Following an acrimonious primary battle in northern New Jersey’s newly redrawn 9th Congressional District, one question on the minds of many leaders is how to avoid the election campaign from deteriorating into a “them versus us” battle between the Jewish and Arab communities. Traditionally, the two communities have worked well together on common issues. The huge Arab-American vote that swept Rep. William J. Pascrell, Jr., to victory over Rep. Steve Rothman in the Democratic primary, however, has raised alarms in some quarters that the current campaign will be a divisive one.

Outside commentators have added to those fears.

News AnalysisJames Zogby, for example, is president of the Arab American Institute. In his syndicated column, he wrote of Pascrell’s victory, “While this election had been termed by some Jewish writers and organizations as ‘Arabs versus Jews’ and being ‘all about Israel,’ it was not. If anything, it was about Paterson voting for its favorite son [Pascrell was mayor at one time] and it was about Arab Americans coming of age, demonstrating that they will not be quiescent in the face of attacks that slander their friends and attempt to demonize and marginalize the community.”

In fact, the primary did deteriorate into a contest between Arab Americans and Jewish Americans. Posters and campaign signs in Arabic called on Arab-Americans to vote for Pascrell. Rothman and his allies, in a highly criticized move, urged Paterson’s Jewish Republicans to switch their party affiliation in order to vote for him, and then switch back once it was over. In addition, both the national organization AIPAC and the locally based NORPAC heavily supported Rothman and ratcheted up the rhetoric on Israel to help turn out Jewish voters on Primary Day.

Observers, however, say that the Arab-Israel dispute was not the reason behind Rothman’s loss.

Arguably, they say, his decision to run for that seat, rather than challenging Rep. Scott Garrett in the redrawn 5th District, and his blatant attempts to distort Pascrell’s record cost him the election. Both The Newark Star-Ledger and The Bergen Record endorsed Pascrell for those very reasons. Observers note that the Bergen County portion of the 9th vote was much smaller than expected, probably because voters – Jewish and non-Jewish – were alienated by Rothman’s campaign.

Rothman’s people did not consider the possibility that the reliably Democratic Jewish voters in Bergen County would stay home in large numbers. It also failed to consider that not all Jewish voters would accept the notion that Pascrell would abandon his long-standing support for Israel. M.J. Rosenberg, a former employee and now a leading critic of AIPAC, quoted a friend from the Paterson area, who said of the Rothman defeat: “Please don’t paint this as a Jewish candidate being beaten. It was the AIPAC candidate. Every Jew I know voted for Pascrell. Jews and Arab-Americans, working together as Americans, beat Rothman.”

The Republican nominee, Shmuley Boteach, told The Jewish Standard last week and has repeated several times since that he will not allow the campaign to deteriorate into a “them versus us” contest. This week, in an “open letter” op-ed to Pascrell (see page 18), he writes, “Perpetuating the myth, started in the Democratic primary, that you are a foe of Israel is something forbidden by my values system, which obligates me to thank you for votes in favor of the Jewish state.” The tenor of the op-ed, however, seems to suggest that Boteach will make some of Pascrell’s controversial actions regarding Israel a centerpiece of his campaign. The only question, then, is whether the debate can focus on legitimate issues without deteriorating into name-calling and acrimony.

So will this election pit neighbor against neighbor, or can communal leaders and others prevent it from damaging the fragile but strengthening bond between Arabs and Jews in North Jersey? The general consensus is that they can, but perhaps not easily.

“This election should be about the important issues facing all the voters,” said Benjamin Shull, rabbi of Temple Emanuel of the Pascack Valley and president-elect of the North Jersey Board of Rabbis. That is a sentiment being echoed by many others in the community.