It is rare when AIPAC decides to pour its resources into an election that it loses. But on Tuesday it lost big.
The election was a primary between two incumbents: Rep. Bill Pascrell and Rep. Steve Rothman. The district was in northern New Jersey and it was a combination of both men’s old districts, with most of the voters from Rothman’s.
Rothman had the clear edge. In addition to most of the voters having voted for him in the past, he is Jewish and a leading advocate for more and more Israel funding on the House Appropriations Committee. It was AIPAC who told the House Democratic leadership to put him on Appropriations because he is as far right on Israel as anyone in Congress and had a safe district.
Bill Pascrell is pro-Israel too, but in the old sense. He favors the peace process and cares about Palestinians too.
And that is what the lobby tried to use to defeat him. This is the essence of the message that went out to every voter in the heavily Jewish district.
Here is AIPAC telling the voters in New Jersey who to support. It is from the New Jersey Jewish Standard and it went out, in one form or another, to every Jewish voter in the district.
Josh Block, a former [and current] 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.
Then Steve Emerson, the rightist Islamophobe who formerly worked at AIPAC, put out a long vicious hit piece on Pascrell depicting the Roman Catholic Pascrell as an “Islamist Fellow Traveler.” Follow the link if you want to read it. It is too vile for me to spread by quoting it.
Rothman embraced the lobby onslaught, doing everything he could to make the primary a referendum on Israel, Islam, Muslims, etc. But then James Zogby of the Arab American Institute, a Christian Lebanese-American and a strong supporter (like Pascrell) of Israeli-Palestinian peace came in to work with the district’s Arab-American population and help the local people organize for Pascrell. The issue wasn’t Israel; it was Rothman’s Arab and Muslim-baiting which offended Arab-Americans as much as Jews would be offended by an openly anti-Semitic candidate.
Few expected Pascell to withstand the onslaught with AIPAC directing PACs and individual donors to save their hero, Rothman.
But then yesterday it all blew up in AIPAC’s face. Pascrell won (in essentially Rothman’s old district) with 60% of the vote. Rothman announced his premature retirement from politics while the AIPAC crowd nursed its wounds.
To be clear, Bill Pascrell did not win because of the Israel issue. He himself is pro-Israel, just not anti-Arab. He won because of his Get Out The Vote campaign, hustling from door to door and ads like this. And because he is an effective and strong progressive from a district that appreciates that.
Nonetheless, this race was the first time that the lobby went head to head with an organized Arab-American community and its friends (notably in the non-AIPAC, non-Orthodox, Jewish community) and got that head handed to it.
AIPAC got beaten, fair and square, by a Congressman who had the temerity to actually speak out for treating Palestinians as human beings. (Here is the letter AIPAC and Rothman tried to destroy him with).
When Pascrell returns to the House today, he will be greeted as a well-loved victor (his colleagues supported him not Rothman). But he will also be greeted as as Member of Congress who stood up to AIPAC’s lies and smears and won. Big. Don’t think his colleagues won’t recognize what this may mean: that just perhaps they can vote their consciences too. And, as one who worked on Capitol Hill for 20 years, I can tell you: AIPAC is feared up there but it is also despised. Senators and House members are sick of having to play jack-in-the-box, jumping up to applaud Netanyahu when the lobby’s enforcers tell them too and, most of all, not being allowed to support peace and security for two peoples, not just one.
For them, Pascrell’s victory may just represent Independence Day.
It may also represent the day progressive Jews joined progressive Arab-Americans to push back against a Muslim-baiting candidate. A friend who lives in the district put it to me this way:
It was sickening. Rabbis actually told Republicans in their congregation, from the pulpit no less, to switch their party registration to vote for Rothman. It was like the Six Day War and Bill Pascrell was Egypt. And it worked with many, maybe most, Orthodox Jews and those whose only concern in life is Israel. But I worked in Pascrell headquarters and there were Arabs, Jewish, Italians, Irish, African-Americans everybody. Working together. My guess is that most progressive Jews voted for Pascrell. And those are the ones who are typical of Jews in the country in general. So please don’t paint this as the Jewish candidate being beaten. It was the AIPAC candidate. Every Jew I know voted for Pascrell. Besides, look at his margin. Pascrell only could win that big with Jewish support. As I said, Jews and Arab-Americans working together as Americans beat Rothman. My message to AIPAC is “Don’t Mess With Jersey.”