Rabbi Shmuley Boteach doesn’t understand why Norpac, his local pro-Israel group, isn’t taking his side in his congressional race against Democrat Rep. Bill Pascrell Jr. in New Jersey’s redrawn 9th District.
Boteach has hammered Pascrell over two issues regarding Israel: Pascrell’s signing in 2010 of a letter calling on President Barack Obama to press Israel to alleviate its blockade of Gaza, and Pascrell’s support for Mohammad Qatanani, head of the Islamic Center of Passaic County in Paterson, who has been fighting efforts by the Department of Homeland Security to deport him for alleged ties to Hamas.
“You would expect Pascrell to ask Qatanani to repudiate Hamas,” Boteach said.
Government prosecutors, relying on Israeli military officials, said that Qatanani had confessed to belonging to Hamas. Qatanani denied the membership, saying he didn’t understand the Hebrew-language document he signed under Israeli military detention. An initial immigration court ruling clearing Qatanani and permitting him to stay in this country was overturned by an appeals panel, which sent the matter back to the lower court for reconsideration. The next hearing is scheduled for November.
Boteach has proffered a collection of quotes by Qatanani from addresses given in his mosque in recent years, in which he called the creation of the State of Israel “the greatest disaster which occurred on the face of the earth,” denied the presence of a Jewish Temple on the Temple Mount, and said of Israel that “it’s all the Muslim land.”
Qatanani’s highest profile political supporter is not a Democrat, however, but Republican Gov. Chris Christie. In the Jewish community, Qatanani was defended in this newspaper by Rabbi David Senter, then spiritual leader of the Congregation Beth Shalom in Pompton Lakes, who wrote that Qatanani “is a man dedicated to human rights and the pursuit of peace.”
Notwithstanding disagreements about Israel, Senter wrote, “On a professional level, Imam Qatanani has been a consistent voice within the Muslim community for moderation. He was the first to speak out against the Sept. 11 attacks and has consistently spoken out against terrorism.”
Pascrell’s spokesman, Keith Furlong, said that “Congressman Pascrell was raised by his parents to be a bridge-builder, and he has spent his entire career attempting to bring people together.”
Regarding the criticism of Israel’s Gaza party – known as the “Gaza 54 letter” for the number of members of Congress who signed it – the spokesman quoted Pascrell’s writing in this newspaper, in which he maintained that the original blockade, at the time of the letter, was overly broad, and praised Israel’s subsequent relaxation of the blockade six months later.
Dr. Ben Chouake, president of Norpac, an Englewood-based pro-Israel political action committee, said the group has made its feelings on these matters known to Pascrell.
“Some of the things he’s done have been stressing to the pro-Israel community,” Chouake said.
Partly for these reasons, he said, the committee is not supporting either candidate. It is not giving Pascrell its highest ranking, “friendly incumbent,” which would have put the organization’s full weight behind the congressman’s re-election.
The other factor in not taking sides, said Chouake, is that the redrawn 9th District “is an open seat. He hasn’t run here before.”
Classifying the race as open means “whoever wants to do stuff is fine with us. If someone wants to do an event for Pascrell that’s fine. If someone wants to do an event for Boteach, that’s fine.”
Chouake said that on the issues where he disagrees with Pascrell, “those are his constituents. He’s a constituent-based person. He speaks to people within his own community and that’s what a congressman does. You have to recognize that someone has been in Congress for 16 years and has had a good voting record. He votes for the Iran stuff, he votes for the foreign aid, he’s on most of the resolutions that AIPAC puts out. So he does this other stuff you’re unhappy with – he gets the criticism for that and he deserves it. But you have to give the guy credit for his voting record.
“Quite frankly, the other mitigating factor is that it’s really a Democratic seat. It’s been extremely gerrymandered. Boteach is excellent on the issue, but he’s not an incumbent. Organizationally, you invest your resources in races that are viable, and you have to give a person like Pascrell some credit for the fact that he has a good voting record,” he said.
Boteach said Norpac’s approach toward identifying a pro-Israel candidate “sets the bar so low.”
“It comes down to what you believe the foremost challenge facing Israel today is. If you believe Israel’s greatest challenge is money, the $3 billion in military aid, then that’s how you determine a friendly incumbent.
“If you believe it’s not primarily financial, that thank God Israel is becoming a wealthy country, if you believe the challenge is delegitimation….
“What good are the helicopters if you can’t use them because every time you use them against Hamas terrorists firing rockets the world declares Israel the aggressor because people like Pascrell say you’re subjecting Palestinians to collective punishment?
“When I asked Bill Pascrell nicely asking to repudiate the Gaza 54 letter, he repeated the slander that food and medicine were not getting in. It was the U.N. that ruled that the blockade was legal. If you believe as do I that the great challenge facing Israel is not financial but it’s legitimacy and security vis-a-vis Iran, how can you consider someone a friendly incumbent if they’re participating in the delegitimation of Israel?
“This isn’t about whether we win or lose. This is about doing the right thing. Even if I don’t win – and I plan to win, I think people will be surprised on Nov. 6 when I win this election, God willing – the Jewish community has to stand up for itself and have a spine. This race has caused me to question all of the strategies of the pro-Israel groups in the country. They’re afraid to offend Pascrell? Where does that kind of fear play a role in American politics?
“If we end up losing by a small margin because of Norpac’s refusal to take sides, they will forever have compromised their pro-Israel credentials and permanently harmed their organization.”
The race has tightened up recently, with the donation of half a million dollars to a pro-Boteach independent political action committee.
The donation, which was reported first in the Wall Street Journal, came from Sheldon Adelson and his wife Miriam. Adelson is the casino mogul and Birthright Israel backer who donated $10 million to support Republican Newt Gingrich’s primary campaign. He since has donated $10 million to former Gov. Mitt Romney’s presidential bid.
Boteach said he did not know how that money would be spent.
“We have no way of knowing what the Super PAC will do. We won’t know what the strategy will be,” he said.
In the wake of the Adelson donation, the National Republican Congressional Committee upgraded Boteach’s status from “Young Guns” to “Contender.”
And Boteach said the direct support for his campaign has increased. “There’s a lot more money coming in,” he said.
Pascrell’s campaign responded by releasing a statement: “The threat of non-transparent political PAC money from free spending billionaires will not change Congressman Pascrell’s belief that residents deserve a fighter, someone who will stand up against extremist Republicans and their continued assault on middle class taxpayers.”
More concretely, however, the Pascrell campaign began soliciting donors in its first fundraising venture since the expensive primary race against Congressman Steve Rothman. Pascrell spent more than $2.8 million on that successful campaign.
On Monday, the campaign announced the formation of a 14-member campaign team featuring veteran local and national political activists and consultants.
“He needs an army to defeat me? I have two guys,” Boteach said. “It’s because his internal polls are telling him I’m creeping up on him. He’s on the run, he’s on the ropes, and we’re going to beat him, God willing.”
Or as a Boteach campaign press release put it: “It takes a nation of millions to hold Shmuley back.”
While Boteach wants to debate Pascrell’s policies, Pascrell does not seem to want to return the favor, at least on his website, where there’s no reference at all to foreign policy. Three face-to-face debates have been scheduled for October, one of them sponsored by this newspaper and the Jewish Community Relations Council of the Jewish Federation of Northern New Jersey.
But on Pascrell’s Facebook page, there is one sign the incumbent is aware of his opponent. In the banner on the page is a picture of the white-haired congressman at a schoolyard playground full of adorable little girls and yarmulke-wearing little boys.