By Michael D. Shear
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, September 20, 2006; A01
Virginia Sen. George Allen (R) said for the first time publicly yesterday that he has Jewish ancestry, a day after responding angrily to an exchange that included questions about his mother's racial sensitivity and whether his family has Jewish roots.
At a campaign debate with Democratic challenger James Webb on Monday, a reporter asked Allen whether his mother's father, Felix Lumbroso, was Jewish. He became visibly upset, saying his mother's religion was not relevant to the campaign and chiding the reporter for "making aspersions about people because of their religious beliefs."
Allen's campaign manager said the senator believed the question was hostile because it followed another one about whether Allen had learned the word "macaca" from his mother. The word, which Allen used last month to describe a Webb volunteer, is a French slur for a dark-skinned person. Allen's mother, Henrietta "Etty" Allen, is a native of Tunisia and speaks French.
In a statement released by his campaign yesterday, Allen said he was proud to have recently discovered that his grandfather, an anti-Nazi resistance fighter in North Africa, was part of a well-known Jewish family.
"I was raised as a Christian and my mother was raised as a Christian," Allen, 54, said. "And I embrace and take great pride in every aspect of my diverse heritage, including my Lumbroso family line's Jewish heritage, which I learned about from a recent magazine article and my mother confirmed."
Allen's religious background has not been a campaign issue. But when the reporter asked Allen about it Monday, the exchange triggered a flood of critical commentary on Internet blogs yesterday, demanding that Allen clarify his ancestry.
The Jewish weekly newspaper the Forward recently explored Allen's possible Jewish roots and his connection to the Lumbrosos, a prominent Jewish family that settled in Italy in the 15th century. Allen's campaign spokesman did not return calls seeking confirmation, according to that article.
Peggy Fox, the WUSA (Channel 9) reporter who asked the question at the debate, said she read the article in the Forward. "I had heard from other reporters that his staff had been asked the question before. I thought it was fair game," she said yesterday.
Allen campaign manager Dick Wadhams said, "Saying your mother was a racist. That was exactly the intent and the thrust of the question. Then she [Fox] went on to introduce religion. Introducing religion at all into the debate was inappropriate."
The question about Allen's religion and his delayed response to it are the latest twists in a bizarre Senate campaign that has been dominated for five weeks by Allen's "macaca" comment and more recently by allegations that Webb demeaned military women in an article written 27 years ago.
Polls have indicated that Webb is closing the double-digit lead Allen held earlier this summer. But in addition to a debate over the Iraq war with Webb, a decorated Marine and former Navy secretary, Allen has repeatedly been distracted by other issues.
Allen is not the first public official to discover Jewish roots late in life, including former presidential candidates Sen. John F. Kerry (D-Mass.) and Gen. Wesley K. Clark. In 1997, Secretary of State Madeline Albright revealed that her family history includes three Jewish grandparents who were killed in the Holocaust.
Some Jewish leaders said that Allen's angry reaction to the question about his Jewish heritage bothered them.
"He was visibly uncomfortable and called it an 'aspersion,' " said J. J. Goldberg, editor in chief of the Forward. "What is it that makes him so uncomfortable with it? It raises more questions about who the guy is."
"How does one not know that his grandfather was a Jew?" asked Samuel Heilman, a professor of sociology at the City University of New York. Heilman called it a "tempest in a teapot" but said it would be a big story to American Jews.
"It is the case that for many people who are so much a part of blue-blood America, it's hard to imagine there is a Jew in their cupboard there," Heilman said.
But other Jewish leaders defended Allen's reaction, saying he was clearly upset not about being called a Jew but at what he considered to be the negative tone of the questioner.
"This was an 'I got you' question -- 'See, you really are a racist,' " said Rabbi Irwin Kula, author of "Yearnings: Embracing the Sacred Messiness of Life." Kula said there are many people who have been raised Christian and are not aware that they have any Jewish heritage. "I felt tremendous empathy for George Allen. It is 100 percent possible."
Allen has been asked before about his religious background. Bob Gibson, a reporter at the Charlottesville Daily Progress who has written about the senator for almost three decades, told the New Republic that Allen once wanted a correction "when I wrote about his mother's Jewish family origins. He insisted, through a press secretary, that his mother was raised a Christian."
Part of the interest in Allen's heritage comes from his speeches, in which he often includes references to his grandfather being incarcerated in a Nazi concentration camp. In 2000, he told the Richmond Times-Dispatch his grandfather was put in the camp because he was an Allied sympathizer.
He brought up his grandfather's incarceration at the Monday debate, just before Fox asked her question.
"If there's one lesson that I learned more than from anyone else, it was my mother, whose father was incarcerated by the Nazis in World War II," Allen said. "And of all people in my life who told me about tolerance and not judging people by their religious beliefs or their ethnicity or their race, it is my mother."
But people close to Allen have been reluctant to discuss his grandfather's religion in the past. Asked about it several weeks ago, campaign advisers either said they did not know or refused to comment. They also refused to ask Allen about it, saying at the time that it was not relevant to his job.
Yesterday, Wadhams accused Webb's campaign and liberal bloggers of anti-Semitism for raising the issue of the senator's religious background.
Bloggers, some of whom are on Webb's staff, spent yesterday writing furiously about the debate question and Allen's answer. "What does Allen have against Jews?" one headline read on a national liberal blog.
"Introducing religion at all into the debate was inappropriate. It makes no difference what anybody's religion is," Wadhams said.
Wadhams also accused Webb's campaign of mailing an anti-Semitic flier to Virginia voters during the state's Democratic primary this year. That flier depicted Webb's Jewish opponent, Harris Miller, with money coming out of his pockets.
"They have been continuing that anti-Semitic strategy through their paid bloggers," Wadhams said.
Webb spokeswoman Kristian Denny Todd called that charge "completely false." She said the flier was not anti-Semitic and declined to comment about Allen's Jewish heritage.
"We are in the race for Senate to talk about ideas, issues and what's best for Virginia," she said. "That's all we are here to do."
In the statement issued yesterday, Allen called Fox's questions "especially reprehensible" and "deeply offensive." And he confronted questions about why he did not know about his heritage sooner.
"Some may find it odd that I have not probed deeply into the details of my family history, but it's a fact," he said. "Whenever we would ask my mother through the years about our family background on her side, the answer always was, 'Who cares about that?' "
Staff writer Robert Barnes and staff researcher Meg Smith contributed to this report.