The rising tension in Rep. Bill Pascrell’s district is a striking reflection of the broader fault lines running through the national Democratic party following Hamas’ Oct. 7 attack on Israel. | Julio Cortez/AP
Last time Rep. Bill Pascrell faced a serious primary challenge, he
ended up winning by a 20-point margin after the Arab American community rallied in support of the New Jersey Democrat. Now that same constituency is turning against him, posing a major threat to the 14-term House member over his stance on the Israel-Hamas war.
Arab Americans protested outside his district office in Paterson, home to Little Ramallah, the largest Palestinian American enclave in the country. They’ve held press conferences demanding a cease-fire and, last week, interrupted a fundraiser to confront him over his pro-Israel position. Most consequentially, some Arab Americans plan to mobilize against the 86-year-old when he seeks reelection next year.
Former supporters now call him a “charlatan” and a “mouthpiece for the dehumanization of Palestinian people.” They say Pascrell’s seeming indifference to their concerns over Israel’s offensive in Gaza and his refusal to back a cease-fire has led them to consider backing Democratic challengers in June — including a former aide.
“You can’t call yourself a friend of the community and then turn your back on them,” said Feras Awwad, a local school board member in the city of Clifton whose grandparents hail from Ein Karem, a village outside Jerusalem. “There’s not a chance in hell anybody’s going to be supporting him.”
The rising tension in Pascrell’s 9th congressional district is a striking reflection of the broader fault lines running through the national Democratic party following Hamas’ Oct. 7 attack on Israel. Federal lawmakers have strongly backed Israel’s right to defend itself but, after two months of Israel pummeling Gaza, killing about 20,000 people, they’ve faced increasing pressure from the left to push for an end to the offensive.
One of the biggest names to join
calls for a cease-fire is Rep. Katie Porter, a California Democrat running for that state’s open Senate seat in 2024. But the vast majority of Democrats in Washington take the same view Pascrell expressed at a fundraiser Monday in Paterson.
“I can’t control the politics of Israel,” he said, according to a
video of his remarks obtained by POLITICO. “But they have every right to protect themselves and defend themselves. Case closed.”
While Arab Americans are an important constituency for Pascrell, they make up a relatively small bloc in a district that includes two dozen towns in heavily Jewish Bergen County. That’s made it impossible for the representative to please the entire Democratic base.
Pascrell has tried since the Oct. 7 attacks to tread a fine rhetorical line. He backed a “humanitarian pause” and pushed for more aid into Gaza, but, like most House members, did not sign onto a
resolution calling for a cease-fire (his Democratic colleagues Rep. Bonnie Watson-Coleman and Donald Payne Jr. were the only lawmakers from New Jersey to do so).
In public statements and
in letters to the White House, Pascrell has pushed for the release of hostages and advocated for “good faith efforts” between Palestinians and Israelis to reach a two-state solution. Until then, he said that “restraint to protect innocent civilian lives” is the most prudent path forward.
“I hear and feel powerfully the anguish of our community and like millions of Americans I desperately want a permanent end to the fighting as soon as possible and a major flow of humanitarian aid provided by America to protect Palestinians and begin the rebuilding of Gaza,” Pascrell said in a statement to POLITICO.
Some of his constituents don’t accept his public statements as enough. Since the start of the war, members of the Arab American community have met with Pascrell and other federal and state leaders, including Rep. Mikie Sherrill, Sen. Cory Booker and Gov. Phil Murphy, expressing their concerns and pressing them to support a cease-fire. But some residents and leaders said they don’t feel Pascrell has been receptive and have made it clear to him that he is no longer welcome in their mosques, businesses and homes given his unwavering support for Israel.
“He’s been somebody who in past years had been engaged in the community,” said Ahmet Akdag, a resident of Clifton who is both Turkish and Muslim. “We just don’t feel like he’s been reciprocating as we had hoped and what we had expected.”
A native of Paterson who served as its mayor and in the New Jersey Legislature before his 1996 election to the House, Pascrell is one of New Jersey’s more colorful political figures. He is well known for speaking passionately with a North Jersey accent — and at considerable length — when given the opportunity, whether it’s on the House floor or at a local press conference.
His style and stances have endeared him in the past to the Arab American community. Other Muslim leaders said Pascrell had been much more responsive to them in the past, particularly in 2012, when he was forced into a Democratic primary in the newly redrawn 9th district against incumbent Rep. Steve Rothman. Pascrell, who was then representing the 8th district, was seen within the Arab American community as a strong alternative to the Jewish, staunchly pro-Israel Rothman.
Salaheddin Mustafa, who helped lead the grassroots Muslim effort to make Pascrell the Democratic nominee in 2012, recalls inviting Pascrell to an office on nearby Route 46 to fill him in on their plans to organize support by going town by town in the new district.
“We led, he followed,” said Mustafa, who is also outreach director for the Islamic Center of Passaic County.
Pascrell trounced Rothman in the primary, capturing 61 percent of the vote. The Record newspaper reported that year that Pascrell won 90 percent of the vote in the new district’s six Passaic County towns — including Paterson, which has the second largest Arab American community in the country,
according to the city.
But that level of support seems unattainable following Israel’s invasion of Gaza and a death toll that hits close to home. More than 1,000 Palestinians with relatives in North Jersey have been killed in the conflict, according to
the Council on American-Islamic Relations’ New Jersey chapter. The council’s vice chair, Ali Aljarrah, was one of the protesters at the fundraiser. He said Pascrell’s response since Oct. 7 contrasts with the person the Arab American community helped reelect.
“He was the guy. He was essentially like our
T.E. Lawrence in Congress,” he said, referring to the British diplomat known as Lawrence of Arabia. “That’s why Arabs got involved. They saw Steve Rothman in 2012 as this pro-Zionist candidate, and you have a lot of Arabs who live in the district who just did not want someone who would toe the party line. …. That’s why they went out and got Pascrell elected.”
Now, he said, Pascrell is the one toeing the party line.
Muslim residents say they may have found someone more aligned with them in Paterson Mayor Andre Sayegh, a former Pascrell communications assistant. Sayegh is of Syrian and Lebanese descent, speaks Arabic and has been among the few politicians in New Jersey to vocally back a cease-fire. He declined to comment on speculation he will run for Pascrell’s seat. But
he told the Paterson Press, after it reported his recent political donations to organizations in Bergen and Hudson county towns that make up the 9th district, that “if you have ambition and ability, you shouldn’t restrict your opportunities.”
Any challenger would face difficulties against Pascrell. He has strong organizational support and, despite its large Arab population, the 9th district is also dominated by heavily Jewish towns in neighboring Bergen County. But the frustrations and disappointments with Pascrell extend beyond the Arab American community to younger, more liberal and even some Jewish voters in the district, Mustafa said. The goal is to build a political infrastructure for the long term “so that our community doesn’t have to deal with charlatans like Congressman Pascrell,” he said.
“It’s not the community that he knew on October 6,” Mustafa said. “It’s a much more unified community. It’s a much more demanding community. It’s a community that’s not going to allow people like Pascrell to use us for his own personal gain and abandon us like he’s doing now.”