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The Senator's Gentile Rebuke

By Dana Milbank
Tuesday, September 19, 2006

First came Sen. George Allen's Macaca Moment. Then we learned of challenger Jim Webb's thoughts on the "horny" women of the Naval Academy.

Now, just when you thought Virginia's U.S. Senate race couldn't get any weirder, the Jews of Tunis are making a cameo.

At a debate in Tysons Corner yesterday between Republican Allen and Democrat Webb, WUSA-TV's Peggy Fox asked Allen, the tobacco-chewing, cowboy-boot-wearing son of a pro football coach, if his Tunisian-born mother has Jewish blood.

"It has been reported," said Fox, that "your grandfather Felix, whom you were given your middle name for, was Jewish. Could you please tell us whether your forebears include Jews and, if so, at which point Jewish identity might have ended?"

Allen recoiled as if he had been struck. His supporters in the audience booed and hissed. "To be getting into what religion my mother is, I don't think is relevant," Allen said, furiously. "Why is that relevant -- my religion, Jim's religion or the religious beliefs of anyone out there?"

"Honesty, that's all," questioner Fox answered, looking a bit frightened.

"Oh, that's just all? That's just all," the senator mocked, pressing his attack. He directed Fox to "ask questions about issues that really matter to people here in Virginia" and refrain from "making aspersions."

"Let's move on," proposed the moderator, George Stephanopoulos of ABC News.

Yes, let's -- but not before we figure out what that was all about. Turns out the Forward, a Jewish newspaper, reported that the senator's mother, Etty, "comes from the august Sephardic Jewish Lumbroso family" and continued: "If both of Etty's parents were born Jewish -- which, given her age and background, is likely -- Senator Allen would be considered Jewish in the eyes of traditional rabbinic law, which traces Judaism through the mother."

If that's true, the Presbyterian Allen joins public figures Madeleine Albright and John Kerry in discovering his Jewish roots. Of the three, the 6-foot-4-inch Allen, a down-home former college quarterback known for opposing laws to keep children out of the back of pickups, seems the least likely candidate for inclusion among the Chosen People. It would be no more surprising to learn that Sen. Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.) has Southern Baptist ancestry.

Fox's question, while a matter of some intrigue, seemed out of place in the debate, which focused on more urgent matters such as Iraq. But Allen turned on the questioner with ferocity. He may have been irked that the question was a follow-up to one noting that "macaca" was a racial slur that his mother may have learned in Tunisia. He may have been concerned that Jewish roots wouldn't play well in parts of Virginia.

Or he may just have been in a quarreling mood. Allen protested frequently when Stephanopoulos tried to move the debate along. "I thought we had rebuttal," the senator complained at one point, tossing down his pen. He voiced suspicions at one questioner's motives, accused another of contradicting himself, and charged Webb with "continuing to degrade and disrespect women."

But that was nothing compared with what Allen gave Fox.

The anchor may have thought she had license to pop the Jewish question when Allen, reacting to the "macaca" question, volunteered that his grandfather "was incarcerated by the Nazis in World War II."

Citing reports about his "possible Jewish ancestry," Fox questioned Allen's past denial that his mother is Jewish.

"I'm glad you all have that reaction," Allen said to the audience as people jeered the questioner. Allen lectured Fox about the importance of "freedom of religion and not making aspersions about people because of their religious beliefs."

In between his heckling of Fox, Allen reported that "my mother is French-Italian with a little bit of Spanish blood in her, and I've been raised, and she was, as far as I know, raised as a Christian." That's not inconsistent with the Forward report, which said the Lumbrosos, forcibly converted in Portugal, escaped to Livorno and became traders with branches in Tunis.

Fox took a long drink from her water bottle. In the second round of questions, she chose the relative safety of Iraq, saying, "I don't think this question will get me booed."

"I was shocked," she said after the event. Disclosing that her great-grandfather was a Mormon polygamist, she added: "Why would he get so angry at the suggestion there might be something in your background that's Jewish? I don't think that's a bad thing at all."

Fox said her motive was curiosity. "I thought it was important to find out is this part of his heritage, because if it is nobody knows it. Do you deny part of your heritage for political reasons?"

Allen, surrounded by cameras and microphones after the event, hadn't cooled down. "What do you mean, 'make me so angry'?" he demanded angrily when asked why Fox's query had made him so angry.

"To make whatever sort of comment that was, you just don't judge people by their ethnicity or their religion," Allen said, fuming that Fox would "drag my mother into this." The senator said his mother was the one who taught him about tolerance. "Because," he repeated, "my mother's father was incarcerated by the Nazis in World War II."

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