoffman’s account, as well as Latimer’s criticism. I did not receive a response.

In our conversation, Latimer noted that Bowman had boycotted a speech to Congress by Israeli President Isaac Herzog and voted against a bipartisan bill declaring that Israel is not a racist state.

“Israel is a democracy. Every democracy is flawed,” Latimer said. “Can you compare that to societies like Iran and Yemen, that absolutely have a closed society, don’t treat women properly, don’t treat gays properly? But you’re going to say that Israel is racist?”

Latimer and Israel: ‘At Any Moment, Their Life Could be Taken’

Latimer traveled to Israel – for the third time in his life – in November on a trip organized and funded by the Westchester Jewish Council following the Hamas attacks. He toured Kfar Aza, a kibbutz near the Gaza border where more than 60 people were murdered or taken hostage on Oct. 7.

He recalls seeing a home with a drying rack and a child’s toy sitting outside and realizing he has no idea the fate of that mother and child. He saw the Iron Dome shoot down an incoming rocket, an image that stuck with him even after he returned to Westchester.

“Those people live with that every day. They hear a big boom, and they know that that was a missile that was planned to kill them,” he said. “That really sealed the whole thing for me. This is what people are dealing with in Israel. They have a fear that at any moment, their life could be taken by people who are hostile to them and don’t want them there.”

It didn’t take Oct. 7 for Latimer to understand the threats Israel faces. The county executive was born five years after the creation of the Jewish state and was a teenager when five Arab armies attacked in 1967, trying to wipe the nascent nation off the map. He was nearing his 20th birthday during the 1973 Yom Kippur War, and vividly recalls following events in the region as a college student.

“The Six Day War (of 1967) was an aggressive effort to destroy the State of Israel. The Yom Kippur War was an aggressive effort to destroy the State of Israel,” Latimer said. “The Intifada, when you had relatively open borders, and people would ride on an Israeli bus and blow themselves up…these actions caused Israel to be more security-minded.”

Protestors who lay all the blame for hostilities at the feet of Netanyahu and the Israeli government ignore this history, he continued.

“I don’t care if it happened when you weren’t alive,” Latimer said. “It happened.”

Latimer is not without his criticisms of Israeli policy. He sees the rapid expansion of Israeli settlements in the West Bank, including in areas envisioned as part of a future Palestinian state, as a significant hurdle in ultimately reaching peace. He favors a two-state solution – the State of Palestine beside the State of Israel – and acknowledges that Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu opposes such an outcome.

“Because I support the State of Israel does not mean I support everything Netanyahu does,” Latimer said. He speaks positively of centrist former Prime Minister Yair Lapid, one of Netanyahu’s political opponents whom Latimer met during his trip to Israel.

Latimer opposes putting any legislative conditions on aid to Israel and is generally deferential to the executive branch when it comes to handling negotiations.

“An executive implements policy,” he explained, adding that too much congressional involvement could tie the administration’s hands. “I don’t want, as one congressman or potential congressman, to start pretending I am the secretary of state.”

Bowman has taken a different approach. He called almost immediately for a ceasefire and later joined protestors outside the White House, including Tlaib, urging President Biden to pressure Israeli leadership to end its war even as Hamas has vowed to repeat its Oct. 7 attacks as long as Israel exists.

“You’ve now told terrorists everywhere that the western strategy toward terrorism is if you can get away with it, we will accept it, and then we will start negotiating,” Latimer countered. “I don’t think (the majority of the district’s residents) endorse seeing terrorism being rewarded.”

I asked Latimer what conditions he thinks would be required for a permanent ceasefire.

“If Hamas were to release hostages, which I don’t think they’ll do, and renounce violence, which I don’t think they’ll do, then you have the framework of what could lead to a ceasefire,” he said. “And if they’re not willing to do those two things, which I don’t think they will, then anything else that I say beyond that is ridiculous.”

Last week, Latimer came out in support of President Biden’s push for a temporary ceasefire to bring home the Israeli hostages and bring humanitarian aid into Gaza. But Hamas has so far reportedly rejected these terms.

“I don’t think Hamas wants to negotiate,” Latimer told me during our conversation. “I think Hamas would rather have a bloodbath.”

Latimer’s support for American backing of Israel reflects more than just his affinity for the Jewish state. While isolationism seems trendy among the loudest voices on the far left and parts of the political right, Latimer does not take the extended period of relative domestic peace enjoyed under the American-led world order for granted. If the U.S. backs down from the threat posed by Hamas and its sponsors in Iran, it would empower other hostile actors such as Russia, North Korea and China, and could eventually threaten the U.S. itself.

“Sooner or later the skies of Kfar Aza will be the skies over Mamaroneck,” he said. “It may not happen in my lifetime. Maybe not even in yours. But you’ve got kids, and I’ve got grandkids.”

“Those forces of evil out there are not going to stop,” Latimer continued. “They want the whole world under their control, and they are not going to stop.”

I asked Rabbi Hoffman how the Jewish community feels about Latimer. Hoffman said he’s known him for 20 years, and his congregation would support him regardless of the prominence of the Israel issue.

“George and I were in synagogue together this morning,” Hoffman noted.

Bowman had different weekend plans. Video circulating on X, formerly Twitter, showed Bowman, camera on selfie mode, again joined with his fundraising partner Tlaib to lead chants of “Free Palestine.”

Andrew Vitelli is the former editor of The White Plains Examiner and The Putnam Examiner.



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