NJ Dem Primary Gets Ugly

Arab-American community leader questions patriotism of district's Jewish voters

February 21, 2012

A prominent Arab supporter of New Jersey Democrat Bill Pascrell invoked the "Israel firster" specter over the weekend when he accused the state’s Jewish voters of being more loyal to Israel than America.

Aref Assaf, president of the New Jersey-based American Arab Forum, opined Sunday evening in the New Jersey Star-Ledger about a Democratic primary that the state’s pro-Israel community is closely watching. The race pits Rep. Steve Rothman, a veteran pro-Israel stalwart, against Bill Pascrell, a well-liked Democrat who boasts a solid voting base.

Assaf accused New Jersey’s Orthodox Jewish voters of transforming the race from a domestic duel between local lawmakers into a proxy war between the state’s Jewish and Muslim communities.

"Unquestionably, this primary election is pitting two otherwise harmoniously coexisting communities: the Muslim and Jewish communities," Assaf wrote in an article headlined "Rothman is Israel's man in District 9."

"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," Assaf added.

Assaf’s charge is reminiscent of the "Israel firster" slur, a borderline anti-Semitic allegation that stirred vigorous debate after it was bandied about by several writers at left-leaning media outlets. Jewish groups and others roundly condemned the smear, calling it a "dangerous political libel" that resonates "with historic and toxic anti-Jewish prejudices."

Assaf—who donated at least $300 to the Pascrell campaign in 2004—publicly expressed his support for the lawmaker on Jan. 10 via a posting on Facebook. He wrote: "Pascrell is the right man. He has been most accessible and helpful to his constituents. The Arab and Muslim community must rise up to ensure Pascrell is the winner on June 5. I will do my part."

Assaf also has been a vocal opponent of what he terms Israel’s "military occupation of Palestinian land."

"I am truly troubled by your support for the Israeli apartheid barrier," Assaf wrote in 2004 letter to the Star Ledger, referring to the Jewish state’s security wall, which wraps around portions of the Green Line and is meant to prevent acts of terrorism. "Only continued Palestinian resistance and collective world condemnation will ensure the barrier remains a temporary obstacle to peace and not a permanent boundary."

In another article from 2010, Assaf declared that "Israel exists but I will never accept it as a Jewish state."

"The Jewish state, a supposedly potential haven for all the Jews in the world in the case a second Holocaust comes about, should be recognized as a fact on the ground blackmailed into the ‘never again’ rhetoric," Assef wrote while building the case that the Palestinians, as a precondition for peace talks, should not be forced to recognize Israel as a Jewish state.

In a 2005 note, Assaf advocated that the state of New Jersey divest from Israel.

"We strongly believe that NJ should demand that Israel first fulfill certain conditions or risk being the target of economic divestment," he wrote. "Failing to act accordingly will lead to legitimate questions about our Legislature’s double standards and hypocrisy."

Pascrell has come under fire in the past for cozying up to a Muslim organization that some in the GOP have criticized as "pro-Hamas."

The New Jersey Jewish News reported on the controversy in 2007:

One day after receiving a community service award from a state Muslim organization, Rep. Bill Pascrell (D-Dist. 8 ) faced criticism for securing a Capitol Hill conference room for an Islamic defense group critics say is soft on terrorism.

The House Republican Conference said Monday that Democrats should retract Pascrell’s offer to allow the Council on American-Islamic Relations to meet in a conference room on Capitol Hill. The GOP group called CAIR a "pro-Hamas, pro-Hizbullah group."

Tom Moran, the Star Ledger’s editorial page editor, did not immediately return a call seeking comment on Assef’s editorial. Pascrell campaign spokesperson Sean Darcy declined comment.