When Rabbi Avi Weiss and Jamaal Bowman exchanged views on Israel before last year’s Democratic primary election, it made national news. But the founding spiritual leader of The Bayit (the Hebrew Institute of Riverdale) isn’t ready to give a pass to Bowman, a newly minted congressman or not.
Bowman defeated veteran Rep. Eliot Engel, who was a staunch advocate for the Jewish state.
Rabbi Weiss wrote to Bowman last week, criticizing comments the congressman made about Israel’s vaccination efforts on behalf of Palestinians living in Judea and Samaria.
In a now-deleted tweet, Bowman called on Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to “ensure that both Israelis and Palestinians have access to the COVID vaccine,” according to the Times of Israel. “This cruelty is another reminder of why the occupation must end.”
Bowman was responding to reports that the Israeli government said it would focus on people living in Israel proper before extending its vaccination program into the Palestinian Authority territories. Rabbi Weiss says what Israel is doing is what the Oslo II Accord — signed in 1995 between the PA and Israel — dictates it should do.
“The Palestinian government is party to the Oslo Agreement which, in Article 17, declares that it is responsible for the health of its citizens,” Rabbi Weiss wrote to Bowman. “When considering this just two years ago, the Palestinian Authority allocated $330 million to the families of terrorists — money that could have covered the cost of vaccines for all of their people. They bear responsibility.”
Nevertheless, Israel did try to lend a hand last summer, Rabbi Weiss added — albeit indirectly. The United Arab Emirates offered to bring vaccines to the Palestinians living in the West Bank, but the PA refused it because the aid was coordinated by both the UAE and Israel.
“The authority feared that this coordination would be a step toward normalization between Israel and the Gulf states,” Rabbi Weiss said.
Instead, the PA turned to a vaccine offered by Russia, which moved so fast through testing, many outside the country question its effectiveness. And those vaccines were delayed.
“For the Palestinian Authority, politics outweigh their responsibility to their own citizenry,” Rabbi Weiss said.
In a statement to The Riverdale Press, Bowman did not address Rabbi Weiss’ letter specifically, but instead said it was a “basic responsibility of government to shield people from the deadly coronavirus pandemic, and that is the work we must continue to do together.”
“I believe every single human being is entitled to the COVID-19 vaccine free of charge,” the congressman added, “regardless of their creed, color or means.”
Bowman’s original tweet appeared to have been deleted last Thursday around the same time he delivered his statement to The Riverdale Press. A spokeswoman for his office would not comment on the tweet’s removal, except to point to Bowman’s statement.
Israeli Health Minister Yuli Edelstein said last week that his government’s first obligation was to its citizens, but that it would be in Israel’s best interests to make sure that Palestinians eventually get the vaccine to reduce the spread of the coronavirus.
Toward the end of his letter, Rabbi Weiss reiterated a recommendation he made in his last public correspondence to the congressman, that Bowman meet with Israeli representatives in New York.
“It would make sense to not only speak to the Israelis, but to New York Jewish leadership before making outrageous allegations about Israel’s vaccine policy,” Rabbi Weiss said.
Once again, Bowman did not address Rabbi Weiss directly, but instead said in his statement that he “appreciates the perspectives that have been shared with me from constituents throughout the district, and I’m looking forward to continuing those conversations as we fight together to eradicate this virus from all of our communities.”
Subsequently, Bowman did reach out to Israel Nitzan, Israel’s acting consul general in New York, and the two apparently plan to meet.
In a two-page letter addresssed to Nitzan on Monday, and posted on Twitter, Bowman insisted that “Israel, as an occupying power, has a responsibility to provide vaccines to the Palestinian people.”
Adding that “this issue is personal for me,” he invoked intersectionality, writing:
“As a Black man living in America, I know the feeling of being neglected by my government and society, of feeling like a second-class citizen or not a citizen at all, in my own home. I can understand the feelings of hopelessness and despair that Palestinians living in the West Bank might feel, reading in the news that the Israeli government has no plans to vaccinate them from a deadly disease wreaking havoc around the globe.”
Nitzan responded on Twitter:
“Thank you @RepBowman for your sincere letter. I believe the situation is more complex & I see it differently, but I appreciate the opportunity for an open conversation about your concerns. I look forward to a meaningful relationship based on mutual respect.”
Friends of Israel reacted on social media.
“I suggest you write to Palestinian leadership, asking how they have money to pay terrorist salaries, but not vaccines,” tweeted international human rights lawyer Arsen Ostrovsky.
The Jewish Policy Center tweeted, “Israel is NOT legally required under the Oslo Accords. Israel vaccinates ALL Israeli citizens without regard to race, religion or origin.”
The Elder of Ziyon blogger tweeted that Bowman didn’t have a full grasp on the Geneva Convention.
Michael Leon, a resident of the Five Towns, said on Facebook that “literally no one who has criticized Israel over this has bothered to suggest how this should work or deal with the challenges involved.”
“Are the Israelis supposed to provide personnel to go into Areas A and B in violation of the Oslo Agreements to vaccinate?” asked Leon. “Does Geneva’s requirement that the occupying power work with the local authority have any real meaning when the local authority is demonstrably uninterested in doing so?”
In his original letter to Bowman last summer ahead of the Democratic primary, Rabbi Weiss expressed concern that the former Bronx public school administrator might not show the same level of support for Israel as the incument, Eliot Engel.
“Mr. Bowman, you have raised questions about Israel’s human rights record and labeled Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu as an ‘authoritarian’,” Rabbi Weiss said. “However, Israel is the only democracy in the Middle East. It has just gone through its third election in 18 months. Yet, you’ve said nothing about the Palestinian Authority, whose president — Mahmoud Abbas — is now in this 12th year of a four-year term. Will you similarly label Abbas as authoritarian?”
Bowman, at the time, reaffirmed that he believed Israelis had the right to live in safety and peace, “free from the fear of violence and terrorism from Hamas and other extremists.”
“I also believe that Palestinians are entitled to the same human rights, safety from violence and self-determination in a state of their own,” Bowman said in his response last summer. “I oppose Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s move toward annexation, increase settlement expansion, and racist rhetoric toward minorities.
“I will defend democracy and human rights for all, and I believe that our government should play no role in encouraging activities that undermine a two-state solution and peace, security and freedom for both the Israeli and Palestinian people.”
The last time Rabbi Weiss and Bowman corresponded, it made national news. While it seemed it might open the door for more dialogue between the two, the rabbi says there’s still a lot both will need to work through during Bowman’s first term in Washington.
“I so much want to work with you, but along with thousands of your constituents, am proud of Israel’s record,” Rabbi Weiss said. “We will continue speaking out, yes — truth to power, from simple citizens — to you, Dr. Bowman, who now sits as a powerful politician: a US House Representative.”
Rabbi Weiss concluded by parphrasing the prophet Isaiah: “For the sake of Israel and ‘the sake of Zion, I will not be silent’.”
The Jewish Star contributed to this report. Michael Hinman is editor of The Riverdale Press.