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Sunday, July 14, 2024

A Jewish Community’s Response to Jamaal Bowman, Anti-Semitism & Political Tensions in NY’s 16th Congressional District

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Edited by:  Fern Sidman

Steven Epstein, a 77-year-old retiree, has taken on a new role in the wake of Hamas’s recent attack on Israel. According to a recently published report on the Jewish Telegraphic Agency web site, the event struck a personal chord with Epstein, who has Israeli grandchildren and is deeply concerned about the rising tide of anti-Semitism and the political climate in his home district. Once not particularly politically active, Epstein now finds himself canvassing door to door in the northern suburbs of New York City, urging fellow residents to vote in the upcoming June 25 congressional primary.

The primary pits incumbent Jamaal Bowman, a member of the hardline-left “Squad” in Congress, against centrist Democrat George Latimer. Polls indicate that Bowman, after two terms, is likely to lose. Bowman recently apologized for casting doubt on reports of Hamas’ sexual violence, a stance that had drawn significant backlash from pro-Israel supporters, the JTA reported. While he has garnered support from smaller left-wing Jewish groups such as Jews for Racial and Economic Justice,  J Street withdrew its endorsement following his remarks accusing Israel of “genocide.”

The impetus for Epstein’s activism is his dissatisfaction with his congressman, Jamaal Bowman. As per the information provided in the JTA report, Bowman, a progressive Democrat, has called for a ceasefire in Israel’s conflict with Hamas and accused Israel of “genocide.” These statements have deeply unsettled Epstein and many others in the district’s Jewish community.

On a recent Wednesday afternoon, Epstein approached a woman in her driveway, armed with a stack of fliers. The JTA report indicted that his message was clear and direct: “We’re here because anti-Semitism is on the ballot and voting has started,” he told her. “We don’t care who you vote for for president, we care about this election. We care that the Jewish vote is heard.”

Their goal is not to persuade but to mobilize. “We’re not trying to persuade anyone. I don’t have to say, ‘Here are all the reasons you should vote for Latimer, here are the reasons you shouldn’t vote for Bowman.’ I’m not allowed to,” Epstein explained. “But the Jews know and what you have to do is tell them we really need to get the Jewish vote to count.”

Epstein is part of a larger grassroots movement in the 16th district, which covers Westchester County and a portion of the Bronx. This district has a significant Jewish population and is witnessing a contentious primary between Bowman and centrist Democrat George Latimer. As was observed by the JTA, the race has garnered national attention, reflecting a broader ideological clash within the Democratic Party between centrists, who generally support Israel, and progressives, who are more critical of its policies.

The effort to mobilize voters is being organized by Westchester Unites, a project of the Orthodox Union’s Teach Coalition. The report on the JTA web site said that this nonpartisan education advocacy roup does not endorse candidates but is dedicated to ensuring high voter turnout. Epstein and his fellow volunteers adhere to this nonpartisan stance, focusing solely on encouraging community members to vote.

For Epstein, a typical day of volunteering involves spending two to three hours canvassing, visiting between 35 and 50 houses. This rigorous effort underscores the community’s determination to make their voices heard in a crucial election. As was reported by the JTA, despite the nonpartisan nature of Westchester Unites, Epstein finds that sticking to the guidelines does not hinder his efforts. Instead, it allows him to focus on the broader issue at hand: combating anti-Semitism and ensuring robust voter participation.

The Democratic primary in this predominantly blue district is seen as a bellwether for the larger ideological battles within the party. Centrist candidate George Latimer, who supports Israel, represents a stark contrast to Bowman’s progressive stance, as was affirmed in the JTA report. This race is not only about local representation but also reflects national debates on foreign policy and domestic issues, particularly those affecting Jewish communities.

Dan Mitzner, an organizer with Westchester Unites, highlighted the heightened sense of urgency within the Jewish community. “It’s about educating this community about what’s at stake in this race and the different ways in which they can vote,” Mitzner told the JTA. “People feel like anti-Semitism is on the ballot and they feel like, for the first time, we are a community at risk.”

Westchester Unites has adopted a multifaceted approach to maximize voter turnout. They are advocating for early voting and mail-in voting while encouraging a strong turnout on Election Day. The group has partnered with approximately 30 Jewish institutions and recently conducted a “We Vote Shabbat” campaign, according to the JTA report. This initiative involved synagogues across the district announcing the start of early voting, thereby galvanizing community participation.

In January, Westchester Unites launched a strategic voter center in New Rochelle, dedicated to galvanizing the Jewish community’s participation in the upcoming June 25 congressional primary. As was reported by the JTA, this initiative represents a concerted effort to ensure that Jewish voices are heard in the critical electoral battle between incumbent Jamaal Bowman and centrist challenger George Latimer in New York’s 16th district.

The voter center serves as the operational heart of Westchester Unites’ campaign efforts. Volunteers drop by whenever they have free time, making phone calls and setting out to canvas neighborhoods, the JTA report noted. Utilizing publicly available data and sophisticated software, the group identifies areas with high concentrations of Jewish voters and sends volunteers on targeted routes.

The group’s meticulous approach has yielded notable successes. By cross-referencing voting data from the local Board of Elections with a list of 26,000 likely Jewish Democratic voters in the district, Westchester Unites has achieved significant voter engagement. The JTA report explained that as of June 17, the Jewish community accounted for more than 40% of all early votes in Westchester, despite representing only 9% of eligible voters. In one synagogue, 62% of members have already cast their ballots.

The Jewish demographics in the area are diverse, encompassing Democrats, Republicans, and independents. Despite this mix, the campaign has been well-received across different Jewish denominations. “It’s been a pretty diverse kind of participation, from Reform to Modern Orthodox and everything in between,” Mitzner told the JTA, highlighting the inclusive nature of the effort.

The Westchester Unites headquarters is a hive of activity. The walls are adorned with maps of the district and post-it notes carrying reminders, such as a call for “tripling texts” – encouraging people to pass early voting information on to three friends, as was described in the JTA report. Volunteers make calls to remind voters about early voting and encourage their participation.

“Hi, is this Clifford?” a volunteer was heard saying on a call, as was noted in the JTA report. “I wanted to know if you knew that early voting had started, and if you will be voting early.”

Many volunteers donned campaign shirts bearing the slogan, “Don’t kvetch. Vote.” The JTA observed that this catchy phrase echoes a sentiment expressed by former President Barack Obama during the 2016 campaign when he urged a crowd, “Don’t boo, vote.” The slogan encapsulates the movement’s core message: taking action through voting rather than merely complaining.

Jessica Haller, the campaign director, emphasized that the project’s significance extends beyond the immediate election results. “This project is not about the election, it’s about voter empowerment. It’s about empowering the Jewish community to turn out,” Haller explained to the JTA. “I know, we all know, that communities that don’t vote don’t get paid attention to.”


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