CLIFTON – It was the typical crowd with black yarmulkes and leopard-patterned hijab sprinkled among uncovered bald heads – Ukrainian, Turkish, Polish – Spanish Flamenco-style hair pulled back and framed by loop earrings and at least one tricorn hat: a Great Falls-sized confluence of humanity crammed into Town Hall here where U.S. Rep. Bill Pascrell (D-9) stood at the front of the room straddling the most obvious divide.
“Israelis don’t want peace more than the Palestinians, Palestinians don’t want peace more than the Israelis, but I do know one thing: Hamas is a terrorist organization,” said Pascrell.
It’s a delicate balance with war in the Middle East: strikes in Libya, President Barack Obama authorizing surveillance flights over Syria and an American journalist executed by ISIS last week.
A source in the crowd confessed to PolitickerNJ that Passaic Orthodox Jews are nervous right now.
“Terrorism has no place in Islam,” said the congressman, quoting an imam.
Pascrell comes from South Paterson, home for 100 years to Syrians and Lebanese, many non-Muslim; and more recently – starting two decades ago – Palestinians. Post 2011 redistricting sent him out of his comfort zone of Paterson and Passaic County into the suburban reaches of Bergen County, to serve a larger Jewish constituency.
The Democratic district got easier politically in the context of general elections – and thornier ethnically.
But, in the words of a staffer referring to the boss, “He loves it.”
When he went to the Middle East over a decade ago, Pascrell says Jews beat him up for meeting with the late Arafat, and his Muslim brothers criticized him for not condemning the Jewish settlements.
With both sides irritated, “I hit a homerun,” the congressman cracked, and the audience laughed.
Acknowledging the cynicism Americans feel for government generally, the 77-year old Pascrell – impassioned in front of the diverse crowd – made his case for American institutions – the “glue,” in his words, that holds the country together. “I’m always protecting the institution of the Congress,” he said, pointing out with pride that Republican George Herbert Walker Bush once occupied the same chairmanship in Congress Pascrell held, exulting in the power of the ballot box.
He propped up Obama, noting that the federal government has the lowest payroll in 15 years.
“These people who are anti-government – what’s their solution? You ask them that question and it’s ‘duh’,” he said.
A doubtful, tricorn-hatted Missionary James from East Brunswick stood in the back of the room, an American Flag draped over one shoulder and an old-fashioned lantern in one hand.
Fair tax advocates – including Jim Bennett and John O’Rourke – navigated the room, plugging the replacement of payroll and income taxes with a progressive national retail sales tax.
Fort Lee Mayor Mark Sokolich sat in the crowd.
Assemblyman Gary Schaer (D-36), chairman of the Assembly Budget Committee, was in attendance; as was Passaic County Freeholder Bruce James.
Up for re-election this year, veteran GOP Mayor James Anzaldi introduced Pascrell. His rival, Democratic challenger Lauren Murphy, sat next to James.
Following Pascrell’s remarks, a self-described proud Zionist went to the microphone and raised his voice over the boos of fellow Jews when he said the Israeli government was “in bed with the Republicans” and dedicated to disrespecting Obama.
The Palestinian sympathizers in the audience clapped and cheered as the boos swelled.
Moments later, a self-identified Jewish woman criticized Pascrell for taking Muslim campaign money.
“I never broke a law or a rule in 18 years,” the congressman shot back. “My record is spotless.”
Civil sparks flew back and forth – polite pitter pattering of hands responsive to both sides accompanying the arguments, pro-Israeli, pro-Palestinian – with more of the former than the latter, before a Tea Partier went to the front of the room and denounced Pascrell with hellfire and brimstone, incredulous over the congressman’s stance favoring background checks for gun sales, and arguing that Pascrell, a politician, was doomed for not believing in Jesus.
“I’m going to heaven, he’s going to hell,” said the man, heading for the door.
The comment loosened the crowd, Jews and Palestinians joining in laughter, as Pascrell at the front of the room, cracked a lopsided grin.