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In Jersey Race, Israel Faded As Factor

Sources from both sides of Democratic primary attribute Pascrell’s win to historic voting numbers for Arab Americans. Bring on Rabbi Shmuley!

To read the news coverage of the race for a new Congressional seat in Passaic County, New Jersey a week ago, it might as well have been a district just East of Tel Aviv.

Allies and supporters of Rep. Steve Rothman, who was facing off against another incumbent, Rep. Bill Pascrell, after redistricting, sought to make the central issue of the race a set of relatively minor differences on their stances toward Israel.

“Rep. Pascrell, however, has implicitly endorsed odious attacks on Rothman’s religion and commitment to the United States. These claims are reminiscent of canards regularly bandied about by White Supremacists and anti-Semites,” said Josh Block, a Democratic strategist and former spokesman for the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, told the Washington Free Beacon amid suggestions on both sides that the race had become an “ethnic proxy war.”

Meanwhile, Susan Rosenbluth, publisher of the New Jersey Jewish Voice and Opinion accused an Arab-American supporter of Pascrell of taking “an anti-Semitic turn,” after he published a column in the Star-Ledger suggesting Rothman’s loyalty was to Israel.

After the intense charges and counter-charges, Pascrell won with 61% of the vote — and now aides to both candidates say the Israel issue — for all the sound and fury — had little bite in the district, primarily composed of the 3% Jewish Passaic County.

Paul Swibinski, Rothman’s senior campaign strategist and head of Vision Media, said allegations that Pascrell was soft on Israel “were not an issue in the campaign,” despite what various voices outside of the campaign contended.

“The Israel issue was a small part of a much broader discussion,” a source close to the Rothman said. “Those who looked at the results and read it as a war on Israel were wrong.”

A leading Arab American group, meanwhile, took a victory lap after the results were in.

“This race will be remembered as a victory for traditional political organizing and a rejection of divisive politics,” said Arab American Institue President James Zogby. “The community didn’t fold,” he said. “They’ve never been tested before this way and they came through.”

Pascrell’s victory in Passaic county was overwhelming in largely Arab American districts, Zogby said, setting “a new standard for Arab American voter participation in nationally significant competitive races,” he said.

The Israel politics of the New Jersey district may not be over, but they seem to be softening. Pascrell’s Republican challenger is a celebrity rabbi, Shmuley Boteach, who published a public letter last week welcoming Mr. Pascrell into his home for Friday night Sabbath dinner.

“You and I don’t know each other and to my knowledge have never met. I’ve heard a lot about you and you’ve probably heard some about me,” Mr. Boteach appeals. “Every Friday night at our Sabbath table my wife and I host all kinds of people. We love having guests and it would be my honor for us to host you and your family either this coming Friday night or whenever it may suit you, although sooner would be better than later.”

Friday, Oct. 24, 2008: Congressman Bill Pascrell gives a double fist pump while Imam Mohammad
Qatanani prays after Governor Jon Corzine signed an Executive Order establishing a Arab American Heritage Commission in Wayne, N.J.
The Arab American Forum / Via Flickr: 32340160@N08

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