Does Cantor’s Defeat Signal the End of the American Jewish Golden Age in Congress?

Fewer Jews in the U.S. Congress than at any time since 1979, a president uninterested in cultivating 'Court Jews' - all signs that a big realignment in U.S. Jewish political life may be starting.

Thane Rosenbaum
Thane Rosenbaum
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Eric Cantor and House Speaker John Boehner on Capitol Hill in Washington, May 20, 2014.
Eric Cantor and House Speaker John Boehner on Capitol Hill in Washington, May 20, 2014.Credit: Reuters
Thane Rosenbaum
Thane Rosenbaum

Aside from the Jewish kings—Saul, David, Solomon and, of course, Netanyahu—when it came to serving in an official governmental capacity, the highest position a Jew could once hope to achieve was limited to “Court Jew”—you know, Joseph, Mordechai, Mayer Rothschild, Rabbi Stephen Wise and, of course, Henry Kissinger. Valued for their wisdom on matters of finance and policy, they earned the sovereign’s trust but would never receive the public’s vote as elected representatives.

The modern political era, however, has been more accommodating what with a Jewish state and an American nation more hospitable to Jews—even to their politicians.

Congressman Eric Cantor went as far as any American Jewish elected official had ever gone before, rising to become the highest-ranking Jewish lawmaker in U.S. history. Many believed he was destined to become the Speaker of the House, a career capstone he very much wanted to reach. Had it not been for the political fluke of American history now known as the Tea Party, his wish may have been fulfilled.

By now everyone knows that Cantor lost his congressional seat this week and then graciously resigned his position as House Majority Leader—a most improbable outcome that none of the pollsters foresaw. Many in Capitol Hill, mostly Democrats, are scratching their heads while secretly smiling, while many Republicans are cowering in increasingly more conservative corners. If Cantor—a national leader and rising star with a sizable campaign war chest—did not have a safe seat, then who does?

In so many ways Cantor was a political anomaly. A Jewish Republican with a surname suggesting that he was number two on the pulpit ended up being number two in the House of Representatives. This Cantor didn’t chant, but instead spoke with a southern drawl and possessed a calm manner that in no way resembled the pugnacious political styles of such familiar Jewish leaders as Ed Koch, Chuck Schumer, Mike Bloomberg, and well . . . Bibi. American Jews vote solidly for the Democratic Party and don’t seem to mind the liberal agenda of big government. Here, too, Cantor was an outlier: A lone Jewish wolf on the right, a Wall Street darling, a soft-spoken fiscal conservative—a red state boychick if there ever was one.

Immediately after the election results were announced at least one pundit introduced “elephant in the room” speculations that anti-Semitism was the cause for Cantor’s downfall. That doesn’t seem likely. Cantor served his congressional district since 2001 and never before was his religion an issue nor has he ever hidden his Judaism. Indeed, Cantor began his press conference where he formally resigned his House leadership position by reminding everyone of his Jewish faith and the belief that setbacks are also opportunities.

One thing is for certain: Cantor will be missed on the Jewish stage. Not only is there no longer a Jewish Republican in Congress, there were already eight fewer Jewish members (and two fewer senators) since the last election, the lowest number overall since 1979. Now Cantor’s departure makes one fewer.

He was always baffled why more American Jews didn't vote Republican—especially those for whom the defense of Israel was a primary concern. Remember it was a Republican-controlled Congress, with Cantor as Majority Leader, which gave Bibi Netanyahu 29 standing ovations during his speech on the House floor. Cantor was one of the most unwavering and unabashedly devoted supporters of Israel in American political history.

Now he's gone from the political scene altogether.

Does it really matter how many Jewish Americans are actually represented in government? Jews are already over-represented in both the House and Senate. After all, they comprise only 2% of the American population but hold 7% and 11% of the seats in those legislative bodies, respectively. Yet, those numbers have declined over the last two election cycles. The golden age of Jewish congressional leaders may have passed—at least for now.

As for the Executive Branch, President Obama has not been one to court Court Jews. And outside of government, Jewish institutional leadership is going through its own transitions. Some leaders have stepped down while others are at an age when succession is not far off. Cantor’s departure leaves a big vacuum and may also be a harbinger of more shifts to come in the Jewish political alignment.

In addition to Republican moderates who are taking uncomfortable note of Cantor's exit, it's worth remembering that Tea Party candidates are generally not in favor of foreign aid—whether to Israel or elsewhere. Yes, they tend to have a Judeo-Christian view of the world and generally wish the Jewish state well, but they don’t seem all that interested in having America pick up so many bills and devote so much diplomatic energy in the Middle East. Cantor’s defeat might underscore the colossal misnomer that is the Tea Party, especially if it means party pooping on America’s special relationship with Israel.

At moments like these, Congresswoman Debbie Wasserman Schultz is beginning to look a lot like Queen Esther.

Thane Rosenbaum, a novelist, essayist and professor at NYU School of Law, is the director of the Forum on Law, Culture & Society and the author, most recently, of “Payback: The Case for Revenge.”

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