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Outing the Jews

In one sense, at least, Senator George Allen of Virginia reacted as any American Jew would do when he was confronted earlier this month, during a televised campaign debate, with questions about his reputed Jewish ancestry: He replied indignantly that it was nobody’s business.

One could quibble (or, as it turned out, stir up a national media storm) over the way he expressed himself. He responded not with a philosophical shrug, as Madeleine Albright or John Kerry once did, but with a snarl. He suggested that calling him or his mother Jewish was casting “aspersions.”

And he dodged the truth. Even the next day, when he acknowledged that he knew of his mother’s Jewish roots, he continued to insist that he and his mother had been raised Christian. Two days later, his mother told the Washington Post that she had in fact been raised Jewish.

Behind the furor, though, there was an undertone of sympathy for the senator. Numerous commentators shared Allen’s evident discomfort at being asked in public about his connection to the Tribe of Abraham. Among the hordes of reporters who called the Forward to ask why we had broken story in the first place, most began by asking — with barely disguised disapproval — why we considered it appropriate to report on such a private matter as a person’s Jewishness.

Well, it isn’t really private. For starters, Allen himself — along with a vast swath of the American public — has made it public business to trumpet Christian faith. Most liberals, and most Jews, might wish that religion were less of a factor in our public life, but Senator Allen clearly doesn’t wish that. He wears his Christian identity on his sleeve.

As for Jewish identity, that has become a matter of increasing public interest over the past few years. Jews have come to feel more secure in America, and they’ve begun exercising their rights as Americans to speak out for their interests — from religious freedom to Soviet Jewish emigration to Israeli security. They’ve often won sympathy and support from majorities of Americans. The result that many things Jews wish for — barring Christian prayers from high school football games, supplying weapons to Israel — have become law.

On the other hand, each of those achievements has met with opposition from Americans who think differently. When we win a fight, our opponents notice. When Jews lobby successfully, there will be talk about the success of the Jewish lobby. It may sound to us like so much conspiracy talk, but it’s rooted in fact. And when we try to ban such talk from the public square, we merely confirm the suspicions of those on the fringes who think we’re up to something.

The issue of the Jewish lobby and its role in American public life has taken on some urgency in recent months, because of the growing confrontation between America and the Muslim world. Conspiracy theorists say it’s all because of America’s alliance with Israel, which is entirely a result of Jewish lobbying. Defenders of Jewish interests say that such talk is rank bigotry, that America makes its own choices and Muslim extremists hate us because of American values.

The truth, of course, is somewhere in between. Jewish lobbying has some impact on American policy. Israel is one of the factors in Muslim rage. Refusing to discuss it doesn’t mean it won’t be discussed — only that the discussion will be skewed.

Jewish affairs are part of America’s business. That’s a good thing, and worth talking about.

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