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Disloyalty accusation stirs up Rothman-Pascrell race (UPDATE)

A face-off between two Democratic incumbents is a sure-fire recipe for bad feelings. That’s the case with the redistricting-fueled race between Democratic Reps. Bill Pascrell and Steve Rothman in New Jersey’s new 9th Congressional District, which was created by mashing together large chunks of both men’s current districts.

Adding to the potential combustibility is the ethnic mix of the new district, which is home to sizable Arab and Jewish communities.

Rothman is a leader when it comes to Israel on Capitol Hill. Pascrell — who has long represented the area’s Arab strongholds — has been reasonably successful at keeping in the good graces of his Arab constituents while also staying on fairly good terms with the pro-Israel community.

True, some pro-Israel activists occasionally have been disappointed or angered by Pascrell. For instance, some were irked when he signed onto a J Street-supported letter calling for easing the blockade of Gaza, but that didn’t stop the pro-Israel political action committee NORPAC from raising money for him. (Though in this race, NORPAC is backing Rothman.)

Now, however, an essay by a local Arab-American leader blasting Rothman has put Pascrell in the hot seat — and prompted some back and forth between the two campaigns.

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In an article for The New Jersey Star-Ledger, Aref Assaf, president of American Arab Forum, took to task a group of local Orthodox Jewish leaders who had urged Republican-registered Jews to switch their party registration to vote for Rothman in the primary, citing his support for Israel.

Assaf concluded his article:

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.

Adam Kredo of The Washington Free Beacon spotted the article, calling Assaf’s charge “reminiscent of the ‘Israel firster’ slur, a borderline anti-Semitic allegation.”

(As Kredo notes, Assaf has written unkind words about Israel elsewhere.)

Next, Rothman’s office demanded that Pascrell repudiate Assaf’s article. “Congressman Pascrell should disavow these attacks and ask his supporters to stop this harmful, dishonest, and bigoted rhetoric,” Rothman spokesperson Aaron Keyak said in a statement. “Even during tough elections we should be able to debate policy without having our political opponents question our patriotism.”

Pascrell’s campaign responded by producing its most prominent Jewish supporter — former congressman Herbert Klein — to attest to Rothman’s patriotism (with a dig thrown in at his decision to run in the district) and to attest to Pascrell’s support for Israel.

Klein said in his statement:

"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 9th Congressional District’s Democratic voters.

In fact, it has been made very clear that Congressman Pascrell believes Mr. Rothman to be a decent and patriotic American, which is why he has been calling on him to stay in the fifth district where he lives and run against and defeat Conservative Tea Party Republican Scott Garrett. That way there will be two strong friends of Israel in Congress, Bill Pascrell and Steve Rothman.

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.

Bill Pascrell has a strong record of supporting Israel throughout this 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."

When The Washington Jewish Week’s Zach Silberman asked whether the Pascrell campaign would directly condemn Assaf’s disloyalty accusation, he was told that the “statement speaks for itself."

UPDATE: Rothman spokesman Aaron Keyak finds the Pascrell campaign’s response lacking. Keyak says in a statement:

Mr. Assaf is a supporter of and donor to Congressman Pascrell. We stand by our request that Congressman Pascrell disavow these attacks and ask his supporters to stop this harmful, dishonest, and bigoted rhetoric. Questioning Congressman Rothman’s loyalty to America is a serious charge. We are disappointed that Congressman Pascrell refuses to disavow his donor’s ridiculous and unfounded attack.

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