Washington — The organized Jewish community is known for its impressive bipartisan clout when advocating issues relating to Israel. But when it comes to domestic affairs, the community suffers from a lopsided lack of leverage on the Republican side.
Some Jewish activists believe that they may have found a pathway to the GOP side of the aisle. Their tactic: play the Jewish card on the sole Jewish Republican in Congress, House Majority Leader Eric Cantor. In a communal event held in Cantor’s hometown of Richmond, Va., on February 16, a group of pro-immigration Jewish activists, including past donors to Cantor’s campaigns, tried to send the No. 2 Republican in the House a message that immigration reform, shelved by his own party, is a Jewish issue he ought to be taking on.
“It was a strategic choice,” said Abby Levine, director of the Jewish Social Justice Roundtable, which organized the event. “We strategically chose Richmond because of the importance of Eric Cantor.”
Cantor could be a key person for immigration reform. House Speaker John Boehner made clear that the issue is off the table for this legislative year, and Cantor, who has avoided expressing his views on the details of the Senate bipartisan immigration bill, is viewed by some, including those of the Jewish community that largely supports reform, as the only senior Republican open to change on the issue. But past experience has shown that Cantor, despite his close ties with Jewish leadership, has not been receptive to the community’s domestic agenda.
Gathered at the Richmond Jewish Community Center on a snowy Sunday afternoon, some 70 members of the city’s Jewish community listened to immigration stories that recalled to the audience the role immigration played in American Jewish history. The presentation stressed immigration reform as an issue in line with core Jewish values.
Jay Ipson, wearing a cowboy hat decorated with a menorah symbol, spoke of his family immigration from Lithuania after the Holocaust and of the tragedy of closing immigration gates during the war; Janet Slipow Meyers, whose parents came from Russia in the early 20th century, told her story, and Roben Farzad, a successful Bloomberg writer who came with his family from Iran after the Islamic Revolution, represented the younger generation of Jewish immigrants to America. Joining them was Felipe Marroquin, a non-Jewish resident of Richmond. Marroquin burst into tears while sharing with the audience the story of his wife of 20 years, who was deported to Guatemala.
While not discussing the issue directly at the event, organizers have highlighted in their publications another Richmond Jewish immigration story: that of the family of the city’s most politically powerful son, Cantor. His grandparents fled anti-Semitism in Russia to arrive in America and start a new life in Virginia’s capital. “I am the grandson of immigrants, and as such my life has been blessed with both the strong religious faith and hard-working, entrepreneurial ethic that so many immigrants bring to America,” Cantor wrote in the 2010 book “Young Guns: A New Generation of Conservative Leaders,” which he co-wrote with fellow Republican Reps. Paul Ryan and Kevin McCarthy.
Organizers said Cantor was invited to attend the event but did not respond.