An effort in Passaic’s Orthodox community encouraging Republican Jewish voters to re-register in order to support Rep. Steve Rothman in June’s Democratic primary has generated criticism and countercriticism. Rothman is facing Rep. William J. Pascrell, Jr., in the primary forced on the two incumbents by a decennial congressional redistricting.
A letter signed by 15 synagogue presidents endorsed Rothman, saying that he “best understands our needs and interests.”
In support of this claim, the letter pointed to “funds secured” for local synagogues, yeshivot, and other Jewish organizations (totallying more than $4 million) and “funds secured” for Israel (totalling more than $50 billion.)
The letter included quotes praising Rothman’s strong support for Israel and for sanctions on Iran, and for disagreeing with President Barack Obama’s Israel policies.
The letter was distributed to Passaic residents by the Rothman campaign, which included the form needed for voters to switch their party registration.
“While we understand this choice may be difficult for you,” wrote the synagogue presidents, “please know that after the election you can immediately reverse your Party affiliation back to Republican or Independent; how you vote in the Primary in June does not in any way influence how you vote in November.”
Arab American activist Aref Assaf strongly criticized the letter from the synagogue presidents.
Writing on the NJ.com web site of The Newark Star- Ledger, Assaf questioned whether the letter crossed the lines prohibitting synagogues and other tax-exempt religious institutions from endorsing political candidates.
“If Republican Muslims in New Jersey emulate the Jewish voters, and assuming their numerical symmetry, they will at least cancel out the ‘converted’ Jewish votes. Real Democratic voters will then decide the election outcome,” he wrote.
“Unquestionably, this primary election is pitting two otherwise harmoniously coexisting communities: the Muslim and Jewish communities. To what extent the Muslim community will be energized by these developments will have to be determined,” wrote Assaf. A native of the west bank who says he has been stripped of his residency rights there by Israeli officials for staying in America for too long as a student, Assaf has been a critic of Israel.
“As total and blind support for Israel becomes the only reason for choosing Rothman, voters who do not view the elections in this prism will need to take notice. Loyalty to a foreign flag is not loyalty to America’s,” he concluded.
Assaf’s conclusion was harshly criticized in an article by former Washington Jewish Week reporter Adam Kredo, which was circulated by Norpac, the Englewood-based pro-Israel political action committee which is endorsing Rothman over Pascrell in their face-off.
Kredo wrote that Assaf’s charge that synagogue presidents’ support for Rothman reflected “loyalty to a foreign flag” is reminiscent of “borderline” anti-Semitism and a “dangerous political libel” that resonates “with historic and toxic anti-Jewish prejudices.”
Aaron Keyak, a spokesman for Rothman, said on Wednesday that the congressman “has always put his country first.”
“He took an oath to protect and defend the Constitution of the United States of America and to keep America safe,” Keyak said in a statement. “As part of strengthening our national security, Congressman Rothman is a proud supporter of the United States’ most important strategic ally and friend in the Middle East, the State of Israel. He says so without apology to anyone.
“Even during tough elections, we should be able to debate policy without having our political opponents question our patriotism. Congressman Pascrell should disavow these attacks and ask his supporters to stop this harmful, dishonest, and bigoted rhetoric.”
Norpac’s president, Benjamin Chouake, said his group forwarded Kredo’s attack on Assaf “because people should see what’s going on. The race is getting a little bit ugly.”
As to Assaf’s charge that Rothman’s supporters are putting Israeli interests ahead of America’s, “Give me a break,” said Chouake.
“Supporting Israel is anti-American? Israel is the most solid ally America has. Besides the strategic value, the natural shared values, people in America like Israel, they support Israel, feel that one of America’s missions is to be their friend.
“How many Israelis were implicated in 9/11?” asked Chouake. “It’s not Israeli terrorism that’s scaring the bejeebies out of the entire world.”
Before redrawn congressional districts pitted Rothman against Pascrell, both candidates had earned Norpac’s support. Norpac’s support for Rothman, however, stood out: According to campaign finance records at opensecrets.org, Norpac has been Rothman’s third largest contributor over the course of his congressional career, totalling more than $80,000. Norpac has given some money to Pascrell over the years, but it does not rank among his top 20 contributors, according opensecrets.org.
“You can’t compare Pascrell to Rothman,” said Chouake. “You have one person who’s average, who by and large we have a relationship with, and you have one person who’s great. You feel compelled to support the person who is great.”
Chouake said he does not consider Pascrell to be antagonistic, but rather “someone who has in his opinion tried to maintain the support of both the pro-Israel and pro-Palestinian communities.”
Pascrell’s old district ““ and now the combined new district ““ includes Paterson, which is said to have America’s second largest Arab American community.
Chouake said he has criticized Pascrell for arranging for a meeting of the Council on Arab-Islamic Relations on Capitol Hill, and for signing a letter criticizing Israel for its blockade of Gaza.
In 2010, Pascrell faced a Republican challenger who attacked him on those issues.
At the time, Pascrell’s pro-Israel credentials were defended by none other than his colleague Steve Rothman, who in a letter to The Jewish Standard wrote, “Bill Pascrell votes in favor of issues important to the pro-Israel community.”
Chouake, however, said that Rothman’s ability to rally supporters in Passaic shows a failure of Pascrell “to engage those people and say I’m on your side. If there was someone who was extremely interested in the U.S.-Israel relationship and facilitating it, you wouldn’t see this kind of letter. U.S.-Israel relations are very important to them. If you have someone who is okay and someone who is extraordinary, you’re going to go where you get your inspiration.”