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Eric Cantor’s Jewish Problem — and Ours

Harry Brod
June 22, 2014
by Harry Brod Eric Cantor Gives Speech On Value Of School Choice“It’s despicable to blame Eric Cantor’s loss on his Judaism,” proclaims the Washington Examiner headline — but despicable me believes that although his Jewish identity isn’t the main reason Cantor got the boot, it’s in the mix. You just have to look below the surface of what the voters explicitly told pollsters. Even if it’s not despicable, raising the specter of anti-Semitism is just plain wrong, the New York Times tells us, though the print and online versions of the paper couldn’t agree on how to spin the story: “Voters Saw Cantor as Out of Touch but Not Because of His Faith, Analysts Say,” says the print headline (Sheryl Gay Stolberg, June 12, 2014, A17), while the online headline for the same article (dated a day earlier) stresses what the print headline denies: “Opponent Resonated With Christian Conservatives in a Way Cantor Could Not.” Maybe in the overnight interim someone at the Times decided the original — and more accurate — title was too inflammatory and toned it down. Cantor’s loss in the Virginia Republican primary has nothing to do with his being a Jew, we are told. It’s just that local folks feel he’s not really in touch with them and has become too concerned with his personal ambitions in the big city. Of course you don’t have to be Jewish to lose the support of your local constituents because they feel you’ve abandoned them in order to become too much of a Washington insider (see Al Gore and Tennessee, 2000). But it helps. Many tales are told about public figures. Some of these narratives take hold, others don’t. Ronald Reagan was called a Teflon President because nothing dirty seemed to stick to him. In contrast, a Jew is a Velcro politician for a narrative about someone too driven by overweening ambition and out of touch with local folks; a storyline like that latches on and sticks like glue. It’s not that his constituents won’t vote for him because he’s a Jew. Things aren’t quite that crude, they work more subtly. It’s just that when that tale is told, well yeah, he just seems like the kind of fella of whom that would be true. Got nothing against him for being Jewish, but that description somehow just seems to fit. I feel Cantor’s pain. For the past fifteen years I’ve lived a doubly diasporic life as a New York Jew in Iowa. It took me too long to realize that the culture of an Iowa university was more Iowa than university, more parochial and less cosmopolitan that I had expected. Before I caught on that it was happening, in the minds of some a familiar storyline took hold about me, too: I was too argumentative, too ambitious, willing to exploit others to serve my own ends, somehow not really a member of the community, “a taker rather than a giver,” as it was put. The good people who thought of me that way would be horrified to hear it described as anti-Semitism. This all-too-common inability to recognize subtle anti-Semitism remains one of the lingering effects of the Holocaust. When the flames of the Holocaust singed the imagination of the world, they left scars, and scar tissue is not flexible. So the fixed template for identifying anti-Semitism often doesn’t register anything short of the threat of genocide. For anyone who thinks anti-Semitism isn’t alive and well, try the following little experiment, based on an old Jewish joke. In one-on-one conversations, tell a whole bunch of people that our problems would be solved if we only got rid of the Jews and the bicyclists. See how many of them pause for a moment, and then say “Why the bicyclists?” Thank God for Jon Stewart, who recognized Cantor’s loss for what it was and called it out, playing a clip of his victorious opponent David Brat’s oft-repeated declaration that his victory was a miracle from God. “We get it,” declared Stewart in his usual hyperbolic mock-frustration. “You beat a Jewish guy.” Eric Cantor surely recognizes the sort of coded language used by Brat. Cantor used racially charged codes himself in his much discussed complaint about an “inner city culture” in which people don’t even want to work. So maybe his defeat is at least partly a case of non-kosher chickens coming home to roost. His position on immigration was the political issue generally held most responsible for his rejection by the Virginia Republican electorate. His willingness to engage with the question of immigration reform was deemed too liberal. So what reared its head here seems to be the traditional nativist rejection of those troublesome immigrant groups, the Jews and the Hispanics. Please, let’s not call this Tea Party win a victory for the conservative wing of the Republican Party, as we hear the Tea Party described over and over. These are radical right-wing extremists, and we shouldn’t give support to their scam of claiming the mantle of conservatism, thereby accruing the political capital that comes with that label. There’s too much at stake for us to fail to accurately name the forces at work here. Harry Brod is professor of sociology and humanities at the University of Northern Iowa. His most recent book is Superman is Jewish?: How Comic Book Superheroes Came to Serve Truth, Justice and the Jewish-American Way (Free Press/Simon & Schuster).
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