Posted by on June 05, 2012 in Blog
Sometime between the beginning and end of their busy schedules today, residents of New Jersey's newly-drawn 9th congressional district will cast their ballots for one of two candidates in the Democratic primary. Arab Americans in the district, including residents of Clifton, Paterson, and Passaic counties, will do their civic duty as well. Many of them, however, are unaware of an attempt to question the motives for their political participation in the primary. Arab Americans in NJ-9 are mobilizing for this election and are throwing overwhelming support behind Bill Pascrell, a candidate they’ve known and respected for years. But an attempt to mar their relationship with Pascrell has been mounted by individuals who say Arab American support for Pascrell exists entirely as a referendum on his challenger Steve Rothman’s pro-Israel stance, and somehow by extension Rothman’s religion.
Last Friday, Washington Free Beacon reporter Adam Kredo wrote that the race has "devolved into a highly competitive proxy war over Israel, pitting the state’s pro-Israel community against a growing constituency of Arab voters who have accused a sitting congressman of putting Israel’s interests before America’s.” Citing the opinion of one community member and several ill-informed individuals, Kredo’s report completely misrepresents the Arab American community’s motives for backing Pascrell in this election, contending that Arab Americans are voting for Pascrell because Rothman is pro-Israel and because he’s Jewish. The article ascribes sinister intent to Arab American political engagement in this race. Let’s be clear: Arab Americans, and American Jews for that matter, do not vote exclusively on ethnicity or religion and moreover do not vote simply to prevent each other from attaining their respective political aspirations. But this narrative, which Kredo and others quoted in his article propagate, gives neither group credit for voting on matters beyond narrow religious loyalty. “One side says, ‘We want this Jew out of office’ and, frankly, it’s pretty unsettling,” Kredo reports Ben Chouake, president of NORPAC, a pro-Israel political action committee based in Englewood Cliffs, told him.
What is actually playing out here is not a controversy surrounding the candidate’s support or lack thereof for Israel. Instead, it is fear of increased Arab American political involvement. Comparing Pascrell’s voting record on pro-Israel resolutions and legislation to Rothman’s, it’s clear they vote similarly more often than not. Yet, because of the false notion that Arab Americans are supporting Pascrell to prevent Rothman from winning reelection, critics assume intent. “It’s a little bit scary,” said Chouake that “that massive voter registration drives in the Arab community have added at least 6,000 new names to the rolls.” What is exactly is so scary about the inclusion of Arab Americans in the political process?
Because of a zero-sum outlook on this race, Pascrell is also receiving backlash for engaging the Arab American community. “I resent him turning his back in such a blatant way on the Jewish community,” Kredo reports Susan Rosenbluth, publisher of the New Jersey-based Jewish Voice and Opinion told him. Josh Block, a former AIPAC spokesperson whose use of unfair political attacks got him expelled from the Truman National Security Project, unwittingly proves the point that this race is not about Israel.
The Free Beacon quotes Block: “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.” Mr. Block is right; Israel is not a major voting issue for Arab Americans in this race. The major factor deciding this race for Arab Americans in general is Pascrell’s continued outreach to the community.
“Pascrell has been a friend to the community for years,” says Samer Khalaf, an active Arab American supporter of Pascrell. “He comes to our events, he attends our church and mosque services and some on his staff are Arab American. It only makes sense that the community would rally behind a candidate who has reached out time and time again. This race is not about Israel.” Walking down the streets of heavily Arab American areas of Paterson and Clifton, store owners and residents echo Khalaf’s sentiment toward Pascrell and often boast about their personal relationships with him. This is the kind of interpersonal relationship Pascrell enjoys with the Arab American residents he has served in office for eight terms.
Pascrell, the Arab American community, and its allies have had to deal with more than a fair share of attacks on their relationships. Even pro-Israel organizations such as J Street, which Kredo erroneously characterizes as a “fringe group,” have been dragged into this manufactured controversy simply because they have ties to a Muslim member of Congress, Keith Ellison, who appeared with Pascrell at an event two weeks ago. AAI President Jim Zogby has also been implicated and cast as a fringe Washington player. On the contrary, J Street, Zogby and the Arab American Institute, and Congressman Keith Ellison are all well-known and respected mainstream advocates for Middle East peace. What is clear is that this criticism comes at the same time that Arab Americans are engaging more than ever in American political culture. Whether Pascrell wins or loses today, Arab American political involvement will be the real victory of this race.