God’s Gift to the Bronx?

As he experiences his first week in Congress, Jamaal Bowman will start on a path to do everything he suggests that Rep. Eliot L. Engel failed to do and perhaps even obstructed. 

To blame Engel for destructive social conditions in the Bronx or elsewhere in America, even by implication, exposes how clueless Bowman is about the obstacles that Engel faced and now Bowman himself will face in the next two years. 

Touting himself as a progressive candidate, Bowman ousted Engel in the Democratic primary last June, ending Engel’s 32-year run representing his district, which now comprises Riverdale and other sections of the Bronx and part of Westchester County. 

Engel chaired the Foreign Affairs Committee and was a congressional leader who advocated for support for Israel.

Based on the progressives’ short, twisting history, it would be no surprise if Engel was targeted for his help to Israel. 

Bowman suggested he will succeed where Engel failed in a stream-of-consciousness style response in a question-and-answer interview with a writer for the Jewish Telegraphic Agency. That’s right. He will do it all even amid 434 other representatives – and 100 senators – who probably think and vote differently. 

“Well, my school, the school that I founded, is actually located in the northeast corridor of the district, so I had 10 years of experience working directly with people who were most impacted by bad policy that came from Washington during Congressman Engel’s tenure,” said Bowman, who lives in Yonkers. 

Bad policy during Engel’s tenure? It gets worse. 

“It was not just about Congressman Engel and who he was as an individual,” Bowman continued. “It’s about him being a part of a system that continued to disenfranchise and marginalize Black and Brown communities. I mean, policy that goes back way before Engel, like redlining and the GI Bill and the Homestead Act and other policies that just centered growing white wealth in the white community and didn’t do the same for Black and Brown communities.” 

Bowman is black and Engel is Jewish. 

By Bowman’s standards for representation, what does that say about Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and other so-called progressive members of Congress? They forcefully espoused the same need for racial justice and improved living conditions for the two years since they were first elected – even as the Democrats returned as the House majority. What have they achieved? Why were they not primaried out of office? 

Then he gloats: “I knew I had good roots in the district as an educator. Also living in Yonkers for a number of years, I had good roots there. While I may have been unknown in the ‘political arena,’ I was an organizer, I was a major contributor to the opt-out movement in public education, fighting for culturally responsive curriculum, restorative justice, trauma-informed schools, fighting for equitable funding with the Alliance for Quality Education. 

“So I was known in those circles pretty well. I got a lot of support actually initially to run, not from the ‘establishment,’ but from the grassroots organizations.” 

No doubt that Bowman cares deeply about the people he represents and plans to do his best. Just what does he hope to accomplish that Engel could not? Or the other Democrats in the House and Senate and, for that matter, Republicans who are considered centrists? 

Tons of legislation have been introduced in Congress that promised to cure most of America’s ills, and much of it has gone nowhere. The House went so far as to pass the Affordable Care Act with a public option, but the public option was felled by the Senate filibuster. 

The hurdles are immense, as many observers know. Democrats have struggled for decades to enact socially conscious legislation, much of it desperately needed, and Republicans obstructed it when they controlled the presidency or any chamber of Congress, or all three. 

Bowman will surely have an easier opportunity to advance his ideas with a President Joe Biden, a Democrat, and Democratic control of both the House of Representatives and the Senate. Then there is the Senate filibuster rule which promises to interfere with bills. 

The Rev. Raphael Warnock and Jon Ossoff were declared winners of their respective Senate races in Georgia after Tuesday’s runoff elections. Democrats will hold 50 seats against 50 Republican seats, and Vice President Kamala Harris can break tie votes. 

Because Democrats have had limited success in the past, does that make Engel or any Democrats “part of a system that continued to disenfranchise and marginalize Black and Brown communities?” How offensive can Bowman get? 

Whatever effort that Engel expended on domestic issues, many representatives propose the kind of changes that Bowman advocates. What is important is whether the majority of representatives will vote for said legislation. Without a voting majority, no bill will see the light of day. No matter what Bowman proposes, he will only be effective if 217 other representatives vote for his legislation and 51 senators likewise support it. 

It is a reasonable possibility that Bowman’s proposals will be opposed by some of his fellow Democrats who fear that laws that are too idealistic will jeopardize their political careers and with it the Democratic majority. 

To read between the lines, Bowman’s comments could have referred to Engel’s role as an ally for Israel. Many progressives actively identify racial struggles here with the so-called oppression of the Palestinians. As I have pointed out before, I am not aware of black Americans who seek to drive white people into the Atlantic Ocean or at least subjugate white citizens while in control of the federal government. 

My impression has always been that African Americans, or at least the vast majority, have aspired to racial justice. Conversely, a great many Palestinians – not all, certainly – are committed to driving the Jews out of Israel or ruling over them after dismantling the Israeli government. 

Granted, Engel’s most devastating mistake, arguably, was joining other Democrats who voted in October 2002 to send troops to Iraq, which has proven to be a catastrophe not only for us but especially the Iraqi people. President Bush never presented a convincing rationale and nobody bothered to assess the risks. 

If Engel and others hoped that the ensuing invasion in 2003 would protect Israel, he hoped wrong. By toppling Saddam Hussein, Iran no longer needed to worry about Iraq as an adversary and was able to focus on building a nuclear arsenal – aimed straight for Israel. Fortunately, the Iran deal delayed this nuclear build-up. 

What Bowman learns about his Jewish constituents sounds strained: “And this is what I learned. The Jewish community cares about a lot of things in addition to Israel. Israel is very important, but they care about housing and jobs and health care and education and family and community, and all of the things that really led to me running for office in the first place.” 

Pleased that Bowman discovered that we are human, too.

About Bruce Ticker

Bruce S. Ticker, who writes from Philadelphia, also blogs for The San Diego Jewish World and Smirking Chimp and previously for the suspended Philadelphia Jewish Voice. He was previously a reporter and copy editor for daily newspapers in eastern Pennsylvania.

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