x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 21 July 2017

Arab Americans' coming of age in a New Jersey election

A Congressional primary election in New Jersey sends an interesting signal about the growing influence of Arab American voters.

For Arab Americans, the big election news of the past week didn't come out of just Egypt. As important for some was Congressman Bill Pascrell's stunning victory over Congressman Steve Rothman in northern New Jersey's 9th Congressional District.

The two men, who for 16 years had represented neighbouring districts, were forced to run against each other in the Democratic primary in the newly created 9th District.

For the past six months pro-Israel and right-wing bloggers worked overtime characterising this contest in the starkest of terms. Mr Rothman was praised for a "record of pro-Israel leadership [that] is second to none", and being the "go-to" guy on US-Israel relations". At the same time, Mr Pascrell was denounced as a purveyor of "Islamic anti-Semitism".

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 US-Israel military coordination. There were differences, to be sure. Because Mr 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 he often acted to defend the community against unfair treatment, bias and discrimination.

Mr Pascrell was also an early opponent of the Iraq war, signed a letter to the White House opposing Israel's blockade of Gaza and endorsed a number of initiatives supporting Israeli-Palestinian peace.

Back in January, Mr Rothman and his supporters appeared confident, with one saying "Rothman starts off as the favourite in this ... he will have overwhelming support from the Jewish community". Still, they warned that a loss "could have severe negative consequences".

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

Main Street in Paterson is crowded with Arab-owned businesses. The surrounding area is home to over 30,000 Arab Americans of Palestinian, Lebanese, Egyptian and Syrian descent. Thirty years ago when they were fewer and less adept at politics, they might have been overlooked. But no longer. The district now has two Arab American mayors, five city councilmen, and a growing number of business owners and political activists.

The Arab American leadership understood that this election would be a test. Most ignored the provocations from the Rothman camp, preferring instead to work quietly to build support. One activist, however, took the bait and wrote an unnecessarily harsh piece criticising Mr Rothman's "total and blind support for Israel" and saying that "loyalty to a foreign flag is not loyalty to America's".

The Rothman team demanded that Mr Pascrell denounce what they termed "anti-Semitic attacks", turning a blind eye to their own overblown rhetoric.

Many Arab Americans 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 that they used in phone campaigning 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, Mr Pascrell emerged victorious with over 60 per cent of the vote. The Paterson turnout was decisive with Arab precincts recording lopsided totals.

While this election had been termed by some Jewish writers and organisations as "Arabs versus Jews" and being "all about Israel", it was not. If anything, it was about Paterson voting for its favourite 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 demonise and marginalise the community.

 

James Zogby is the president of the Arab American Institute

On Twitter @aaiusa