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Letter, op-ed put ethnic fray at campaign’s center
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Letter, op-ed put ethnic fray at campaign’s center

Israel records in play in Dist. 9 race between Pascrell and Rothman

A supporter of Rep. Bill Pascrell (D-Dist. 8) dismissed an op-ed by an Arab-American activist who accused supporters of Pascrell’s Democratic challenger of “total and blind support for Israel.”

In an e-mailed letter sent out Feb. 23 by Pascrell’s re-election campaign, Herb Klein touted Pascrell’s pro-Israel record and said the lawmaker had no connection to the op-ed written by Aref Assaf, president of the New Jersey-based American Arab Forum.

Assaf’s op-ed in The Star-Ledger was critical of an endorsement of Rep. Steve Rothman by presidents of 15 Orthodox synagogues in Passaic. The op-ed asserted, “Loyalty to a foreign flag is not loyalty to America's.”

Critics of the op-ed said it was an example of the “dual loyalty” slur historically leveled at Jews, and called on Pascrell to disavow it. Rothman is challenging Pascrell for the Democratic nomination in the reconfigured District 9.

“The ongoing 'controversy' being laid at Bill Pascrell's door as a result of an op-ed authored by someone not affiliated with the Pascrell campaign has proven to be a distraction from the issues confronting the ninth congressional district's Democratic voters,” wrote Klein.

Klein, a Little Falls attorney, represented Pascrell’s current District 8 in Congress from 1993 to 1995.

“Anyone who knows my friend Bill Pascrell knows that he has been one of the strongest pro-Israel supporters in Congress. Any suggestions to the contrary are simply absurd,” wrote Klein. “Bill Pascrell has a strong record of supporting Israel throughout his entire career, consistently voting for increased aid to Israel and supporting Israel's right to defend itself against acts of terrorism, and passing legislation to increase cooperation between the United States and Israel in combating terrorism.”

The presidents’ letter and Assaf’s op-ed put ethnic concerns at the center of what already promised to be a sharp campaign.

The endorsement of Rothman by synagogue presidents was mailed during the second week of February to Republicans in an Orthodox neighborhood of Passaic. It urged recipients to register as Democrats before an April 11 deadline so they can vote for Rothman over Pascrell.

If their drive succeeds, it could bring as many as 600 votes to Rothman in the June 5 primary.

Critics of the letter, including Assaf, suggested the endorsement could run afoul of Internal Revenue Service regulations. The IRS prevents tax-exempt religious organizations from influencing legislation or promoting a candidate’s political campaign.

Sean Darcy, a spokesperson for the Pascrell campaign, told NJ Jewish News, “We have concerns if there are any tax law violations.”

But Assemblyman Gary Schaer (D-Dist. 36), a key supporter of Rothman in the Orthodox community, denied the letter violated IRS rules.

“Let us understand: the letter was paid for by Rothman,” he said. “No shul was identified, only names of people who are involved with those shuls. There is no suggestion that this is in any way illegal or improper.”

Schaer said he did not organize, but, rather, “was involved with” the action by the synagogue presidents on Rothman’s behalf.

Because of a new redistricting plan, Rothman opted to challenge Pascrell rather than compete in a predominantly Republican District 5, which is currently represented by the conservative Scott Garrett.

‘A serious charge’

The letter from the synagogue presidents suggests what Rothman, who is Jewish, considers his selling points to the Jewish community. It describes the funds Rothman “secured” for local synagogues and Jewish organizations, and praises Rothman’s support for Israel, sanctions on Iran, and his disagreements with President Barack Obama’s Israel policies.

Pascrell, who is Catholic, has long touted his own pro-Israel bona fides, including campaign donations from NORPAC, the pro-Israel lobby based in Englewood. But Pascrell’s opponents like to point to his occasional votes that depart from positions taken by the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, as well as the support he enjoys from Paterson’s sizable Arab-American community.

Although Assaf is not a resident of District 9, the Rothman campaign urged Pascrell to disavow his essay.

“Questioning Congressman Rothman's loyalty to America is a serious charge,” wrote a spokesman, Aaron Keyak, in an e-mail to NJJN dated Feb. 22. “We are disappointed that Congressman Pascrell refuses to disavow his donor's ridiculous and unfounded attack.”

In his regular op-ed for The Star-Ledger, Assaf charged that “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.”

The column was titled, “Rothman Is Israel’s Man in District 9.”

Ben Dworkin, director of the Rebovich Institute for New Jersey Politics at Rider University, is predicting “a very tight race.”

“In the end, this could be decided by a percentage point,” he said. “If there are issues in terms of voting records or leadership like the U.S.-Israel relationship, that is the way voters will be. For a certain constituency, an endorsement of Rothman will matter, but it is not going to matter to every Jewish voter in the Democratic primary.”

rwiener@njjewishnews.com

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