Rabbi Shmuley Boteach and Rep. Bill Pascrell, the two candidates seeking to represent one of the most ethnically diverse congressional districts in the nation, met at a Tenafly synagogue Sunday to debate issues ranging from Israeli security to tax policy.
Frequently on the offensive, , branded Pascrell a partisan who votes with his fellow Democrats “94 percent of the time” and repeated charges the former Paterson mayor has been a no-show in Bergen County communities during his campaign. Boteach also said high taxes were driving people out of New Jersey, a phenomenon aggravated by Democratic policies.
Pascrell, meanwhile, assailed Boteach’s strong support of tax cuts as a way to create jobs, saying such so-called “trickle-down economics” failed during the George W. Bush presidency and led to anemic private-sector job growth. He also defended President Obama's health care reform act.
Sunday’s debate at Temple Sinai pitted Pascrell, a seasoned, eight-term Democratic congressman, against Boteach, a father of nine and media personality who once served as Michael Jackson’s rabbi, for the seat representing the new 9th District, created at the end of last year following redistricting. The seat is up for election next month.
The 9th includes portions of Pascrell’s old 8th District as well as Bergen County towns added as a result of the redistricting. Teaneck was split between both the 9th and 5th districts.
Seated between the two candidates at a dais before a crowd numbering at least 300, moderator Dan Kirsch asked a series of questions, allowing both candidates ample rebuttals.
The debate, much of which centered on foreign policy, opened with the question of Israeli security, a potentially divisive issue in a district with large Arab-American and Jewish populations.
Boteach, while conceding Pascrell generally has a “good voting record on Israel,” faulted him for signing a letter condemning an Israeli blockade of Gaza, which Boteach described as “one of the most vicious attacks on Israel” that “fraudulently” accused the country of denying humanitarian aid to Palestinians. Boteach also criticized Pascrell for failing to distance himself from Mohammaf Qatanani, a Paterson imam and Pascrell supporter who has been accused of having ties to the terrorist group Hamas.
Pascrell, stating he is a staunch supporter of Israel, countered Qatanani aided the US government in the wake of the Sept. 11 attacks.
“I will never indulge in character assassination. I have condemned Hamas, I have condemned Hizbollah. That’s what my record is,” Pascrell said.
On how best to handle the war in Syria, Boteach criticized Pascrell’s support of Obama’s cautious approach to the country, saying the United States should act more aggressively to defend the oppressed Syrian population.
“I will speak about Arab freedoms every day I’m in office,” Boteach said, adding the country’s president, Bashar Assad, should be declared a “war criminal.”
Pascrell, however, said the United States should proceed carefully given the fluid nature of the Syrian revolt.
“Arming rebel groups could be dangerous. We don’t know who they are,” Pascrell said.
Boteach also said sanctions supported by Pascrell meant to discourage Iran from acquiring a nuclear weapon have failed, and that the country is taking its cue from North Korea, which won newfound clout once it joined the nuclear club.
“They have learned from North Korea that if you have a nuclear weapon, they leave you alone,” Boteach said.
Pascrell said the sanctions have worked, but also said “nothing is off the table” when it comes to addressing the threat. He also added, however, he doesn’t “believe [Iran] will risk going to war.”
During discussions of domestic policy, both men expressed unconditional support for a woman’s right to an abortion, although Boteach, noting most abortions are administered to unwed women, said he would encourage strong family values as a way to make the practice less common.
Boteach’s abortion stance, he also said, illustrates his willingness to break from his party, unlike Pascrell, who Boteach said is running in a “gerrymandered” district specifically designed by politicians in Trenton to be safe for a Democrat.
“Congressman Pascrell thinks he can win without running....He wants to be anointed,” Boteach said.
Pascrell countered he has only taken “one day off” in the last two months and vowed to open a Congressional office in Bergen County if elected.