In a public school auditorium in Passaic, N.J., Monday night, a debate between Rabbi Shmuley Boteach and the man he wants to unseat in Congress, Rep. Bill Pascrell Jr., turned fiery when the rabbi suggested his opponent wasn’t sufficiently pro-Israel.
“You don’t preach to me about my relationship with Israel!” shouted Pascrell, a seven-term Democrat who is battling to win the newly configured 9th District in northern New Jersey after beating a colleague, Steve Rothman, in the primary.
“I did the right thing [in supporting Israel]. I want Israel to have the power to protect itself. You show me one time I went against that principle or one time I didn’t vote for dollars to make Israel safer!”
With Republican Rabbi Boteach on the offensive and Democrat Pascrell playing defense, the debate largely presaged the tone of the presidential debate on foreign policy that would occur just an hour later, as President Barack Obama aggressively pressed Gov. Mitt Romney on a range of issues.
But the New Jersey debate, sponsored by North Jersey Media Group, which publishes The Record newspaper, also featured sharp contrasts in style between the staccato, lecturing tone of Rabbi Boteach, 46, who has promoted 27 books and hosted TV and radio programs, and the rhetoric that career politician Pascrell, 75, has honed on the stump and at the House lectern.
The matchup ushered in the home stretch of one of the more interesting — if not contentious — House races in the nation, and the most expensive in New Jersey, attracting the attention of conservative mega-political donor and casino magnate Sheldon Adelson, who with his wife gave the maximum $5,000 contribution to Boteach’s campaign as well as a $1 million donation to a Super PAC that supports the rabbi.
Admitting that he faces an uphill battle to unseat an incumbent Democrat in a heavily Democratic district, Boteach painted his opponent as complacent while insisting he would be the steward of a “values renaissance,” advocating for laws that strengthen families. He trashed the incumbent as “Baron Bill of the Beltway” and said he needed to retire, calling for a new process to replace gerrymandering of districts by having nonpartisan committee members draw the lines.
Pascrell noted that those nonpartisan committee members would inevitably be appointed by politicians.
The crowd seemed to have more Pascrell supporters, something the rabbi later said he expected, having brought members of his own large family, campaign staff and a few apparent supporters with him from Engelwood.
On substance, the two disagreed on the state of the economy, with Pascrell citing steady improvement under Obama and Rabbi Boteach saying the recovery was anemic, citing in particular the 17 percent unemployment rate in Paterson, where Pascrell was mayor before running for Congress.
They also disagreed on whether legalized sports betting, the subject of a statewide referendum is a necessary evil to add revenue to Trenton’s coffers. The rabbi said it was too high a price to pay.
On the issue of U.S. diplomatic engagement with Iran to try to defuse a nuclear crisis (The New York Times reported Sunday that the administration had reached a tentative breakthrough; the White House denied the report.), Rabbi Boteach decried any talks with Tehran as stalling tactics, citing North Korea’s participation in such talks while continuing to build bombs. He advocated a military leader’s tactic of moving a third U.S. aircraft carrier group into the Persian Gulf as a sign that the U.S means business.
Pascrell supported the administration’s handling of Iran and stressed the importance of regime change there but did not say directly whether he believed talks could be productive.
A spokesman, Keith Furlong, on Tuesday told The Jewish Week “Iran is a grave threat. Congressman Pascrell has fought along with his colleagues for the toughest sanctions possible and those sanctions are working.”
The most heated debate, however, occurred at the intersection of international and local politics: the matter of a Paterson imam who is under deportation proceedings because he failed to disclose to immigration officials that he had been imprisoned by Israel for aiding Hamas.
Rabbi Boteach has repeatedly urged Pascrell to denounce the Palestinian imam, Mohammad Qatanani, because of inflammatory statements about Israel and the United States and himself called on the imam to denounce Hamas.
But Pascrell said Qatanani had been a helpful liaison to the area’s sizable Arab community after 9/11.
“How dare you impugn my character on this?!” shouted the congressman. “The FBI and officials … will decide this, not you.”
Pascrell said Rabbi Boteach was acting as judge and jury over the imam, but the rabbi countered that Qatanani’s statements are a matter of public record.
In an interview after the debate Rabbi Boteach acknowledged that he had called the same imam after winning the Republican nomination and asked to speak to constituents at his mosque. “My position from day one has been that he has to repudiate Hamas if I were to stand in his mosque,” he said.
In the debate, when the congressman said he had repeatedly denounced Hamas as a terrorist group, Rabbi Boteach attacked him for having signed a letter, with 53 other members of the House, criticizing Israel’s blockade of Gaza, which the Rabbi decried as a “blood libel against the Jewish state.”
Both candidates supported the administration’s escalated use of drone attacks on terror targets, despite their collateral damage of non-combatant casualties. Rabbi Boteach cited his credit of the Obama administration for this as evidence of his bipartisanship, saying that Pascrell votes with his own party “94 percent of the time.”
As the debate audience suggested, with equal applause for both candidates on Israel issues, the rabbi is finding it hard to make Israel a signature issue.
AIPAC and a smaller New Jersey based pro-Israel lobby, NORPAC, are neutral in the race.
Aside from advocating his “values renaissance” platform to appeal to conservatives, Rabbi Boteach’s best bet seems to be exploiting his celebrity — Newsweek this year placed him at 30 in its 50 most influential rabbis list — and hoping for maximum turnout from Englewood and neighboring Teaneck, among people who know him personally and see him as a standard-bearer of Orthodox Judaism.
“People certainly are aware of the race,” said Rabbi Shmuel Goldin of Congregation Ahavath Torah in Engelwood. “[Boteach] has a high profile in the community and comes to our shul often. A lot of people will support him, but I have no idea in what numbers.”
Another Orthodox rabbi who lives in the district, who spoke on condition of anonymity because he knows both candidates well, said, “The conventional wisdom is that it’s a very gerrymandered, Democratic district and Pascrell should win. But Shmuley is running a very aggressive campaign and he has a lot of resources because of the money from Adelson. It would be very hard for him to win, but if he did it would be a very big story.”
Beth Appelbaum, 41, a small business owner who lives in Teaneck, said she didn’t feel the rabbi was ready for Capitol Hill.
“He’s a wonderful person and a great motivational speaker,” she said in a phone interview Tuesday. “But I don’t think he’s the right person for that much leadership responsibility.”
Juda Engelmayer, a public relations executive and newcomer to Teaneck, said he was surprised at how little the campaign resonates in the community.
“There is no big draw or push to go to the polls for Shmuley or against Shmuley,” said Engelmayer, who managed a publicity campaign for one of the rabbi’s books, “The Michael Jackson Tapes.”
“His candidacy appears to be more like publicity for him than something that really has a chance. There is no real drive within the community, no lawn signs, no fliers, no posters.”
Gilbert Kahn, a professor of political science at Kean University in Union, N.J., said it appears that Pascrell’s base is solid.
“There will be some Jewish defection,” he said. “But that doesn’t mean Boteach is going to win given the current configuration of the district and the fact that Pascrell is a known entity with a strong base.”
On the other hand, he added, dissatisfaction with the president’s party because of the economy, as seen by the tight numbers in the national polls, could have some effect on the race, while Rabbi Boteach “brings a certain excitement and newness to the race.”
Winding down the debate, both men parted with words of determination, with Pascrell vowing “I’m going to campaign over the next two weeks like you’ve never seen.”
The rabbi, for his part, seemed to suggest that even if he loses, his political career won’t be over. “I ain’t goin’ nowhere,” he said in closing remarks. “I will fight for democracy in this community no matter what.”
The final debate between the two candidates will be Thursday night at a Korean American institution in Engelwood.