If you think the Democratic primary in New Jersey’s 9th congressional district is just another nasty intra-party fight or simply an example of brawling New Jersey politics, think again. Rep. Steve Rothman (D-N.J.) was redistricted out of his seat. Rather than battle against conservative Republican Scott Garrett in the 5th congressional district, he chose to take on fellow liberal Democrat Bill Pascrell in a new 9th congressional district, which encompasses more than half of Rothman’s existing constituents.
They are both liberal Democrats, as noted, but their records on Israel are distinguishable. JTA reported in January:
Josh Block, a former longtime spokesman for the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, said that Rothman’s “record of pro-Israel leadership is second to none, and in this particular race the differences couldn’t be clearer.”
Block accused Pascrell of having “actually sided against American support for Israel’s right to defend herself against weapons smuggling and attacks by terrorists.” He pointed to Pascrell’s signing of a January 2010 letter to Obama criticizing the Israeli and Egyptian blockade of Gaza. The letter, signed by 54 House members, called on the president to press for the easing of the blockade to improve conditions for Palestinian civilians.
In 2010, the so-called Gaza 54 letter became the subject of much controversy, and it was one factor in the close race between now Sen. Pat Toomey (R-Pa.) and Rep. Joe Sestak (D-Pa.) for the Pennsylvania Senate seat.
But then things in the NJ-9 got heated: The Hill recaps the race and the stakes when 15 presidents of Orthodox Jewish synagogues sent out a letter:
In their letter, the synagogue leaders appealed to their Republican members to temporarily register as Democrats so they could vote for Rothman in the primary. The Rothman campaign paid for the letter, which calls him the candidate who better understands the Jewish community’s needs and interests.
“We kind of see it as, if we can register more Democrats, we’re doing a good thing for the party,” said a source with knowledge of Rothman’s campaign.
The letter prompted pointed questions about whether the Jewish leaders had violated tax law by endorsing a candidate — and about the ethics of encouraging Republicans to sway a Democrat primary. But those concerns were quickly forgotten when Aref Assaf, president of the American Arab Forum, penned an editorial in the state’s largest newspaper accusing Rothman of “total and blind support for Israel.”
“Loyalty to a foreign flag is not loyalty to America’s,” Assaf wrote.
Rothman’s supporters lashed out at the editorial, claiming it smacks of anti-Semitic attempts throughout history to charge Jews with holding duel loyalties.
“It’s absolutely a foolish statement and without any basis to it,” said state Assemblyman Gary Schaer (D), an Orthodox Jew whose support for Rothman prompted the synagogue presidents to draft their letter. “We’re simply looking for someone whose position on the Middle East and Israel’s survival is clear and unambiguous.”
Rothman demanded Pascrell disavow Assaf’s comments, but Pascrell declined to oblige. Assaf said he isn’t supporting Pascrell, merely opposing Rothman. But Rothman’s campaign noted Assaf has donated to Pascrell in the past.
Meanwhile, Assaf printed another editorial deeming the response to his comments “deplorable blanket racism.”
“They’re playing the Islamophobia card. The other side is denigrating the Muslim community,” Assaf told The Hill. “The support for foreign countries should never be a deciding factor in a congressional race — or at least should have a minimal role to play.”
So what was a run-of-the-mill primary has now become a referendum on Assaf’s language and Pascrell’s refusal to repudiate it.
The notion that Rothman has dual or divided loyalties bespeaks of the current controversy concerning left-leaning groups’ use of “Israel firster” and the anti-Semitic connotations that stem from such language.
Rothman is having none of it. Longtime Rothman aide and spokesman Aaron Keyak told Right Turn: “Steve Rothman has always put his country first. He took an oath to protect and defend the Constitution of the United States of America and to keep America safe.” He continued: “As part of strengthening our national security, Congressman Rothman is a proud supporter of the United States’s most important strategic ally and friend in the Middle East, the State of Israel. He says so without apology to anyone.”
Block, who was front and center in revealing the use of anti-Israel and anti-Semitic language by some bloggers associated with left-wing Media Matters and the Obama administration’s favorite liberal think tank, the Center for American Progress (CAP), is naturally dismayed that once again his fellow Democrats are unwilling to repudiate attacks on Jewish Americans’ loyalties. He told me this morning, “The unwillingness to directly confront and condemn this anti-Semitic invective and bigotry is despicable. Silence in the face of this kind of hate speech says it all.”
It is very possible that Republican pro-Israel voters will cross over to support Rothman. But the issue is certainly larger than one race.
Sensitive about President Obama’s shoddy record on Israel and the failure of the president’s policy to halt Iran’s nuclear weapons program, Democratic National Committee chairman Rep. Debbie Wasserman Shultz (D-Fla.) and other Democrats have called on Republicans to stop “politicizing” Israel and to not to make it a political football, in essence pressuring them to shut up about Obama’s Israel record. But the Rothman-Pascrell race, like the CAP and Media Matters flap, suggests that Democrats have a bigger problem closer to home, namely the all-too common reflex on the left to invoke harshly anti-Israel and even anti-Semitic language and the refusal of the Democratic establishment to condemn it flatly, loudly and without equivocation.
It seems the Democrats need their own William F. Buckley Jr., who famously rid the GOP of the John Birchers and took on Pat Buchanan’s anti-Semitic rhetoric. Surely the Democrats have someone of that ilk and intellectual heft to clean house. Don’t they? I’m waiting to see such a figure emerge.