Because of redistricting, Rep. Bill Pascrell (D, NJ) is running for re-election this coming Tuesday against a fellow Democratic incumbent Congressman. Pascrell's slogan: "100% New Jersey Fighter."
Given his troubling associations with Muslim figures who have espoused fiery anti-Israel rhetoric and turned a blind eye to Hamas sympathizers, though, it's hard to tell against whom he's actually fighting.
Take, for example, one of Pascrell's closest allies for at least a decade: Mohamed El Filali, who is an executive with a local mosque whose founding imam is in jail on terrorism charges and whose current imam is fighting deportation on terror-related grounds.
El Filali leads what could seem like a strange existence, leading grotesque rallies by day and then cozying up at night with Congressmen — or at least one Congressman in particular, Bill Pascrell.
In April 2002, for example, El Filali led hundreds of followers at an event in cheers equating the Jewish state with the Nazis. According to the New York Times, El Filali was the emcee at the rally when he led the chant of "Sharon, Hitler are the same. Only difference is the name."
That night, he was at an Arab-American fundraiser attended by over 250 people for Rep. Bill Pascrell (D-NJ). El Filali has donated thousands of dollars to Pascrell over the years, including $1,500 in the past year alone.
Rep. Pascrell, who was not available for an interview for this story, has a long history of support from local Muslim figures who have made fiery anti-Israel comments and has aligned himself very closely with the American Muslim Union, a New Jersey-based political organization that has called for an end to U.S. aid to Israel and whose leadership has included people who have justified Hamas terrorism, accepting thousands in contributions from the group's president and routinely attending the organization's annual gathering.
First elected in 1996, the New Jersey Democrat has forged close ties with the Islamic Center of Passaic County (ICPC) – where El Filali serves as an executive – a mosque that has acknowledged hosting lectures from figures who have publicly praised terrorism or have been identified by law enforcement as being Hamas officials. Aside from El Filali, two other ICPC employees, Mazooz Sehwail and Ahmad Suleiman, have given the Pascrell campaign a total of $1,500 in the past year, according to FEC records.
This support has not been a one-way street, as Pascrell has been a staunch opponent of the deportation of ICPC imam Mohammad Qatanani, whom the federal government is attempting to deport for failing to disclose his arrest and subsequent conviction in Israel for supporting Hamas. And Pascrell's voice is unusually powerful in this arena, as he is a powerful veteran member.
"It's pretty outrageous that Pascrell would come to the defense of Qatanani, a convicted supporter of Hamas, especially because there was information made available to him as a member of Congress about the imam's role in supporting the killing of Jews," said Steven Emerson, founder of the Investigative Project on Terrorism. "He should release details about whatever briefings he received."
According to a leading Arab-American community figure, Aref Assaf, Pascrell is making a full-court press for support in his tough re-election bid against fellow Democrat Rep. Steve Rothman, following redistricting. Writing for nj.com, Assaf wrote, "At a recent fundraising event in Hasbrouck Heights, James Zogby, president of the American Arab Institute, helped raise over $50,000." Assaf then cited a volunteer supporter of Pascrell in claiming that the total raised from the "Arab and Muslim community" was over $100,000.
Assaf also writes that Pacrell has helped his political stock in the Arab and Muslim community because of his "strong views in support of Imam Mohammad Qatanani."
Pascrell appears to be actively targeting the Arab and Muslim community, last week bringing out the first elected Muslim Congressman, Rep. Keith Ellison (D-MN), who has become one of the most vocal critics of Israel in Congress. Since being elected to Congress, Ellison became even more famous in 2007 for appeared to suggest that 9/11 was an inside job, saying that he wouldn't call the attack a "U.S. plan … because, you know, that's how they put you in the nut-ball box — dismiss you."
Last week was not the first time Pascrell brought Ellison to his district. Less than a year after Ellison compared 9/11 to the Reichstag Fire, Pascrell arranged for the Muslim Congressman to speak to an audience of 300 at ICPC. According to a March 2008 Herald News account of the event, imam Mohammad Qatanani, who was already fighting deportation on terror-related charges, praised Ellison, remarking, "You are an example for us."
Islamic Center of Passaic County
The ICPC has other troubling connections. Mohammed El-Mezain, one of the co-founders of ICPC over 20 years ago and the mosque's first imam, was convicted in 2008 of providing support to Hamas and sentenced to 15 years in prison. In 1994, according to an FBI memo written shortly after 9/11 by Dale Watson, the then-Assistant Director of the FBI's Counterterrorism Division, El-Mezain was cheerleading at a Muslim Arab Youth Association (MAYA) conference in favor of funding Hamas following a speaker introduced to the audience as the head of the "Hamas military wing." Here's what the FBI memo reports him saying:
"I've been told to restrict or restrain what I say…I hope no one is recording me or taking any pictures, as none are allowed…because I'm going to speak the truth to you. It's simple. Finish off the Israelis. Kill them all! Exterminate them! No peace ever!"
"Following Siyam's speech," the memo continues, "El-Mezain exhorted the crowd to contribute money. It was subsequently announced that $207,000 was raised for 'the cause.'" The FBI informant also said that at the conference, Mr. El-Mezain announced that he had raised $1.8 million inside the United States for Hamas in 1994 alone.
(Magdy Mahmoud, who was an executive at MAYA at the time of the conference, later went on to become an official at the American Muslim Union. He gave five contributions to Pascrell from 2000 to 2008, totaling $1,500, according to FEC records. In 2004, when he was president of the New Jersey chapter of the Council on American-Islamic Relations, he helped co-sponsor an AMU event that featured Pascrell, according to a March 2004 New York Sun article.)
El-Mezain allegedly was quite open about his Hamas fundraising at ICPC. From the same FBI report: "[D]uring a speech at the Islamic Center of Passaic County (ICPC) in November, 1994, Mohammad El-Mezain, the HLFRD's [Holy Land Foundation for Relief and Development's] current Director of Endowments and former Chairman of the HLFRD Board, admitted that some of the money collected by the ICPC and the HLFRD goes to HAMAS or HAMAS activities in Israel. El-Mezain also defended HAMAS and the activities carried out by HAMAS."
More recently, under Qatanani's leadership, ICPC has invited others either rhetorically supportive of or directly linked to Hamas. In 2003, ICPC hosted a lecture by Abdelhaleem Ashqar, who was identified as a prominent Hamas member in FBI documents declassified not long after 9/11. Ashqar was sentenced to 11 years in prison for criminal contempt and obstruction of justice after refusing to testify before a federal grand jury investigating Hamas support in the U.S.
Radical Egyptian cleric Wagdy Ghoneim also lectured on multiple occasions around that same time at ICPC, as indicated by the archived page from the ICPC web site, which can be seen here. In November 2004, Ghoneim was arrested on immigration violations and held without bond, according to ICE spokeswoman Virginia Kice, "based upon Department of Homeland Security concerns that his past speeches and participation in fund-raising activities could be supportive of terrorist organizations." He voluntarily agreed to be deported in 2005.
In a 2010 appearance on Hamas-run Al Aqsa TV, Ghoneim reportedly said, "We are a nation that excels in the production of the art of death… I will die anyway, so I should be creative to make sure my death is for the sake of Allah," according to the translation provided by Middle East Media Research Institute. He also reportedly clarified by explaining, "We pray to Allah that we be terrorists, if terror means Jihad for the sake of Allah."
American Muslim Union
Pascrell has also been very close over the years with the American Muslim Union, a NJ-based political organization that has shared many officers and directors with ICPC, according to a March 2004 New York Sun news story. Pascrell repeatedly has attended the main annual gathering for AMU, even receiving an award from the group in 2007. Longtime AMU President Mohamed Younes and his wife have given over $8,000 over the years to Pascrell.
AMU co-sponsored a 2002 rally in Times Square that called for, among other things, an "Immediate withdrawal of Israeli army from occupied lands" and to "End US Aid to Israel."
This happened shortly after the rally in Paterson, NJ, where El Filali led the crowd in cheers comparing Israel to Nazis, at a time when he was an AMU official. In an interview in which the AP identified El Filali as an "Executive Committee member" of AMU, he pointedly refused to condemn Palestinian suicide bombers. "I am not in their shoes," he explained. "My house has not been destroyed; my brother has not been shot dead."
El Filali's sentiment was similar to comments made by longtime AMU board member Waheed Khalid, who said of Hamas in a 1998 interview with The Bergen County Record, "They are trying to get the occupiers out of their home."
Khalid, whom Younes said in an interview for this story still serves on AMU's board, has also given a rather strange defense of the Protocols of the Elders of Zion, the notorious Russian forgery that purported to catalog Jewish attempts at world domination. Khalid told the New Jersey Jewish Standard in 2002, "while he heard one person say that the Protocols 'didn't seem genuine,' most people seemed to either believe the book was true or wonder whether it could be. Khalid said that he did not want 'to make any comment about the authenticity' of the book."
The Democratic primary this coming Tuesday, June 5, is likely to be very close. Because the district is deep blue, the winner is all but assured of victory in November. The largest political difference between these left-wing Democrats seems to be Middle East policy.
While Pascrell has voted in favor of foreign aid for Israel, he has also engaged in caustic Israel bashing, such as signing on to the so-called "Gaza 54" letter, the Keith Ellison-led effort which accused the Jewish state of collective punishment against Gaza.
It would also seem reasonable for voters to ask Pascrell why he has kept associating for at least a decade with figures such as El Filali, who refused to condemn suicide bombers but gleefully led public chants comparing an Israeli leader to Hitler, or why he has locked arms year after year with AMU, an organization whose leaders have justified Hamas terrorism.
These questions have been asked repeatedly by local media outlets, but Pascrell has brushed them off. For example, he called the questions about AMU "pure crap."
Of course there is no problem with courting support in the Arab and Muslim community. But there seems to be a troubling pattern with the associations Pascrell has chosen to cultivate in garnering that support. Should a congressman be condoning – by accepting contributions and other support – the most radical elements as part of his outreach?