Saturday, August 26, 2006

INCURIOUS GEORGE? The mother of Sen. George Allen (R-VA) is Jewish. Who cares?

The short answer is that context matters: Given Allen's not-so-secret love affair with the confederate flag--and after the recent flare up over his "macaca" musings--it's a scrap of new information that complicates the Senator's story.

Specifically, since Allen has long cultivated a tobacco-chewing, good ol' boy persona (after having spent his formative years in Chicago and California) it's notable that his mother comes from an ethnic and religious heritage that contrasts sharply with the tradition embraced by her son, a practicing Episcopalian.

But where the Allen heritage story really gets interesting--and where it gets sticky--is the way the Allen family has reckoned with that Jewish past: There's circumstantial evidence, at least, to suggest that the younger Allens have worked actively to gloss over, and even run from, the truth.

It's not an open-and-shut case--which is probably why the story hasn't yet been touched by the mainstream media. And making the allegation requires wading into some tricky terrain--which may be why prominent lefty bloggers (even those who pushed the "macaca" story) haven't touched it.

But it's worth sorting through what we learned from E.J. Kessler's article in The Forward:

--Etty Lumbroso Allen, George's mother, was born into a prominent Jewish family with a documented history dating back to the 15th century.

--In her autobiography FIFTH QUARTER, George Allen's sister Jennifer notes that when the Germans invaded North Africa during World War II, "the Nazis took away my mother's father," although he escaped from harm.

--Elsewhere in the book, Allen writes about her parents, "The priest said he would marry them only if Mom agreed to raise as Catholic any children the marriage might produce...As a young woman, my mother had an 'incident' with a priest in Tunis, so Mom said 'Over my dead body' to the priest. My mother and father were married by a justice of the peace in a Jewish friend's home with two witnesses."
It would be helpful, clearly, to read the book. But Jennifer Allen certainly seems to be trying to thread a needle here, particularly in the second passage--to steer clear of outright falsehoods while nonetheless avoiding any mention of her mother's ancestry.

As Kessler--momentarily setting aside her (his?) detached tone--writes, "Why was there any question as to whether Etty Allen would raise the family Catholic, unless she herself wasn't baptized in the faith?"

Of course, Etty Allen may have hidden her heritage from the Allen children. Jennifer Allen may not be tiptoeing around the ancestry issue here so much as parroting what she'd heard from her mother.

But two further pieces of evidence militate against this interpretation.

First, back to the Forward piece:

Senator Allen told the Richmond Times Dispatch in 2000 that his grandfather was imprisoned [by the Nazis] because "he sympathized with the Free French and the Allies and coveted the concepts of freedom of thought, expression, religious belief and enterprise."
Does this ring true? That Allen's grandfather was imprisoned, at least in part, because of his love of freedom? His commitment to capitalism?

It's certainly possible that Etty Allen explained her father's detention to the Allen children in these terms. But color me skeptical. Given what we know about George Allen's Dixie-loving California boyhood--his capacity for self-invention and reinvention--it sounds more like the kind of convenient, politically-expedient explanation that candidate Allen might have dreamed up himself.

Second, consider this quote from Charlottesville Daily Progress columnist Bob Gibson, courtesy of The Plank:

It's funny, but the only time that George Allen ever wanted a correction from me in 27 years of covering his races was when I wrote about his mother's Jewish family origins. He insisted, through a press secretary, that his mother was raised a Christian.
Sounds like a man with his Judaism radar turned on. Which makes it harder to believe that Allen just never got around to asking questions about his mother's heritage.

All that said, it's anything but a slamdunk case: If George Allen is running from his Jewish heritage, it would take more information than has surfaced, so far, to prove it.

Of course, the fastest way to resolve the question would be to hear directly from Allen himself.

So what is he saying?

"Allen's campaign spokesman, Bill Bozin, did not return several detailed messages, left over two days, that asked what the senator and his family know about his mother's heritage," The Forward tells us.

CONTRAPOSITIVE will keep you posted.

CONTRAPOSITIVE is edited by Dan Aibel. Dan's a playwright. He lives in New York City.