Over the next month, 81 Republican and Democrat lawmakers – almost 20 percent of
the House of Representatives – will visit Israel.
Majority Leader Eric Cantor from Virginia, who will lead one of the trips
organized by the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, told The Jerusalem
on Sunday why so many congressmen have added the Jewish state to their
itineraries at a time when US domestic issues seem to take precedence over
foreign affairs.RELATED:The world's most influential Jews: 11-20 Cantor blames conflict on refusal to accept Israel
“I do think it’s reflective of a commitment on both
sides of the aisle that Israel continues to be a pillar in our national security
strategy and is the only reliable democratic ally that we have in a very, very
tough region,” he said. “I think members who have not been there before go and
continue to go to understand the complexities that Israel faces and frankly, the
importance of the US-Israel relationship.”
During the trip, Cantor and his
delegation are scheduled to meet separately with Prime Minister Binyamin
Netanyahu in Jerusalem and Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas in
Ramallah. The latter has continually reiterated his intention to ask for UN
recognition of Palestinian independence in September, something that Cantor
alongside the US government and Israel strongly oppose.
“The message we
will take to Ramallah is one that the US Congress in a bipartisan way stands
strong with our ally Israel,” Cantor said. “We do not support or condone the
effort by the Palestinian Authority to seek recognition of a state unilaterally,
and we support security.”
The visit by the lawmakers also comes at a time
of tremendous instability in the region as a whole. Besides the usual worry in
Western capitals and Jerusalem over Iran’s nuclear program, large swaths of
Syria are in open revolt against the government of Bashar Assad while Egypt is
set to hold its first ever open elections.
Cantor said he was “very
worried” about the situation in Egypt, where some speculate anti-Western
factions might win a significant part of the vote.
“Obviously the force
of the Muslim Brotherhood is very concerning,” he said. “It’s an organization
which seems to be very much tilted toward doing all kinds of things that would
threaten US interests and Israeli interests and the interests of freedom
On Syria, Cantor was cautious. He did not want to predict what
would happen if Assad were ousted and whether his replacement would be better or
worse. Instead, he said the best US approach in the region would be
“minimizing the influence of Iran and [hoping] that regime would help promote
The recent housing protests in Israel have not escaped the eye
of the Jewish lawmaker from Virginia. While he said he couldn’t comment on
domestic Israeli policy, Cantor offered sympathy to the Israeli people and drew
a comparison with the housing crisis in the US.
“We are still reeling
from a horrific housing crisis in this country from two years ago,” he said.
“The price of housing for Americans is very depressed and Americans are still
wondering when their homes will go back to a value that exceeds that of their
mortgage, so there’s a little different situation but nonetheless a hardship
experience shared by the people of both countries.”
Cantor is the only
Jewish Republican in Congress. Raised in Conservative Judaism, he now
attends an Orthodox synagogue in his hometown of Richmond. Two of his
daughters recently participated in Birthright, he said, and he hoped his son
would also go when he is older.
Being the only Jew in a party where the
voice of the Christian Right is growing increasingly louder can raise questions.
For instance, last week Texas Gov. Rick Perry held a mass prayer just before
announcing his intention to seek the Republican ticket for the presidential
race, a rally that some critics say blurred the separation of church and
Asked if he felt non-Christians would feel alienated by such
rallies, Cantor chose not to comment directly but instead emphasized the US
Constitution’s protection of freedom of worship.
“We in America believe
that you have the ability to practice your faith. There is no state entity or
governmental entity that will stop that ability to practice your faith, and
that’s been the constitutional protection afforded to American citizens, and
that’s why it’s so unique for us as American Jews to be able to freely practice,
unlike anywhere else in the world save for the State of Israel.”
cited his own election to the senior position of house majority leader as proof
that equal opportunity existed in the US regardless of one’s
“Being a religious minority in this country and being a minority
faith within the Republican Party is a fact of life for me and has always been,
but I’ll tell you with my election of majority leader in January I don’t think
being Jewish has been any kind of detriment.”
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