The Eric and Chuck show

Jewish politicians are now in line to play a more powerful role in Congress than at any other time in history.

November 3, 2010 22:17
4 minute read.
Eric Cantor

Eric Cantor. (photo credit: Courtesy: United States Congress)

The questions preceding America’s elections have already given way to a new set of “what ifs.” Naturally, many of us can’t resist the impulse to ask, “Is it good for the Jews?” Predictions that the Republicans would win the House – though few anticipated such an overwhelming majority – and that the Democrats would cling to razor-thin control of the Senate were realized. The next issue immediately becomes the selection of leaders in both houses.

Here’s where speculation can begin anew.

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Jewish politicians are today in line to play a more powerful role in Congress than at any other time in history. This is mainly because of two veteran leaders: Congressman Eric Cantor (R-Virginia) and Sen. Charles Schumer (D-NY).

Cantor, who keeps a kosher home and whose Richmond office was shot up recently by a deranged extremist, is likely to become the House majority leader – the highest congressional position ever held by a Jew. Somewhat lonely as the only Jewish Republican (out of dozens of Jewish colleagues on Capitol Hill), he has emerged as a key force in the GOP, bridging the sometimes significant chasm between old-style establishment types and the newer crowd of Tea Party activists.

Cantor is a from-the-gut supporter of Israel and a sharp, early critic of President Barack Obama’s pressure on the Jewish state. He has doggedly pushed for US support of Israel at the UN, leveraged American aid to the Palestinian Authority to ease the PA’s culture-of-hate environment and even tried to halt unauthorized Arab excavations on the Temple Mount – an issue that many congressmen neither know nor care about.

Recently, he issued a potentially game-changing call to move US aid for Israel out of the foreign assistance budget to defense subventions, managed by the Pentagon.

He believes the aid would be more secure coming from that source, and the change would also give his colleagues more flexibility in stopping foreign aid to other countries that today sail through votes by virtue of Israel’s presence in the same legislation.

SCHUMER IS more readily open to challenge. One need not be a “profile in courage” to support Israel as a senator from New York, with its hefty Jewish electorate. Of course, Schumer has voted the right way, yet many in the Jewish community expect more from “their man in Washington.” They want a leader who initiates, not just a me-tooguy.

The legislator has been notably silent in the face of repeated criticisms of and pressures on Israel by the Obama team.

Only after feisty former Gotham mayor and Democratic representative Ed Koch shrilly assailed Schumer’s silence did the senator belatedly respond, and even then with a relatively tepid push back at the White House.

Yet more transparently, Schumer waited until three days before the elections to “come out swinging,” and even then only in front of a rather safe breakfast forum for Agudath Israel in New York. On the easiest day of the year and in front of a dream audience, the most he could manage was to call Obama’s pressure against Jewish “settlements” in Jerusalem and the territories “counterproductive.”

He might well have been elected Senate majority leader had Harry Reid not escaped defeat by the Tea Party in Nevada. This could have resulted in Jews heading majorities (albeit from different parties) in the House and Senate. He will nonetheless play a highly senior role.

While the number of Jews in Congress will likely be trimmed as a result of these elections – as a handful of veteran Democratic incumbents lost out (often to strong non- Jewish friends of Israel) – the community’s influence still rises to a totally new level. As Cantor becomes top Republican in the House and Schumer’s star edges forward in the Senate, the commitment of these two individuals will assume great importance. They are key figures to watch.

Also worth noting is the likely leadership of the powerful House Foreign Affairs Committee by Florida Republican Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, who has Jewish roots. She is one of the House’s most outspoken and effective friends of Israel and foes of Iranian nuclearization.

One astute observer, the Israel Project’s savvy Jennifer Laszlo Mizrahi, gave an accurate “big-picture” view: “American voters on both sides of the aisle support Israel.”

No less indicative of Election Day sentiment was former White House spokesman Ari Fleischer, who was more partisan: “The takeover of the House by Republicans is great news for Israel and her supporters. The House leadership and almost every single GOP member is rock-solid behind Israel, and Israel needs friends everywhere.”

The writer is a media relations specialist based in Jerusalem who has worked with US politicians including Al Gore, Mike Huckabee and Arnold Schwarzenegger.

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