Eric Cantor: A debt ceiling shonda

My fellow Jew has been pushing his party -- and the country -- toward a disastrous default. How could this be?

Published July 22, 2011 11:45AM (EDT)

House Majority Leader Eric Cantor, center, flanked by Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers, left, and House Speaker John Boehner, right
House Majority Leader Eric Cantor, center, flanked by Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers, left, and House Speaker John Boehner, right

These days Eric Cantor is steering the United States Treasury to default -- and the world economy to catastrophe -- as he defends to the death the sacred right of corporate jet owners to amortize their aircraft over five years instead of seven. Not long ago he was giving George W. Bush all the credit for killing bin Laden. Before that he was threatening to shut down the government over the budget bill. Earlier he claimed that the House of Representatives could make law without the approval of the Senate or the president.

Am I the only Jew in America who finds the House majority leader deeply embarrassing to our people? Am I the only tribe member who considers this smarmy yutz today’s numero-uno shonda fur die goyim?

Shonda what?

* * *

My father used to tell us a morality tale. Not long after the events of November 22 and 24, 1963, our rabbi attended an interfaith meeting of clergymen from our midsize New Jersey town. He later reported to his congregation a conversation he’d had at the gathering. “The Protestant minister,” Dad would say, “said to the rabbi, ‘I see one of your people got Lee Harvey Oswald.’ Jack Ruby was Jewish, you know. [Right, Dad, I know from the other 18 times you’ve told me the story.] And the rabbi said, ‘Yes, and I see one of yours got the president.’”

It was an article of faith among American Jews of my parents’ generation -- people who came of age in the 1920s, ‘30s, and ‘40s, when the best country clubs and colleges and suburbs and law firms still remained unpolluted by the Hebrew menace -- that the bad example of any Jew (e.g., Jack Ruby, Rubenstein) casts disgrace on every Jew, even though no one generalizes about Christians on the basis of a single bad apple (e.g., Lee Harvey Oswald). (Or even a string of bad apples: “Man, George Washington, John Adams, Thomas Jefferson ... all the way to Clinton and Bush and Obama. Those dirty Christian bastards control the government!”) Our shtetl-minded insecurity survives today -- if not among all of us, if not as centrally in our lives -- when anti-Semitism, in the West, anyway, is but a bad memory. (Right, Mel Gibson, Oliver Stone, Julian Assange, Helen Thomas, John Galliano, and Charlie Sheen?)

When a Jew is publicly bad -- especially publicly really bad -- large numbers of the rest of us Jews cringe. That Jew becomes a shonda fur die goyim -- a disgrace for the non-Jews, an example for the gentiles to latch onto as evidence that every one of us is out to control their banks, run their newspapers, and make matzoh from the blood of their children. Think of the long list of Jewish financial miscreants of the past 25 years -- Ivan Boesky, Mike Milken, Bernie Madoff, the gonifs at Goldman Sachs. Let’s see, rich Jewish financiers screwing millions of ordinary people -- gee, that doesn’t play into any pernicious stereotypes about Jews, does it?

It’s gotten to the point that when I read about a swindler who is not one of us I’m ecstatic. A while ago the New York Times reported on the trial of an allegedly crooked defense contractor named Brooks: “A goy!” I said after reading the first paragraph. “Thank goodness. Keep reading.” I did, drooling with schadenfreude. Oh, this was a juicy one: According to the charges, he and another employee pulled down $190 million via stock fraud. To top it off, his company, which makes body armor for our troops in Afghanistan, allegedly paid out more than $6 million to cover his personal expenses, including plastic surgery for his wife and pornographic videos for his son.

But then came one last example of his obscene conspicuous consumption. The guy spent millions -- hiring 50 Cent and Aerosmith as entertainment -- on his daughter’s bat mitzvah. Bat mitzvah? So Brooks isn’t Brooks at all -- he’s Brodsky or Bernstein or Bergman or Buxbaum, whose grandfather changed his name years ago so he could be one of the goys. Such a shonda!

And the neocons. Oy, the neocons. Do so many of these momzers, so keen on sending other parents’ children off to war, have to be tribe members? Ken Adelman, William Kristol, Richard Perle, Douglas Feith, Robert Kagan, Elliot Abrams, Scooter Libby, and the Podhoretzes.

And then there’s Anthony Weiner, that putz.

* * *

Okay, so maybe in 2011 the only non-Jews who care about or even notice the religion of the inside traders and the neocons are the whack jobs on the Internet, with their Jew Watch and their Zionist Occupational Government and their nostalgia for the good old days of Uncle Adolf. But I notice. Because what bothers me is not only -- and not even primarily -- the imputation of guilt by association that might be delivered by the world at large. More, it’s that the publicly bad Jew fails to live up to the ethical standards that we Jews, as Jews, should live up to.

In other words, Ivan Boesky, you should know better. In other words, William Kristol, reread the list of sins -- the al chaits -- we reel off on Yom Kippur. In other words, Eric Cantor, didn’t you learn anything from your upbringing? Were you out on your shul’s front steps enjoying a smoke when your rabbi sermonized about the Jewish obligation to lead an honorable life?

Evidently you didn’t learn, because if you had, you’d share my belief that just as Jews should not stage multibillion-dollar Ponzi schemes, so they should not threaten to bring about world economic calamity for no better reason than to curry favor among a bunch of mouth-breathing fanatics who don’t know a principle of economics from a pulled-pork sandwich. You’d understand that a man who counts himself among the People of the Book, a people that has won Nobel Prizes in a ratio as much as a hundred times its share of the world’s population, should not dismiss the learned opinions of credentialed economists who warn of dire consequences should Congress not do its duty and protect the full faith and credit of the American dollar. You’d know, without being told, that pointing a gun at working people everywhere and threatening to pull the trigger unless you get your way is immoral. You’d stop bullshitting everyone and admit that you and your fellow Republicans in Congress voted to raise the debt ceiling, with no conditions, seven times during the tenure of the last president from your party.

But that’s not all, Eric. What you’d know, above all else, is that Jews should not be Republicans.

Some decades ago Milton Himmelfarb wrote that Jews "earn like Episcopalians but vote like Puerto Ricans." It was true then, it’s true now. Jews are still the one substantial ethnic group in our country that, on the whole, doesn’t vote its wallet. Not to over-praise the Democrats, who are way too cozy with Wall Street and whom we often support for no other reason than their nonmembership in the party of Sarah Palin, Glenn Beck, and Pat Robertson. But the fact is that well-off people generally vote Republican and Jews generally don't, even though we've participated in the American dream, and gone to law school and medical school and dental school and accounting school. (And, don’t forget, we control all the banks and newspapers.)

No less an authority than Richard Nixon used to complain to Henry Kissinger -- talk about a shonda! -- that all Jews were liberals. Norman Podhoretz, that shonda, wrote a whole book on the subject -- "Why are Jews Liberals?"

What a waste of ink. I could have told him why in two minutes. It’s because Jews know what a majority can do to a minority. It’s because Jews grow up with burdens unshouldered by most other Americans -- certainly most other white Americans -- burdens of our history, stories of our desperate struggle to maintain the existence of our tiny people in a world indifferent at best, genocidal at worst, tales of Inquisitors and Cossacks and SS men.

And that’s why, Eric, if being Jewish means anything it means that we feel for the oppressed, the poor, the powerless. It means that we ask fat cats to pay a few more dollars to the IRS so that we don’t have to slash funding for Medicaid. It means that it’s an easy decision when we have to choose between continuing to pay subsidies to wildly profitable oil companies and retaining school lunch programs.

Eric, bubbeleh, put down the hair spray for a minute and pay attention. At the seder table every Passover we talk of freedom, we talk of justice. We don’t talk of cutting funds for the medical care of poor people. We recall that Moses said to Pharoah, "Let my people go." He didn’t say, "Let my people pay a lower capital gains tax."

* * *

I remember once reading a dishy article in the New York Times Magazine in which two Jews, a Hollywood producer and a Hollywood writer, described a game they called "Dumb Jews." To play they would name tribe members who, contrary to the stereotype and our own positive self-image, were not necessarily the sharpest knives in the drawer.

I submit the congressman from Virginia:

"The markets are smarter than to just accept, as you call it, a clean vote on the debt ceiling."

So the markets would prefer this idiotic game of chicken you’re playing?

Q: What is at the table now that is a compromise from your end? . . .

Mr. Cantor: The fact that we have been discussing voting for a debt ceiling increase.

That’s your compromise? Voting for a bill whose non-passage will bring misery to billions of people? That’s your definition of giving something up?

"Again, I don’t think the White House understands how difficult it is for fiscal conservatives to say they are going to vote for a debt ceiling increase."

So members of Congress don’t have to suck it up now and then and cast a "difficult" vote? Can he really be that dense?

On the other hand, maybe Cantor doesn’t believe the stupid things he says. Maybe he’s simply craven, unbothered that he’s building a name for himself by telling lies that pander to the ignorance of the yahoos who attend rallies of the Tea Party. Maybe he’s less a true believer than a cynic when he acts the role of commissar assigned to make sure John Boehner does not deviate from the Grover Norquist party line. Maybe he’s aware that his juvenile self-aggrandizement threatens to bring the nation to its knees -- and just doesn’t care. Maybe he’s not a dumb Jew. Maybe he’s just another bad Jew.

Once upon a time Jews could be good Republicans and good Jews. Jacob Javits, Louis Lefkowitz, Warren Rudman, even Arlen Specter when he was starting out. Sure, once upon a time honorable tribe members could hold views weighted toward solution of problems through the private sector rather than the public.

Those days are gone. Does the GOP even pretend to care about the poor and the powerless anymore? Even more alarming, does it have any respect for learning?

The Republican Party is in the hands of bigots and radicals and ignoramuses, people who think default on the national debt would be salutary, climate change is a hoax, and our barely left-of-center president is the reincarnation of Joseph Stalin. It’s in the hands of Christianists, people who hate Muslims now that they’ve decided not to hate Jews. In fact, they love Jews and they love Israel -- because the Book of Revelation tells them that the Jewish state will hasten the day when Christ returns and all Jews are swallowed into hell.

Erickel, you call these people your friends?

Maybe it’s my own generational outlook as a Jew born during the baby boom, but as many times as I see this shmegegi acting as spokesman for his caucus, I still can’t buy that his aggressively, radically goyische colleagues take him seriously. Is he a token, given his seat of power to help convince Americans that not all Republican officeholders are white fundamentalist Christians? Or is he something much less? Is he their mascot?

Boychik, stop embarrassing your people. Stop behaving like a spoiled brat whose parents won’t allow the female dancers at his bar mitzvah to wear Hooters uniforms. If you don’t have a seder to go to next year, come to my house. We’ll review what you should have learned but never did. Be the wise son, Eric, not the wicked son.

Don’t forget to bring your bubby’s chopped liver. Only this time, make it with schmaltz, not lard.

By Michael Takiff

Michael Takiff is the author of "A Complicated Man: The Life of Bill Clinton as Told by Those Who Know Him," recently published by Yale University Press. Visit his website at and follow him on Twitter @Michael Takiff

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Debt Ceiling Eric Cantor R-va.