In his 2006 reelection campaign, Virginia Senator George Allen’s Jewish roots were among the issues that brought him down. Not the fact that his mother was raised as a Jew, but rather his attempts to hide this fact from Virginia voters.
Now, as Allen seeks to win back his Senate seat in 2012, the Republican politician is feeling the need to set the record straight on what he knew and what he did not know about his Jewish ancestry. And what better place to explain this complex issue, than the Chabad-Lubavitch Jewish Learning Institute’s National Jewish Retreat in Reston, Va.?
Allen was the keynote speaker at the August 19 event and was greeted, according to The Washington Post, as a long lost member of the Jewish community. “We definitely view him wholeheartedly as a fellow Jew,” Rabbi Efraim Mintz, who heads Chabad’s Jewish Learning Institute, told The Post.
Allen, a Republican who served as governor of Virginia and who had represented the state in both chambers of Congress, lost the 2006 elections to Democrat Jim Webb by a tiny margin. Analysts believe that the source of his downfall can be traced back to the moment in the campaign in which he was caught on tape calling a young Indian-American volunteer from the Webb campaign “macaca” which is considered to be a racial epithet in French-African dialects.
Examining the possible ways such a slur made its way to Allen’s vocabulary, The Forward found that Allen’s mother, Henriette “Etty” Allen, had Jewish roots, going back to her father’s Sepharadi Portuguese family. When asked about it in a debate with Webb, Allen, visibly angry, insisted he is Christian and protested the interviewer’s “making aspersions about people because of their religious beliefs.”
Allen later explained that he did not know at the time his mother’s father was Jewish.
At the Chabad event (http://www.georgeallen.com/speeches?ContentRecord_id=9f9dc4c7-7cac-41dd-85ea-a0f3277fd530), Allen detailed for the first time his Jewish ties, making clear that during that debate, he had already known that his mother was raised Jewish.
Allen said he learned about it several months earlier. During breakfast at his mother’s house, he asked her if there was any truth to the rumors that the family had Jewish roots. His mother, Allen told the room filled with 600 Chabad members, repeatedly ducked the question. But Allen kept on asking.
“After this last of my innocent, cross-examination questions in between spoons of cereal, my mother very seriously told me that she would tell me ‘something’ but only if I swore not to tell anyone,” the former Senator said. She then asked him to swear on “Popop’s head”, Popop being the nickname of his grandfather, and told him that her father was Jewish.
Allen’s mother explained she had kept her Jewish ancestry a secret, fearing it would harm her husband’s career as a professional football coach and that her son would be subjected to anti-Semitic jokes. She then warned Allen never to reveal the secret.
And then came the debate where he was asked directly about it.
“I had been put in a dilemma to defend my mother’s wishes and my promise to her as well as wanting to tell people this story,” he said. Later, after convincing his mother, he began to speak freely about his Jewish background.
The Chabad audience warmly applauded Allen’s belated embrace of his Jewish heritage. Allen was honored with the opportunity to blow a shofar, which, according to Chabad experts in the room, was quite impressive for a first-timer. Still, it is unclear what significance this event will have for Allen’s political career. Virginia’s Jewish community is small and is concentrated in the Democratic northern part of the state.
But for Allen, taking a couple of hours to discuss his Jewish heritage could prove beneficial down the road, as he attempts to close the “macaca” chapter and come to terms with his background. His Chabad speech may serve as reference whenever issues regarding racial and religious insensitivity will be raised.
Or as he described that morning around his mother’s kitchen table: “From that day forward, the core principle of freedom of conscience, beliefs and religion was no longer a matter of enlightened philosophy to me; it became deeply personal in my heart-wrenching realization of how fear and persecution so tormented my loving, loyal mother’s life.”
Nathan Guttman staff writer, is the Forward’s Washington bureau chief. He joined the staff in 2006 after serving for five years as Washington correspondent for the Israeli dailies Ha’aretz and The Jerusalem Post. In Israel, he was the features editor for Ha’aretz and chief editor of Channel 1 TV evening news. He was born in Canada and grew up in Israel. He is a graduate of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. Contact Nathan at email@example.com, or follow him on Twitter @nathanguttman