A Big Election for Arab Americans

For Arab Americans, the big election news of the past week didn’t come out of just Wisconsin or Egypt. As important as these contests was Congressman Bill Pascrell’s stunning victory over Congressman Steve Rothman in northern New Jersey’s 9th District.

Because redistricting had merged together parts of their old districts, these two Democrats, who for 16 years had represented neighboring districts, were forced to run against each other in the newly created 9th Congressional District. While Rothman had the option of running against an incumbent Republican, who has the other part of his old district, he chose instead to try to unseat his Democratic colleague, Pascrell.

For the past six months, a combination of pro-Israel and right-wing bloggers worked over-time characterizing this contest in the starkest of terms, oftentimes using hyperbolic or incendiary or even bigoted language. Rothman was praised for his "laser beam-like focus on defeating the enemies of Israel," a "record of pro-Israel leadership [that] is second to none," and being the "go-to" guy on U.S.-Israel relations." At the same time, Pascrell was denounced as an "Islamist fellow traveler," a purveyor of "Islamic anti-Semitism" and, of course, a "harsh critic of Israel."

In reality, the voting records of the two men on issues relating to Israel were very similar. Both regularly voted for aid to Israel and both supported expanded U.S.-Israel military coordination, as well. There were differences, to be sure. Because Pascrell had been Mayor of Paterson before being elected to Congress, he had developed strong ties to the local Arab and Muslim communities. In Congress, therefore, he often acted to defend the community against unfair treatment, bias and discrimination. He opposed controversial elements of the Patriot Act, forcefully spoke out against Congressman Peter King’s anti-Muslim hearings (terming them "an insult to the peaceful Arab and Muslim communities"), and opposed the New York City Police Department’s use of ethnic and religious profiling in targeting Arabs and Muslims.

Pascrell was also an early opponent of the Iraq war, signed a letter to the President opposing Israel’s blockade of Gaza (terming it "a de facto collective punishment of the Palestinian residents"), and endorsed a number of initiatives supporting Israeli-Palestinian peace (that had been endorsed by the pro-peace group, J Street and the Arab American Institute).

Back in January, Rothman and his supporters appeared confident of victory, with one saying "Rothman starts off as the favorite in this… he will have overwhelming support from the Jewish community." Nevertheless, they termed the contest "fateful," warning that a loss "could have severe negative consequences."

What Rothman’s supporters forgot to factor into their calculations, however, was Pascrell’s strong support from his hometown, Paterson, the district’s largest city, and home to one of the United States’ largest Arab American communities.

Main Street in Paterson is crowded with Arab-owned businesses, bringing to some areas a distinct Middle East flavor. The surrounding area is home to over 30,000 Arab Americans of Palestinian, Lebanese, Egyptian and Syrian descent. Thirty years ago when they were smaller, less organized and less adept at politics, they might have been overlooked. But no longer. The district now has two Arab American mayors, five city councilmen, a growing association of business-owners, a number of churches and mosques and a core of political activists who have been working for years to involve the community in politics.

Early on in this election cycle, the Arab American leadership understood that this would be a test — one they weren’t looking for, but one they could not afford to ignore. Most in the community ignored the provocations, preferring instead to work quietly to build support and organize for the election. One activist, however, "took the bait" advanced by Rothman’s supporters and fanned the flames that were already burning in this contest. He wrote an unnecessarily harsh piece criticizing the candidate’s "total and blind support for Israel" and saying that "loyalty to a foreign flag is not loyalty to America’s."

The Rothman team sprang into action, as if this were the provocation they had been waiting for. They demanded that Pascrell denounce what they termed "anti-Semitic attacks," while conveniently turning a blind eye to their own over-blown rhetoric that had praised their candidate’s unswerving pro-Israel posture and the disgraceful and inflammatory language they had counseled to incite against Pascrell.

Most Arab Americans, as I noted, chose another path. They worked hard, raising money for the campaign, registering well over 1,000 new voters, and compiling a list of almost 10,000 voters which they used in phone banking and door-to-door direct contact to get out the community’s vote for "a friend of the Arabs" on election day.

When the results were in, Bill Pascrell emerged victorious with over 60 percent of the vote. The Paterson turnout was decisive with Arab precincts recording such lopsided totals as 134 for Pascrell to 3 for Rothman, and 222 to 6 and 195 to 6 and 290 to 20.

While this election had been termed by some Jewish writers and organizations as "Arabs versus Jews" and being "all about Israel," it was not. If anything this election was about Paterson voting for its favorite son, and it was about Arab Americans coming of age, demonstrating that they will not be quiescent in the face of attacks that slander their friends and attempt to demonize and marginalize the community.