A bitter campaign in a northern New Jersey Democratic primary race has bought out a growing Muslim community to vote for a “friend of the Arabs” instead of the Jewish candidate.
A redrawing of the state’s district has left two incumbents, Jewish Rep. Steve Rothman, running against Bill Pascrell, grandson of an Italian immigrant and former mayor of the city of Paterson, which hosts a large Muslim population.
The contest has drawn President Barack Obama and former President Bill Clinton into the fray.
Rothman was the only state Democratic legislator to support Obama’s bid for the presidential nomination. While not stating outright support for Rothman, President Obama met with the Congressman on Friday, the same day Clinton appeared at a rally for Pascrell, who endorsed Hillary Clinton for president.
The religious and ethnic elements festering behind the headlines in the campaign erupted when Arabic language posters urged the “Arab diaspora community” to “elect the friend of the Arabs.”
Pascrell has billed himself as being pro-Israel, but his website’s record of his votes on foreign policy show only one issue on Israel – “Israeli blockade on Gaza,” which he voted to ease.
Pro-Israel activist Ben Chouake told the Washington Free Beacon, “One side says, ‘We want this Jew out of office’ and, frankly, it’s pretty unsettling. They emphasized [Rothman] is a Jewish congressman.”
“I don’t read Arabic well, but I am pretty sure that the pro-Pascrell posters that have appeared across the district are not calling to elect the candidate who supports a strong relationship between America and the only democracy in the Middle East, former American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) spokesman Josh Block told the Free Beacon.
Pascrell has said he has voted in Congress to condemn Hamas terrorism, but some of his supporters are openly anti-Israel and often pro-Hamas. They include Imam Mohammed Qatanani, a Passaic cleric whom the State Department has accused of hiding a conviction in Israel for ties with Hamas.
Qatanani has suggested that Israel is part of “Greater Syria” and has indicated support for suicide bombers, but when he was faced with deportation, Pascrell submitted a court affidavit, calling Qatanani “peace-loving” and “magnanimous.”
“As a religious leader, Imam Qatanani has had an enormously positive impact in my district,” the congressman wrote. “Our community would suffer a serious loss should he be required to leave.”
Pascrell has solid support from the Arab community, which has not hidden its distrust of Rothman. “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,” wrote Aref Assaf, president of the New Jersey-based American Arab Forum, in a New Jersey newspaper earlier this year. The headline was, “Rothman is Israel’s man in District 9.”
Chouake has been blunt in his views on Pascrell’s support, charging that “for the pro-Israel community, it’s not about Jewish or not-Jewish or helping an ethnic culture, but about believing there should be a homeland for a people oppressed and slaughtered for 2,000 years.”
Meanwhile, Assaf is trying to whip up emotions to bring out the Arab community to votge on Tuesday. On a newspaper column, he referred to the city of Paterson as “Little Jerusalem,” and declared that “the root of the conflict” in the race as lying “thousands of miles from Paterson, in the heart of the Middle East.”
Assaf went on to make several unfounded claims about what he said is Rothman’s “misdirected commitment” to Israel.
Rothman has been trying to gain more support by encouraging Republican Orthodox Jews to switch party registration so they can vote in the Democratic party primary vote.