In the days leading up to the High Holidays, the holiest time of the year in Judaism, a senator running for re-election and a potential Republican candidate for president, announced that, yes, his mother was born Jewish. Here’s what Sen. George Allen said: “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.”
Enough said. Except he couldn’t stop talking. That same day, in an interview with a Richmond, Va., paper, Allen said his Jewish ancestry was “just an interesting nuance to my background.” And then he added this: “I still had a ham sandwich for lunch. And my mother made great pork chops.” Being an eater of ham sandwiches and pork chops may go along with Allen’s Red State, cowboy-boot-wearing, Confederate-flag-waving image, but many observers were unnerved by the flippancy of these remarks, and pundits began to debate whether Allen’s Jewishness—and his strange reaction to it—would help or hurt his re-election campaign. (Latest poll numbers have Allen and his Democratic opponent Jim Webb nearly neck and neck, 46 percent to 42 percent.)
“I think his national political future is over,” says Kati Marton, author of the forthcoming “Nine Jews Who Fled Hitler and Changed the World,” who has written extensively about her own discovery, as an adult, that her parents were Jewish and that her grandparents died at Auschwitz. “Because he doesn’t seem to know how to deal with some of the most sensitive issues that speak to his fundamental character … Allen obviously hasn’t assimilated too many of history’s lessons and the lessons of American politics, which is that you can’t hide anything—you have to embrace it, you have to own it.” Sixty years since the Holocaust, with politicians from Gen. Wesley Clark to Sen. John Kerry “owning” their Jewish roots in public, she adds, a revelation of Jewishness should be anything but shameful.
But as the case of Madeleine Albright shows, coming to grips with hidden Jewish ancestry isn’t always easy. Abraham H. Foxman, national director of the Anti-Defamation League, offered to be Allen’s counselor in his new search for identity. Foxman, who was born Jewish in Poland but was raised Roman Catholic by a nanny who protected him during World War II, suggests that Allen has yet to make peace with his own Jewish roots. “He needs to work it out within himself, and he needs to sit down with me [or the media] and share the depths of his anger, confusion and embarrassment.”
For his part, Allen has said that he knew his maternal grandfather had been in a concentration camp, but he thought he had been imprisoned because he sympathized with the Allied cause. When the senator did recently ask his mother about their background, she confirmed that they were born Jewish but swore her son to secrecy out of fear for the family’s well-being; she released him from his bond when the story blew up in the press. “This is so personal,” he told CNN’s Wolf Blitzer earlier this week. “To think that a person … is still having that pain in her, it’s still paining her; she still lives in fear of that intimidation, that bigotry, that prejudice, that anti-Semitism.”
The idea that Allen might be Jewish was first made public in an August issue of The Forward, a Jewish newspaper—a torturous connecting of the dots between Allen’s mother’s Tunisian background and an insult, “macaca,” that Allen flung at an Indian-American campaign worker for the opposition. Questions from reporters followed and Allen handled them badly. On Monday, when a reporter asked for clarity on the Jewish issue, Allen dodged it, saying his mother was raised Christian; when the reporter persisted, the senator became dismissive, saying “Oh, that’s just all. That’s just all.”
Then came the public confirmation—and the ham sandwich remark. Just hours before sundown on the eve of Rosh Hashana, Ric Arenstein, past president of the Jewish Community Federation of Richmond, was more amused than aghast at Allen’s remarks. They don’t rise to the level of anti-Semitism, he said, just bad timing. In the days to come, there will be “more Jews together than any weekend this year. That’s especially bad the month before an election.” Foxman is more sympathetic: “It’s not easy” to be in Allen’s spot, but as the New Year begins, he offers some free advice: decide who you are, and embrace it.