As Senator George Allen’s re-election campaign was engulfed in a firestorm of racial and ethnic gaffes, revelations and accusations, leading Jewish Republican allies attempted to reverse the tide with claims that his Democratic opponent had engaged in “antisemitic” ploys.
Allen, a Virginia Republican in a tough race against Democrat James Webb, was scrambling this week to deny allegations from former college football teammates that as a student he frequently had used a racial epithet to refer to blacks. The allegations came as Allen was already facing a wave of criticism and ridicule over his initial denials that his mother had been raised Jewish.
In an effort to counter the perception that Allen had covered up his ancestry because he was embarrassed by his Jewish roots, the Republican Jewish Coalition and two of the three Jewish Republicans in Congress, Senator Norm Coleman of Minnesota and Rep. Eric Cantor of Virginia, issued statements defending the Virginia senator and blasting his opponent.
The Republicans accused Webb and his campaign of attempting to push the issue of Allen’s background in an effort to damage him.
“Senator Allen’s opponent and his opponent’s supporters have engaged in a pattern of intimidation and intolerance that I am saddened to see in this country,” said Coleman, who serves on the Senate Armed Services Committee. “I welcome the news of Senator Allen’s Jewish ancestry. I am sure it adds further depth to his demonstrated commitment to fighting oppression and antisemitism and his championing of human rights and freedom.”
Cantor went further, accusing Webb of launching antisemitic attacks against his Jewish opponent in the primary, Harris Miller.
During the primary, the Webb campaign distributed a flier with a cartoon image of Miller, in which he’s depicted with money in one pocket and described as the “anti-Christ of outsourcing.” Miller suggested that the flier was antisemitic; in response, the Webb campaign insisted that the cartoon was simply ridiculing Miller’s work as a lobbyist for the information technology industry and his support for outsourcing. At the time, several Jewish communal leaders dismissed the notion that bigotry was at play.
Just as efforts to paint Webb as antisemitic did not work well for Miller in the primary, they were unlikely to help Allen, said James W. Ceaser, a professor of politics at the University of Virginia.
“It’s a race of Allen against himself,” Ceaser said. “Webb’s just standing on the sidelines.”
Ceaser said that Allen hurt himself during the September 18 debate, when he bristled at a reporter for asking whether his mother was Jewish and then appeared to deny that she is. Allen released a September 19 statement saying that his mother’s ancestors were Jewish but she was raised Christian. But the next day, Allen’s mother, Henrietta “Etty” Allen, told The Washington Post that she indeed had been raised Jewish. She also said she had told this to Allen when he asked about the subject last month. She attributed her decision to keep the truth from her children to her fear of antisemitism after living under Nazi rule in Tunisia.
According to Allen and his staff, the senator was prompted to ask his mother about the issue after reading an article in the Forward demonstrating that his mother hailed from a prominent Sephardic family. He said that he only lied about the matter because his mother asked him not to talk about it with anybody.
“I think people have seen that these things have been mishandled,” Ceaser told the Forward. “It’s been just a series of making people doubt him. That’s been the whole dynamic.” Valerie Sulfaro, an associate professor of political science at James Madison University, told the Forward that the back-and-forth about Allen’s Jewish heritage is not gaining much traction among Virginia voters. “I don’t see the Jewish issue as being a factor of any kind in this race,” she said. “I doubt it will have much of an effect on voters.”
Susan Weinberg, president of the Jewish Community Relations Council of Greater Washington, told the Forward that the organization wishes the candidates would simply focus on the issues. “The Republicans accusing Webb of being antisemitic, and the digging up of the various racial charges against Allen — they’re ugly on both sides,” she told the Forward. “Our desire would be that these allegations would stay out of the campaign.”
Allen’s Jewish ancestry, however, is still making waves.
“This was a good joke on Allen at Rosh Hashanah services,” Ceaser said. “The rabbi began by welcoming him. It brought a good deal of chuckles from everyone in the synagogue.”