Whenever Eric Cantor is in a room with fellow Jews, the Republican often is the odd political-man out. But the shocking defeat of the highest-ranking Jewish member of the House had Jews across the political spectrum nursing some tribal pride on Wednesday.
Cantor was the lone Jewish Republican in Congress, compared with 33 Jewish Democrats (and one independent). So it was ironic and frustrating to many Jews that he was considered to be a likely House speaker. At the same time, there was a sense of some satisfaction.
His defeat was a key topic of conversation Wednesday among Jewish political types from Washington to Israel, where the prominent Haaretz news Web site ran prominently a story headlined: “Cantor defeat an evil twist of fate.”
Much of Cantor’s conservative domestic politics are anathema to Jews, 7o percent of whom say they are Democrats or lean that way. But he played a unique role by advocating in the areas where many Jews are more conservative, particularly around the security of Israel and in public support for Jewish institutions.
“The partisan in me can’t help but be amused,” said Steve Rabinowitz, a Democratic media strategist who worked in Bill Clinton’s White House and now serves many Jewish organizations. “But the Jewish communal professional in me thinks it’s not a good thing for the community.”
Rabinowitz and others mentioned Cantor’s support for measures such as bringing public funding to Jewish schools impacted by Hurricane Sandy or post-Sept. 11 funding for beefed-up security for synagogues and Jewish schools.
As the rare species of Jewish Republican, Cantor was accustomed — particularly around liberal Washington — to speaking before Jewish audiences who would never vote for him. Rabinowitz said he was known for doing that in a friendly way, even if he always disagreed with people on many issues.
People noticed from the start that he wasn’t trying to downplay his Judaism.
“He is not just Jewish, but proudly so. He wears it on his sleeve,” Rabinowitz said. “If you talk with partisan Democrats, they are rolling on the floor holding their stomachs, and partisan Republicans are very sad. But the mainstream of the community is also sad.”
Nathan Diament, head of the Washington advocacy office for the major Jewish Orthodox group Orthodox Union, said people noticed that when Cantor came into office, one of his very first times speaking on the floor was about Holocaust Remembrance Day.
“It just shows right out of the box he was comfortable identifying with a Jewish-associated issue,” said Diament, adding that Cantor’s children have attended Jewish day schools.
Cantor partnered with Rep. Steny Hoyer (D-Md.) to take up shepherding freshmen from both parties to Israel, Diament said.
While American Jewish dialogue around Israel appears to be changing, the vast majority of Jews of both parties say they are attached to the country (65 percent of Jewish Democrats compared with 84 percent of Jewish Republicans), according to polls, including a recent one by the Pew Research Center.
To many liberal, secular Jews, Cantor’s support for things like expanded public funding to religious institutions “is problematic,” Diament said.
“But from our perspective, we’re losing a real partner and real champion.”