Unlike its posture during previous election cycles, NORPAC has no plans to challenge congressional incumbents in New Jersey, despite the pro-Israel political action committee’s past criticism of some Democratic House members.
“We generally support friendly incumbents, but if somebody is really horrible, we will support someone who is against them,” NORPAC president Ben Chouake told NJ Jewish News in a Sept. 14 phone interview.
That means the PAC will not be raising money for opponents of Rep. Rush Holt (D-Dist. 12) or Rep. Bill Pascrell (D-Dist. 9), two lawmakers who earned their disfavor in recent cycles.
Both were among the Democratic House members who signed the so-called “Gaza 54 Letter” to President Barack Obama in January 2009, angering some pro-Israel groups with its call for easing Israel’s blockade on the Gaza Strip.
In 2010, Chouake branded Holt “extremely unsympathetic” at a NORPAC benefit that raised $20,000 for Scott Sipprelle, a Princeton Republican who fought a losing battle against Holt.
This time around, NORPAC is not doing the same for Holt’s Republican challenger, Eric Beck.
“We are not going after Rush Holt this time,” Chouake, an Englewood physician, told NJJN. “Rush Holt has allied himself much more closely with the pro-Israel community. I don’t know if his sentiments have changed or if he just got a little more practical or he didn’t realize how distressed he made people and has taken our criticism to heart. Everybody deserves a deathbed conversion.”
In his official position statement, Holt says he has “always been a firm and dedicated supporter of Israel because of the unique and important friendship between our countries. Because Israel is surrounded by countries that have official policies to destroy her, I have continuously defended Israel’s right to protect herself from terrorist attacks and all who would question her legitimate right to exist. It is very important that Israel’s economy continues to be the strongest in the region. That is why I have worked closely to improve economic ties between the two countries.”
‘A good thing’
As for Pascrell, NORPAC is sitting out his race against Rabbi Shmuley Boteach, the Englewood writer and media personality who has made Pascrell’s Israel record a centerpiece of his outreach to the Jewish community.
In March, NORPAC held an event which raised $125,000 for Rep. Steve Rothman, who unsuccessfully challenged Pascrell for the Democratic nomination after he looked unlikely to win reelection in his Bergen County enclave following redistricting.
Once again, NORPAC “will not take sides” in the Pascrell-Boteach contest, Chouake said.
“Pascrell has basically been a solid vote on a lot of matters, including Iran, but on issues where you get into Israeli-Palestinian relations, he tries to do the right thing, but he also tries to cater to the Palestinian constituency and the Muslim constituency in his community,” said Chouake, referring to Paterson’s sizable Arab-American community.
Although he still faults Pascrell for signing the Gaza 54 Letter, Chouake noted that “Pascrell is an incumbent. He has a strong voting record. He says he is pro-Israel. He did a couple of things we didn’t agree with, but you have to give him some credit for his voting record and being consistent in that record for 16 years. He is not everything we would like him to be and he does some stuff out of the bell curve, but you have to give credit for the good stuff he has a done, too.”
NORPAC’s position has angered Boteach, who criticized both Pascrell and NORPAC in a column that appeared in The Algemeiner, a Jewish newspaper based in Brooklyn. “NORPAC’s decision to embrace Pascrell is an astonishing act of surrender,” wrote Boteach. “That a national pro-Israel organization headquartered right here in Englewood would put up no fight whatsoever against the Congressman who has participated in some of the worst denunciations of Israel and would just accept a lawmaker who protects a Hamas imam who slanders Israel at every opportunity at one of the largest mosques in the country is a brazen betrayal of their mission.”
The latter charge refers to Imam Mohammad Qatanani, the leader of a Paterson mosque who in 2008 prevailed after federal officials accused him of having terrorist ties and sought his deportation. His backers included Pascrell, then U.S. Attorney Chris Christie, and a range of Jewish, Catholic, and Episcopalian leaders who attested to Qatanani’s interfaith work.
Pascrell’s campaign responded to Boteach’s charges in July, saying, “Congressman Pascrell represents one of the most diverse districts in the country and has a proven track record of fighting on behalf of all of his constituents, no matter their race or religion.”
NORPAC is also steering clear of Newark and Essex County’s District 10, where Donald Payne Jr. is running for the seat previously held by his late father, Donald Payne, who died of cancer in March. Payne is all but assured of the seat after winning a special election.
“Donald Payne Sr. had a pretty crummy record on Israel, but I don’t know what his son is going to do,” said Chouake. “The jury is still out. If he is terrible and there is a way to defeat him, then we will.”
The younger Payne gave some indication of his views when he spoke at a May 23 candidates’ forum sponsored by what is now the Community Relations Committee of Greater MetroWest NJ.
Payne said he advocated a two-state solution, “but not at the compromise of Israel’s security. They have been our closest ally in that area…. They should not have to worry about bombs being lobbed into their nation.”
As far as coping with Iran’s potential nuclear weapons, he said, “We cannot back away from continuing to make sure that Israel is able to protect itself,” said Payne. “Every sovereign nation has the right to defend itself.”
“That’s a good thing,” said Chouake, hearing Payne’s quotes. “We had been trying to work with his father and we were starting to turn him around, but he was always one of the weakest people on our issue.”
Although Chouake is a Republican, he is serving on Sen. Robert Menendez’s (D-NJ) campaign finance committee. Chouake believes the senator’s GOP challenger, State Sen. Joseph Kyrillos (R-Dist. 13) “is a great guy. If elected he is expected to be great on our issue.”
“But Menendez is an incumbent who is more than friendly,” said Chouake. “He has taken leadership roles on issues of importance and he deserves all of our support and credit. He has a proven track record of not only incumbency but leadership.
“Pretty good for a Republican to say that?” Chouake joked.