Pride or Prejudice: Va. Pol Admits His Jewish Roots

By Ami Eden

Published September 20, 2006, issue of September 22, 2006.
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Just in time for Rosh Hashanah, a bitter campaign controversy in Virginia has culminated with Senator George Allen acknowledging that his mother hailed from a Jewish family.

Allen, a Republican widely believed to have 2008 presidential ambitions, had previously denied that his mother was Jewish. During a debate on Monday, he angrily refused to answer a question on the topic, calling it an “aspersion.” By Tuesday, after The Washington Post published a colorful story on Allen’s reaction and bloggers began weighing in, the senator issued a statement acknowledging his mother’s lineage.

“I was raised as a Christian, and my mother was raised as a Christian,” said Allen, who is locked in an unexpectedly close race with Democrat James Webb. “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.” Later in the day, Allen’s campaign manager, Dick Wadhams, identified the article as a story by E.J. Kessler that appeared in the Forward last month. According to Wadhams, after reading the article the senator decided to ask his mother about her Jewish roots.

“He learned stuff from the article and asked his mother about that,” Wadhams said.

Allen’s French-speaking Tunisian mother, Henriette (Etty), was born into 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 accordance with traditional rabbinic law, which traces Judaism through the maternal line.

Allen has said repeatedly that his maternal grandfather had been incarcerated by the Nazis. He also denied that his mother was Jewish, and he made no mention of her family’s religious roots. In his statement Tuesday, Allen said that he never has known whether his grandfather “was persecuted by the Nazis because of his nationality, his religious faith, his role as a community leader or his part in the anti-Nazi resistance.”

“Some may find it odd that I have not probed deeply into the details of my family history, but it’s a fact,” Allen said. “ We in the Allen household were simply taught that what matters is a person’s character, integrity, effort and performance — not race, gender, ethnicity or religion. And so whenever we would ask my mother through the years about our family background on her side, the answer always was, ‘Who cares about that?’”

Wadhams told the Forward that until now, Allen’s mother never had discussed the topic with her son “because she was so seared by what she had experienced with her own father.” He added that he wasn’t sure why Allen’s mother, who lives in California, was now willing to open up about the topic.

Ric Arenstein, a leader of Richmond’s Jewish community, told the Richmond Times-Dispatch that he was disturbed by the timing of Allen’s announcement.

“This story has been rumored and raised with him repeatedly,” said Arenstein, a former president of the Jewish Community Federation of Richmond. “I guess it troubles me that he cares so little about his lineage that he waited until it was irrefutable.” But Wadhams said that Allen finds the news about his mother’s background “fascinating” and “interesting.” The campaign manager described the senator as “delighted.”

Allen’s critics have pointed out that the Republican incumbent did not sound particularly delighted when the issue was raised Monday by WUSA-TV’s Peggy Fox during a debate in Tysons Corner, Va., moderated by George Stephanopoulos of ABC News. Fox broached the issue in connection to Allen’s use of a racial slur for dark-skinned North Africans, “macaca,” during an August 11 encounter with a young Indian American cameraman from Webb’s campaign. Macaca means “monkey,” but Allen’s campaign insisted that the word was made up, an inside joke on the young man’s hairstyle. Noting that Allen’s mother was Tunisian, Fox asked, “Are you sure you had never heard the word?”

“I hope you are not trying to bring my mother into this matter,” Allen replied. He then cited his grandfather’s incarceration by the Nazis, saying that it was his mother more than anyone else “who told me about tolerance and not judging people by their religious beliefs or their ethnicity or their race.”

Fox then drew boos from the crowd by asking if Allen could “tell us whether your forbearers include Jews and, if so, at which point Jewish identity might have ended.”

“To be getting into what religion my mother is, I don’t think is relevant,” Allen responded angrily. “Why is that relevant — my religion, Jim’s religion or the religious beliefs of anyone out there?” He then urged Fox to refrain from “making aspersions.” In his statement Tuesday, Allen criticized Fox for what he described as her efforts to impugn “the attitudes of my mother.” He also said that “the notion peddled by the Webb campaign that I am somehow embarrassed by my heritage is equally offensive, and also absurd.”

According to Wadhams, Allen “had no problem” with the Forward’s story last month. “He read it with interest; it prompted him to [talk about it] with his mother.”

As for whether Allen’s mother is happy with discussing these issues with her son, Wadhams said, “I’m sure she’s pleased with everything.”

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