WASHINGTON (JTA) – Eric Cantor has spent a lifetime relishing in wearing the other hat.
Among Jews, the Republican congressional whip from Richmond, Va., likes to play the genteel Southern conservative, the posture that won over his wife, a socially liberal banker from New York.
Among southerners, he’s the nice Jewish boy who belongs to an Orthodox synagogue and graduated from Columbia Law School, but who has an easy familiarity with NASCAR, country music and evangelical beliefs.
It’s an approach that has Cantor poised to become the highest-ranking Jewish member in the history of the U.S. House of Representatives. If the Republicans take the House, as the pundits and polls are predicting, he is expected to rise to the position of majority leader.
Maybe even House speaker, as the buzz goes, if the new wave of Republican lawmakers decide to dump Rep. John Boehner (R-Ohio), who some conservatives see as too close to lobbyists and establishment interests. Cantor, the only Jewish Republican lawmaker in the Congress, denies that talk.
At the same time that Cantor, 47, stands on the verge of what could be his greatest victory in his young career, he faces what also might be his greatest test: reconciling the liberal tendencies of the smaller, Jewish community in which he grew up with the sharp swing right in the larger, conservative community he has embraced.
He insists it’s not such a big deal.
“The American Jewish community is not unlike others in this country,” Cantor told JTA this week in a quick phone interview from the campaign trail, where he was been spending a frenetic summer and fall in hopes of helping his party win as many as 90 seats from the Democrats. “Jews are frustrated at their own economic circumstance.”
Cantor said that American Jews have nothing to fear from the Tea Party, the disparate conservative insurgency that appears ready to propel the Republicans to victory.
“Tea Party individuals are focused on three things: One, limited, constitutional government; two, cutting spending, and three, a return to free markets,” he said. “Most Americans are about that, and the American Jewish community is like that.”
In the same interview, Cantor laid out a proposal on funding for Israel that could test exactly how “like that” is the American Jewish community — or at least its organizational leadership.
Cantor said he wanted to pull the $3 billion Israel receives in funding from the foreign operations budget so that GOP lawmakers — who in recent years have been voting in increasing numbers against the foreign funding bill — may vote their conscience: for Israel on one bill, against countries perceived as anti-American on another.
"Part of the dilemma is that Israel has been put in the overall foreign aid looping," he said. "I’m hoping we can see some kind of separation in terms of tax dollars going to Israel.”
Other Republicans have suggested putting the Israel funding in the defense budget, noting that most of the money is for defense assistance.
Prior to that statement, a number of pro-Israel officials had told JTA on background that they feared exactly such an initiative. However, the expectation was that it would come from Tea Partiers and not the GOP leadership, whom the pro-Israel officials expected to be an ally in making the case for foreign funding in January when the new Congress is inaugurated.
Repeated attempts by JTA in the wake of Cantor’s comments to reach the same figures — among them, some of the most voluble pro-Israel advocates — went unanswered.
The silence itself was not unusual — no one in a non-partisan role wants to stand directly against an entire party a week before Election Day. But it signaled the chasm with Republicans that pro-Israel groups may be looking at come January.
Democrats and their allies were not so shy in reminding Cantor of the traditional pro-Israel argument for wrapping spending on Israel into the broader foreign aid budget.
Rep. Nita Lowey (D-N.Y.), the chairwoman of the foreign operations subcommittee of the House Appropriations Committee, called Cantor’s proposal “outrageous.”
“Manipulating aid to Israel in this way would dangerously threaten continued bipartisan agreement on national security policy and programs other than direct assistance to Israel that aid in its security," she said in a news release.
The funding, Lowey said, promotes diplomacy and alleviates the factors that create a fertile ground for terrorist recruiters.
“Because it is inextricably linked with broader U.S. national security goals, separating assistance for Israel in order to make it easier for Republican members to vote against the foreign aid bill would be counterproductive," she said in her statement.
Cantor outlined a much different view: Israel was not like other nations, he said.
“Israel’s survival is directly connected to America’s survival,” he said. “Israel’s security is synonymous with our own.”
Bridging divides is not new to Cantor. His conservative posture on social issues — he is against gay marriage and abortion — place him on the opposite side of most Jewish voters. And Jewish advocates for the elderly strongly oppose several proposals in his new book, “Young Guns,” co-authored with two other youthful conservatives, Reps. Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) and Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.).
The Republican trio calls for opening up Social Security and Medicare to private companies and raising the eligibility age for both plans. In addition, the book extols the GOP leadership’s voluntary freeze last March on earmarks, which Cantor wants to make permanent — and extend to Democrats, should the GOP win the House.
Jewish groups have relied on earmarks, the funds lawmakers set aside for their districts, to fund programs for the elderly.
Still, Cantor is always a welcome presence at Jewish communal events, associates say.
“He always has gotten community support, even though the Jewish community is mostly Democratic,” said Jay Ipson, a retired auto parts dealer who has known Cantor since he was a boy.
Cantor, who has a reputation for tirelessness, makes himself available to the Richmond Jewish community when he is home, Ipson says — visiting its institutions and working on its behalf. Cantor’s intervention on the state level helped Ipson establish the city’s Holocaust museum, which opened in 2003.
Richard November, a former president of the Jewish Community Federation of Richmond, said Cantor was typical of a younger generation of Southern Jews who refused to be circumspect about their Jewishness and would wear their identity with pride even as they ventured into the broader community.
November recalled tracking Cantor, who was the same age as his daughter, Debra, as he grew up.
“In my day — I graduated high school in 1956 — it was more isolated if you would, the Jewish kids stuck together,” he said. “During my daughters’ high school years, there was a greater acceptance of the Jewish students, the Jewish students were more aggressive in becoming involved in things that were not just Jewish.”
Cantor was well turned out early, he recalled.
“He always had a certain demeanor that most people don’t have at that age,” he said.
It helped win over his wife, Diana, six years his senior and a Goldman Sachs employee when he courted her while he was at Columbia.
"I said, ‘I thought you were Jewish?’ I’d never met someone who was Jewish and Republican," she told The Washington Post in 2008.
In Washington, Cantor has made the Jewish community’s case to the Republican leadership, particularly as it applies to funding for safety net programs, said William Daroff, who heads the Jewish Federations of North America Washington office.
“He’s been helpful with legislative matters where there have been funding issues, issues around regulations, particularly with Jewish family service agencies,” Daroff said.
Some Jewish Democrats see Cantor as a friend and appreciate his outreach on Israel.
"We disagree on domestic issues, but when it comes to Israel there are no disagreements," said Rep. Eliot Engel (D-N.Y.). "His heart is in the right place when it comes to Israel."
Cantor’s Jewish profile has, if anything, heightened as he ascended to the leadership. While his family remains Conservative, he now attends Orthodox services and, when his busy schedule allows, takes classes with a rabbi.
In “Young Guns,” his new book, he makes no bones about the Jewish values he brings to the GOP.
“I pray on Saturday with a Southern accent,” he said. “Paul and Kevin go to church on Sunday and talk to God without dropping their g’s.”
That’s an outlook appreciated by a professional Jewish class that has been stymied at times in reaching out to Jewish lawmakers.
“The Jewish community has unfortunately had its fair share of members who shy away from their identity as they embrace public life and build their careers,” said Rabbi Levi Shemtov, who directs American Friends of Lubavitch. “Eric has done the exact opposite.”