Wednesday, September 20, 2006

George Allen: Jew, Not a Jew?

During a debate this week with his opponent, Jim Webb, George Allen was asked by reporter Peggy Fox if his mother's family was Jewish, which would make him, according to Jewish law, a Jew, even though he was raised a Christian. Allen reacted with outrage to this question. "To be getting into what religion my mother is, I don't think it's relevant," he fumed. "So I'd like to ask you, why is that relevant? My religion? Jim's religion ..." Of course, religion should have nothing whatsoever to do with a political campaign. As long as someone running for office has made it clear that they are a deeply religious God-fearing Christian (or Jew) and made at least one speech discussing how their religious faith has impacted on their values and demonstrated their opposition to taking religion out of the schools and government, then their religion should not even be raised as an issue.

But while some conservatives accused the reporter of trying to "tar Allen as Jew," others were upset that Allen seemed so angry about being called a Jew, accusing the reporter of "casting aspersions" on his character as if being Jewish were something to be ashamed of. On The Corner John Podhoretz (who happens to be a Jew) wrote, "I really don't want to be on Jewish Patrol here in the Corner, but does anybody agree with me that George Allen's response yesterday to a reporter asking him whether his grandfather Felix had been born Jewish was just...weird?" Jonah Goldberg (also a Jew) agreed that it sounded "odd" and said it "reinforces my growing misgivings about Allen as a politician."

I must admit I was surprised at first that Allen seemed so angry about being asked if he was Jewish. However, as a former Jew who converted to Christianity after seeing The Chronicles of Narnia, I can sympathize with Allen and think he should be cut some slack. It's not easy being a member of the world's most hated minority and it must have been a bit of a shock to suddenly learn the news. Apparently, Allen has tried to keep people from knowing about his Jewish roots until he could come to terms with it himself. For years his mother hid this fact from him no doubt to protect him. She never told him the reason that his grandfather was arrested by the Nazis, a fact that he has mentioned in interviews to explain why he supports the War in Iraq. He probably believed it was because his grandfather was a gypsy or a communist or gay so imagine his shock upon learning that his grandfather was arrested for being Jewish.

Perhaps Allen was upset that finding out he had Jewish ancestry so late in life would invite comparisons with John Kerry and Wesley Clark, who also learned that they had Jewish ancestors, though they didn't seem quite so angry about it. I'm sure he was probably wondering what his friends at the Council of Conservative Citizens would think, since some of them believe that Jews are "the children of Satan" and that they "control the wealth of the world." He probably thinks that his being Jewish is incompatible with his embrace of the Confederacy and that his Jewishness just emphasizes the fact that he grew up in California and not Virginia.

But if Allen had grown up in Virginia he would know that contrary to the stereotype many people have of Virginia as just a redneck state, Jews have long played an important role in Virginia history. Jews were among the first settlers in the Virginia colony. They fought in the revolution, owned slaves (and supported abolition) and even fought in the Confederacy. The first Jew elected to the Senate, Louisiana's Judah Benjamin, became the Confederate Secretary of State and was honored on the Confederate two-dollar bill. Most people would also probably be surprised to learn that Virginia is the 16th most Jewish state in the country and although Northern Virginia may not be considered by some to be part of the "real" Virginia, Falls Church and Fairfax, Virginia, have the third and fourth largest number of Jews as a proportion of the population in the U.S., respectively.

Allen's newfound Jewish heritage might actually be a boon to his campaign and not only in Northern Virginia. The Christian Right has long been suspicious of Allen because he supported including "sexual orientation" the Federal Hate Crimes law until he reversed himself last December and agreed that not liking gay people might not be such a bad thing after all. His support for exceptions to anti-abortion laws for such things as saving the life of the mother and revelations that he had invested in the company that makes RU-486 also gave some Christians pause. But Christians love the Jews because Israel is the key to bringing about the Rapture so this revelation could only help. And people will really believe him when he says that despite his vote on lifting the debt ceiling, he actually does believe in "frugal" government. He doesn't actually have to say that Jews are good with money, but I think everyone will get the idea. However, Allen should be very careful about not appearing "too Jewish," which could turn some voters off. Telling reporters, as Allen did the next day, "I still had a ham sandwich for lunch. And my mother made great pork chops," is a good way to distance oneself from some of the aspects of Jewish culture that might make it difficult to relate to the average voter. The fact that he is only half Jewish will make it easier for some voters to take. Then again, appearing to be a "self-hating Jew" would also be bad.

Saturday Night Live once had a skit with Tom Hanks playing the host of a game show called "Jew, Not a Jew" where contestants had to guess whether celebrities were Jewish. It was inspired by a game Jews actually play in their own homes although apparently it was never played in the Allen household. You would be surprised at how difficult the game can be sometimes. Paul Newman and Cary Grant? Jews! Who knew?

Although the day after the debate Allen issued a statement saying he "embraces" his Jewish heritage, it's going to take a little work to convince people that he really is proud to be a Jew. After he was unfairly accused of being a racist for calling a young Indian Webb campaign worker "Macaca," his campaign held an "Ethnic Rally," in which he embraced people of all races and ethnicities, putting to rest once and for all the idea that Allen is a racist. To show that he is proud of his Jewish heritage, Allen might want to visit the Jewish Confederate Monument in Richmond and pay his respects. One thing his campaign may want to do to help Allen truly embrace his Jewishness is play "Jew, Not a Jew" with him. His campaign manager could make little flash cards with the faces of prominent celebrities and ask Allen, "Jew or not a Jew?" between campaign stops. I think he will be surprised at how few he gets right. Knowing that there are plenty of Jews who don't seem Jewish should be a great help to Allen's self-esteem.

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21 comments:

Miss Cellania said...

Paul Newman is easy. Remember that scene in the movie "Exodus"?

(Jews) look funny, too. I can spot one a mile away.

Would you mind looking into my eye? It feels like a cinder.

Certainly.

I always thought that scene was magnificently inspired.

BenMerc said...

It's got to be about the hats.
I think Allen is really worried about image, and hats...If he loses his "Good ole' Boy" image, he will be trading in all those free "RedMan" baseball caps and the like for Yarmulkes, and that just don't add up to votes in Allen's territory. And, hey, we all know how much Republican politicians like free stuff, it has got to be about the hats.

Main Gnome said...

I'm going to organize a Jews For Allen fund raiser—all proceeds will go to supplying his campaign with Jewish ethnic food.

The slogan will be: Donate Some Bucks for the Smuck (ie shekles for the shmekle (n.) dickhead: yiddish: שמעקל )

By the way, did anybody ask him if he’s circumcised? If not, will someone volunteer for the necessary surgery?

MistahCharley said...

In general, insightful commentary - I hope you won't mind my pointing out a few factual corrections.

First of all, Allen is NOT a Jew, even though his mother's father was - because traditionally Jewishness is matrilineal. His mother's mother was a gentile, and so his mother was a gentile, and so he is a gentile too - even though Allen, like Harrison Ford, is one quarter Jewish. I once read an autobiographical article by Bill Cohen, former U.S. Senator and Defense Secretary, about how, as a young teenager, he had been attending synagogue, but the rabbi decreed that before he could have a bar mitzah he had to have a conversion ceremony (because Cohen's mother was Irish) - at which point, Cohen said, "f*** this sh**" - not in exactly those words, I paraphrase, but that was the gist of it.

Secondly, although it's true that Falls Church and Fairfax place very high in the list of Wikipedia article about Jewish-Americans, that list is sorted by proportion, not absolute number, of Jews.

As a personal aside, I went to elementary school in Falls Church (several decades ago), and had a crush on Sarah Edmondson - who was Jewish, even though I have a Protestant background. As you point out, many Jews don't look particularly Jewish, and also many have last names which do not reveal their ancestral ethnic identity. Then in college I went out (briefly) with Miriam Shenfeld, whose name was unambiguous - hi, Miriam, if you ever read this. I'm doing fine. I ended up marrying a Catholic.

A final note about circumcision - the great majority of American males of Allen's age were circumcised as infants by the medical system, not as a religious ritual, so circumcision is not an indicator of Jewish identity.

I hope that Virginia voters will not vote against Allen because of his grandfather's background. Rather, I urge them to consider the totality of his positions, and who is opposing him, and then make up their own minds. In other words, I hope Webb wins.

Rick said...

Actually, he's not really Jewish, but a full-blooded Macacan.

Jon Swift said...

Thank you, Mistahcharley, for your corrections. Although I generally don't like to get too hung up on facts, especially if they contradict my arguments, I made some slight edits to clarify the population statistics you brought to my attantion. As far as whether Allen is Jewish or not, I believe that under the rules of "Jew, Not a Jew" and the Nuremberg Laws, Allen would be considered a Jew.

MistahCharley said...

Mr. Swift - I regret that I must correct some of my previous assertions, which were based on incomplete accounts I'd read in the press. In this morning's Washington Post an interview with the Senator's mother (cited at Josh Marshall's Talking Points Memo) reveals that she is, in fact, a full-blooded Jew who concealed this fact when she married the Senator's father. This makes Senator Allen a Jew too.

Not that there's anything wrong with that.

liquiddaddy said...

It's an odd coincidence about your reliios conversion following Narnia.

I actually became a Jew and a cross dresser after seeing "Yentel."

miriam said...

Hitler considered everyone with a smidgen of Jewish ancestry a Jew. But Jews don't.
Halakhically, Judaism is matrilinial. Anyone born of a Jewish mother who did not convert to another religion is a Jew. If they converted, not.
I think Allen's reaction is understandable. It was a hostile, intrusive question.
BTW--I am a Jew with two Jewish parents.

outofcontext said...

This Jew/Not A Jew game was devised by the America Hater Al Franken. Therefore, I refuse to comment on it.

Joyful Alternative said...

The category politicians who "discovered late in life their Jewish ancestors" also includes Madeleine Albright. Hmm, all Democrats--maybe that's the aspersion Allen worries about.

Alcibiades said...

First, Jonah Goldberg is not, Jewish, despite his name, something he has pointed out several times at the Corner. His mother, of course, is Lucianne Goldberg who is Protestant or Catholic, offhand I forget which one. It was his father who was Jewish.

And second, one reason that Allen might have been flustered by the question is that when his mother told him, last month, that he was Jewish, according to yesterday's Washington Post article, she asked him not to reveal this fact to anyone else. She's an old woman now, and I suppose that makes her entitled to her paranoia. Announcing that fact suddenly on national TV to an interviewer asking a very odd question is not precisely honoring your aged mother's request.

Anonymous said...

So, is "Macaca" a yiddish term of endearment?

NotSaussure said...

I don't know about 'Macaca', but Sir Paul McCartney, the former Beatle, is apparently popularly known as 'Macca' by his fans over here in the UK, if that's any help.

Poor taste joke --
Paul McCartney to his children, telling them of Linda Eastman's death: 'The bad news is yer mam's dead. The good news is it's bacon butties for breakfast'.

MistahCharley said...

Our brit commenter may have assumed we all are familiar with the fact that Linda Eastman, the late Lady McCartney, was Jewish - and so Sir Paul's children are Jewish, according to the matrilineal rule, including fashion designer/heiress Stella McCartney, while journalist Jonah Goldberg is not.

Linda was opposed to bacon not only because it wasn't kosher, but because she was a vegetarian.

On the other hand, her successor, Heather Mills McCartney, might have objected to the following joke for a different personal reason:


The Pig with the Wooden Leg

A journalist became lost on the back roads and stopped at a farm to get directions. As he was talking to the farmer he noticed a pig with a wooden leg. "How did the pig get a wooden leg?" he asked the farmer.

"Well", said the farmer, "that's a very special pig. One night not too long ago we had a fire start in the barn, and that pig set up a great squealing that woke everyone, and by the time we got there he had herded all the other animals out of the barn. Saved 'em all."

"And that was when he hurt his leg?" asked the journalist anxious for a story.

"Nope, he pulled through that just fine." said the farmer. "Though a while later, I was back in the woods when a bear attacked me. Well, sir, that pig was near by and he came running and set on that bear and chased him off. Saved me for sure."

"Wow! So the bear injured his leg then?" questioned the journalist.

"Nope. He came away without a scratch. Though a few days later, my tractor turned over in a ditch and I was knocked unconscious. Well, that pig dove into the ditch and pulled me out before I got cut up in the machinery."

"Ahh! So his leg got caught by the combine?" asked the newsman.

"Noooope. We both walked away from that one." says the farmer.

"So how did he get the wooden leg?" the reporter quized.

"Well", the farmer replied, "A pig that good, you can't eat all at once."

http://tinyurl.com/o2xch

NotSaussure said...

Over here the late Linda McCartney is primarily known for her militant vegetarianism, to which the joke alludes, rather than her ethnic or religious background; she had her own brand of vegetarian frozen foods -- which is heavily marketed in supermarkets here, and which you'll soon be encountering in the USA according to the link.

In the spirit of Mr Swift, I have not actually tried any of Linda McCartney's vegetarian sausages and the like, but I'm told by vegetarian friends that I haven't missed much.

Peter Porcupine said...

As for the Senator reacting 'angrily', unlike John Kerry, I would submit that this is a heck of a thing to learn from a political opponent on live television. Besides, we all know Sen. Kerry has no pulse, let alone anger.

It would appear this is REALLY going to mess up Mr. Allen's attempts to smear Mitt Romney for being a Mormon!

Jack's Shack said...

George should be so lucky as to be able to hang with the tribe.

Larry Silverstein said...

I find this blog inherently anti-semitic and must say I am dismayed.

Nicole said...

I agree with Larry, even though I'm a Christian. You also are not a former Jew; so, quit trying to act like you're not a Jewish Christian. Did you forget that the Messiah, Jesus of Nazareth, Is Jewish? Read Romans 1-6, 9-12.

Elizabeth said...

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