When Senator George Allen of Virginia used a racial slur for dark-skinned North Africans, “macaca,” during a recent encounter with a young Indian American cameraman from his opponent’s campaign, many wondered where he had learned the word.
Macaca means “monkey,” but Allen’s campaign insisted that the word was made up, an inside joke on the young man’s hairstyle. But some commentators noted that Allen’s mother is “French Tunisian,” speculating that Allen, who speaks French, had picked up the epithet from her. (Allen’s late father was famed Washington Redskins football coach George Allen.)
Allen’s mother, Henriette (Etty), whose maiden name was Lumbroso, is indeed Francophone and Tunisian born, a heritage that forms a romantic theme in “Fifth Quarter: The Scrimmage of a Football Coach’s Daughter” the memoir of Allen family life written by Allen’s sister Jennifer. What’s more, it is likely that she’s Jewish by birth, although no acknowledgment of that heritage appears in the memoir.
Allen’s campaign spokesman, Bill Bozin, did not return several detailed messages, left over two days, that asked what the senator and his family know about his mother’s heritage.
Depending on what additional information comes out on the matter, the controversy could end up resurrecting a dominant theme of the Democratic primaries four years ago, when it turned out that no fewer than four presidential hopefuls had significant Jewish ties: Senator Joseph Lieberman was an Orthodox Jew; Senator John Kerry was descended from Jews and had a brother who converted to Judaism; former general Wesley Clark had a Jewish father; Howard Dean was married to a Jewish woman and raised Jewish children.
For now, some political analysts are predicting that the macaca flap could sink what until now had been viewed widely in Washington circles as Allen’s strong chance of emerging in 2008 as the conservative standard-bearer in the race for the GOP presidential nomination. And judging from recent polls, it is putting a crimp in what was supposed to be a handy re-election bid in Virginia.
The incident is not the first time that Allen has faced criticism for supposed racial insensitivity. The New Republic recently reported that when he was a high school student, the senator, a native Californian, wore a Confederate flag lapel pin; it further reported that even as an adult, Allen sometimes displayed the Confederate flag as part of a flag collection. In the 1980s, he stirred ire by opposing the establishment in Virginia of Martin Luther King Day. But Allen points to more recent efforts, such as a push to increase funds for Virginia’s historically black colleges, as evidence that he seeks to better race relations.
Allen’s own African heritage casts a different light on the matter. Though Etty Allen seems not to have dwelled on it during her years in the spotlight as a coach’s wife, she comes from the august Sephardic Jewish Lumbroso family. Her father, who was the main importer of wines and liquors in Tunis — including the Cinzano brand — was known in France, where he lived after World War II, as part of the family, according to French Jewish sources. 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.
This might complicate life for Allen, a practicing Presbyterian who besides running for re-election this year in Virginia is often mentioned as a possible Republican 2008 contender. Political analyst John Mercurio of National Journal’s noted tip sheet, The Hotline, said that any complication “would depend largely on how this information was revealed.”
“If it was discovered that Allen knew this family history, but attempted to keep it under wraps for whatever reason, it could do great harm to any political campaign,” Mercurio wrote in an e-mail. “He’d face serious questions, in the wake of the Macaca incident and his history with the Confederate flag, of whether he’s both racially prejudiced and anti-semitic. Given the intensely pro-Israel sentiment that exists in this country today, that could be a huge political liability — but on the other hand, if this is something he discovers and promptly reveals about himself, and does so with a sense of pride in his family history, I don’t think he’d face much backlash at all.”
According to information compiled from several Sephardic genealogical Web sites, the Lumbroso family originated in Portugal but made its way to Livorno, or Leghorn, in Italy after the expulsion of the Jews from the Iberian Peninsula in the 15th century. “Lumbroso” means “luminous” and is a translation of the Hebrew word “nehora.”
Allen is aware of at least the Italian connection, and trumpets it. On the campaign trail recently, according to the online journal Salon, Allen said: “I have my grandfather’s bloodlines. My grandfather is French-Italian. I have about one-sixteenth Spanish in me.”
Dr. Jeffrey Malka, an expert on Sephardic genealogy, told the Forward in an e-mail that in Portugal the Lumbrosos became conversos — unlike Spanish Jews, Portuguese Jews were not allowed to leave and were forcibly converted en masse — who escaped to Livorno, where they were able to return to Judaism. Malka called the Livorno community “fascinating” because, invited by the Medicis, they became wealthy and powerful traders, setting up branches in Tunis and ransoming Jews captured by Barbary pirates.
Among the most famous members of the family, Malka said, was Itzhak Lumbroso, an 18th-century rabbi and rabbinic judge who wrote a commentary on the Talmud, “Seed of Isaac,” that was the first book printed in Hebrew in Tunis.
If Allen wants to research his heritage, there are many resources available. The marriage contracts of many Lumbrosos, for example, can be found in historical compendia including “Registres Matrimoniaux de la Communaute Juive Portugaise de Tunis, XVIII-XIX siecles.”
Wikipedia, the online encyclopedia that allows users to draft and edit the entries, takes Allen’s mother’s Judaism as a given, saying that “Henrietta Lumbroso was a Jewish immigrant of Tunisian/Italian/French background.”
Malka, the Sephardic expert, said, “Interfaith marriage and/or baptism was extremely rare among the Jews of Tunisia in the early 20th century — mainly because the sense of being Jewish was very strong and it would have been greatly frowned on.”
There are intimations in Jennifer Allen’s book of the family’s Jewish connection. She writes that when the Germans invaded North Africa during World War II, “the Nazis took away my mother’s father,” although he escaped from harm.
Senator Allen told the Richmond Times Dispatch in 2000 that his grandfather was imprisoned because “he sympathized with the Free French and the Allies and coveted the concepts of freedom of thought, expression, religious belief and enterprise.”
In another of the book’s anecdotes, George Allen Sr., a practicing Roman Catholic, encounters problems when he wants to marry his fiancee, Etty, in a Catholic church.
“The priest said he would marry them only if Mom agreed to raise as Catholic any children the marriage might produce,” Jennifer Allen wrote. “As a young woman, my mother had an ‘incident’ with a priest in Tunis, so Mom said ‘Over my dead body’ to the priest. My mother and father were married by a justice of the peace in a Jewish friend’s home with two witnesses.”
Why was there any question as to whether Etty Allen would raise the family Catholic, unless she herself wasn’t baptized in the faith?
An e-mail message to Jennifer Allen came back with an automated reply saying that she was on vacation and not reading her messages.
Senator Allen has been addressing the recent controversy. He issued a statement to CNN in which he apologized to “anyone who may have [been] offended by the misinterpretation of my remarks” and said the jibe at the cameraman “was in no way intended to be racially derogatory.” The young man, S.R. Sidarth, has said that he perceived the name as a racial comment.
Allen said in the statement that another comment he made to the young man — “Let’s give a welcome to Macaca here. Welcome to America and the real world of Virginia” — was actually directed at his Democratic opponent, James Webb.
“In singling out the Webb campaign’s cameraman, I was trying to make the point that Jim Webb had never been to that part of Virginia — and I encouraged him to bring the tape back to Jim and welcome him to the real world of Virginia and America, outside the Beltway, where he has rarely visited,” Allen said.
Despite Allen’s explanations, the macaca episode appears to have damaged him. Before the incident, polls had the senator leading Webb by about 19 percentage points; two polls taken afterward show him up by only three to five points.