The primary fight between Democratic Reps. Steve Rothman and Bill Pascrell is creating a rift between northern New Jersey's Muslim and Jewish communities.
At the center of the rift sit two competing sets of allegations. One accuses Rothman — a Jew — of putting Israel before the United States. The other accuses Pascrell — a Catholic — of not supporting Israel enough, subtly tapping into some voters’ fears about the area’s Muslim population.
Under normal circumstances, this is a fight that would never take place. Rothman and Pascrell are close friends, two liberal Democrats whose politics are closely aligned. Both support foreign aid to Israel and sanctions on Iran — two of the pro-Israel lobby’s most important issues.
But redistricting in 2011 dismantled Rothman’s district and drew him into the conservative district of Rep. Scott Garrett (R-N.J.). Rothman opted to challenge Pascrell in a primary rather than face Garrett in a general election.
That decision left the two Democrats scrambling to differentiate themselves before voters ahead of a primary battle that will determine whose career in the House will end. Brigid Harrison, a political scientist at Montclair State University, revisited 10 years of Pascrell and Rothman’s roll call votes and found no substantial issue where the two differed.
“The fact of the matter is they have nearly identical voting records,” said Harrison. “It really is in many ways grasping at straws, and trying to differentiate between Tweedle Dee and Tweedle Dum.”
But a letter that 15 presidents of Orthodox Jewish synagogues sent to their supporters in February set off a chain of events that has pitted religious and ethnic groups against each other. The area includes towns like Paterson, home to a substantial Muslim population, and others like Clifton, where a large number of observant Jews live.
In their letter, the synagogue leaders appealed to their Republican members to temporarily register as Democrats so they could vote for Rothman in the primary. The Rothman campaign paid for the letter, which calls him the candidate who better understands the Jewish community’s needs and interests.
“We kind of see it as, if we can register more Democrats, we’re doing a good thing for the party,” said a source with knowledge of Rothman’s campaign.
The letter prompted pointed questions about whether the Jewish leaders had violated tax law by endorsing a candidate — and about the ethics of encouraging Republicans to sway a Democrat primary. But those concerns were quickly forgotten when Aref Assaf, president of the American Arab Forum, penned an editorial in the state’s largest newspaper accusing Rothman of “total and blind support for Israel.”
“Loyalty to a foreign flag is not loyalty to America's,” Assaf wrote.
Rothman’s supporters lashed out at the editorial, claiming it smacks of anti-Semitic attempts throughout history to charge Jews with holding duel loyalties.
“It’s absolutely a foolish statement and without any basis to it,” said state Assemblyman Gary Schaer (D), an Orthodox Jew whose support for Rothman prompted the synagogue presidents to draft their letter. “We’re simply looking for someone whose position on the Middle East and Israel’s survival is clear and unambiguous.”
Rothman's campaign demanded Pascrell disavow Assaf’s comments, but Pascrell declined to oblige. Assaf said he isn’t supporting Pascrell, merely opposing Rothman. But Rothman’s campaign noted Assaf has donated to Pascrell in the past.
Meanwhile, Assaf printed another editorial deeming the response to his comments “deplorable blanket racism.”
“They’re playing the Islamophobia card. The other side is denigrating the Muslim community,” Assaf told The Hill. “The support for foreign countries should never be a deciding factor in a congressional race — or at least should have a minimal role to play.”
What has become a divisive point consuming much of the oxygen in the race would have been a non-issue were there not an intra-party showdown less than three months out. Before New Jersey’s congressional maps were redrawn, all of the players were on the same team.
When Pascrell was accused of being anti-Israel after he wrote a letter to President Obama critical of Israel’s handling of the Gaza flotilla incident, both Rothman and Schaer spoke out to defend Pascrell’s record on Israel, according to letters from 2010 obtained by The Hill.
And video from a 2011 event held by New Jersey’s chapter of the Council on American-Islamic Relations shows Assaf warmly presenting a public leadership award to Schaer.
“What they’re trying to do is pit two separate communities against each other,” said a Democratic source who is supporting Pascrell. “You’ve now poured gasoline into the 9th district, and you have no idea how it is going to burn.”
The issue of “Israel firsters” has played out on the national stage, with Harvard University’s Alan Dershowitz accusing the liberal group Media Matters of anti-Semitism after a staffer used the term. But never has the issue taken a major role in a local race.
“The ‘Israel first’ charge ventures onto very dangerous terrain,” said William Galston, a former Clinton administration official and Brookings Institution scholar. “That kind of charge inevitably impugns another person’s motives. It is impossible to refute, but impossible to ignore.”
Pascrell spokesman Sean Darcy said the campaign was focused on fighting Tea Party Republicans and promoting Pascrell’s advocacy for middle-class taxpayers.
And Aaron Keyak, a spokesman for Rothman, said the congressman has always put the United States first, but would never apologize for strengthening national security by supporting the most important strategic U.S. ally.
“Even during tough elections, we should be able to debate policy without having our political opponents question our patriotism,” he said.