By Marc Fisher
Sunday, September 24, 2006
I f George Allen's poll numbers don't rebound soon, will we see a quick trip to the Wailing Wall, just as politicians make in states with big Jewish populations?
With all the complaining Virginia's junior senator has been doing about the money his opponent, Jim Webb, is raising in Hollywood, maybe now that Allen's Jewish heritage has been made public, the senator should head West to shake the money tree.
We can skate along the edges of tastelessness all day on this one. Just a week ago, Virginia's Senate race was looking to be as elevated as they get in these slimy times. When Allen and Webb spent the better part of an hour on NBC debating the war in Iraq, the differences between the two were stark. But both men made their points without slashing the other.
Then, the race that wasn't even supposed to be a race went off the rails, and not for the first time.
Somehow, we've careened from a volley of apologies -- I'm sorry I called that nice man "macaca"; no, I'm sorry I said women were pathetic weaklings; no, I wish I'd known earlier in life that hanging a noose in my law office was a bad thing -- to wild accusations of anti-Semitism in a race in which both candidates are Christians and in a state with a tiny Jewish population.
Now Republicans accuse Democrats of trying to make Allen look anti-Semitic by focusing attention on his newfound Jewish roots, and Democrats say the Republicans are anti-Semitic because they seem ashamed or offended by any mention of Allen's heritage.
Try a few interesting facts. George Allen, a Presbyterian, now says that his maternal grandfather, who was imprisoned by the Nazis in North Africa, was Jewish.
Allen's mother, Henriette "Etty" Allen, told The Post's Michael Shear last week that she was raised Jewish in her native Tunisia. (I would inquire whether her land of origin makes the senator an African American, but I fear the ensuing uproar would force elections officials to just cancel the whole campaign.)
The senator says that until recently, he had no clue about any of this religion stuff. He genuinely thought the Nazis imprisoned his grandfather because the man was a strong defender of human freedoms. Then, over the summer, The Forward, a Jewish newspaper in New York, reported that Allen is a descendant of a Sephardic Jewish Portuguese family that, like many other such families in the 15th century, was forced to convert to Christianity. The Lumbroso family fled to Italy, where they apparently reverted to Judaism; one of Allen's forbearers, Itzhak Lumbroso, was a prominent 18th-century rabbi and Talmudic scholar.
I asked Rabbi Jack Moline of Alexandria's Agudas Achim Congregation whether Allen's ignorance of his heritage seems plausible. "There are lots of people who hid the trauma of their past from their children and grandchildren," Moline said. "And there's a whole cohort who took it the next step and said, 'I'm not even going to tell my children that I am Jewish.' If you read Allen's mother's agonizing words, it's clear she's lived with fear all her life."
But this is not a simple matter of the senator learning the truth and admitting it. He was clearly sensitive about this subject long before Channel 9 reporter Peggy Fox asked him about it at Monday's Fairfax Chamber of Commerce debate. Three years ago, Bob Gibson, political columnist at the Charlottesville Daily Progress, asked the same question. "It's funny," Gibson told the New Republic last month, "but the only time that George Allen ever wanted a correction from me in 27 years of covering his races was when I wrote about his mother's Jewish family origins. He insisted, through a press secretary, that his mother was raised a Christian."
Even now, after his mother told him the truth, Allen's response to Fox was to pretend that he was deeply offended by the injection of religion into the debate, to accuse the reporter of "making aspersions about" someone's religious beliefs and to state: "My mother is French-Italian with a little Spanish blood in her. And I've been raised as she was, as far as I know, raised as a Christian."
At the debate, therefore, knowing that his mother was raised Jewish, Allen said otherwise. Not good.
But very much in character. "George Allen grew up in a football family, where the playing field is always level, and the past doesn't matter," Moline said. "So he is clueless about the symbolism of the Confederate flag and clueless about hanging a noose in his office and clueless about the power of the word 'macaca.' When you have parents who want to close off the past, that's what happens to you."
Maybe in that context, Allen's comment to the Richmond Times-Dispatch last week makes sense. His Jewish heritage is "just an interesting nuance to my background," Allen said, adding: "I still had a ham sandwich for lunch. And my mother made great pork chops."
Moline says that comment is "a typical dismissal of the past for him." Or maybe Allen is eager to take over William Donald Schaefer's role as the region's premier purveyor of unfiltered political speech. Or perhaps Allen just chose to express his "embrace" of his roots borscht belt-style. Ladies and gentlemen, Shecky Allen.
Somehow, Madeline Albright, John Kerry and Wesley Clark -- who learned details of their Jewish roots in middle age -- got through this chapter without accusing their opponents of anti-Semitism, ripping reporters who inquired about their family histories or cracking ham sandwich jokes.
Allen is a tremendously likable guy. He stands up for his beliefs, even when they are unpopular. But he's in trouble in a race he expected to be a walk in the park. And he's killing himself out there. Georgie, baby, take a shvitz, maybe a vacation. Have you thought about Jerusalem? Bring the video camera. We can make this work.