Thursday, September 21, 2006

He's a Jew! To paraphrase an old movie, "I'm shocked...shocked" to hear Senator George Allen confess his Jewish family roots. Earlier visitors to The Fisch Fry will have seen my posts last month discussing prior press reports of Senator Allen's family lineage, and wondering if Allen was trying to cover-up the possibility as part of a larger effort at pandering to Virginia voters that Allen may believe to be racist or anti-Semitic.

Because Senator Allen's mother was raised in French Tunisia, some wondered if Allen had learned the term "macaca" from his mother, but I was more intrigued by why Allen seemed to be hiding his heritage. In a televised debate on Monday, a reporter, Peggy Fox asked Allen about the question of his Jewish family history. I don't know if Peggy Fox ever saw any of my internet musings on the question, but I am amused to see it suddenly explode into national news, when I have been writing about it for almost a month.

During Monday’s debate, Allen reacted angrily to the question, insisted that his mother, as far as he knew, was raised Catholic. And Allen added that it was inappropriate to cast aspersions, leaving many wondering if Allen meant and believed that it was an aspersion to ask whether Allen's mother was born Jewish. It was a curious moment. I wondered if maybe Allen wasn't really so blindsided by the suggestion his mother was Jewish, and that he understood the "aspersion" to be something else which was not actually asked -- the possibility that he had been lying about his family history.

Allen has since spoken about the whole matter to the press, and has decided to be a little more candid. He says now that he did not know his mother was raised Jewish in Tunisia prior to the Second World War. Allen has always spoken of his grandfather who was taken and imprisoned by the Nazis during the war, which had led to some low-level speculation over the years that his mother's family was Jewish. Allen even demanded a retraction be printed when one Virginia reporter wrote that the family was Jewish.

According to Allen, his mother hid this bit of knowledge from her children, to spare them from facing the suffering that her father endured for his religion. Allen says he only learned of his family history after the report appeared in the Forward (a Jewish-interest newspaper) last month -- the report which caused me to speculate on why Allen might be denying his own heritage. Allen acknowledges his answer during the debate was less than honest, but says that he was obeying his mother's wishes not to disclose the information, so it could be kept from his siblings -- supposedly to protect them.

I certainly have no desire to challenge Henrietta ("Etty") Allen's actions or motivations. I'd also like to give the Senator the benefit of the doubt -- that he is being forthright and candid now. Unfortunately, that dog just won't hunt...that bird won't fly...that... -- (I think you get the idea): His explanations don't square with the facts.

The most glaring contradiction involves the Senator's sister, who has already written a personal memoir -- mostly of her life as the daughter of a famous pro football coach (and sister of a famous politician). In the memoir, she wrote about her parents' wedding: asserting that a priest insisted he would not officiate a church wedding unless Etty promised to raise her kids in a Catholic household. The future Mrs. Allen reportedly rebuffed the priest, and the couple were "married by a justice of the peace in a Jewish friend’s home with two witnesses."

The fact that Senator Allen's sister knew this story suggests that she also knew that her mother was not a Catholic -- at least not at the time. It seems likely that she knew her mother was Jewish -- clearly the priest knew this, and the story would not make much sense to the children unless they also knew this. If Senator Allen's sister knew this story, it is not a big leap to guess that the Senator also knew the story. If he didn't before the book was published, he must have known it when the story was made public in the sister's memoir.

Moreover, before the article by Eve Kessler appeared in The Forward -- the story that Allen says prompted him to ask his mother about her personal history -- Ms. Kessler tried repeatedly to discuss it with Allen's sister. She also tried to raise the issue with Allen's own staff, but her detailed messages were not returned. In most senators' offices, it would be a firing offense for staffers to ignore messages from a reporter who was going to write an article making a controversial revelation -- unless they were ordered not to return the phone calls.

So, it is likely that Senator Allen knew this was a subject of speculation before the Forward article appeared in print -- one would think he was aware of the scuttlebutt for years. It also seems likely that his sister already knew about the speculation -- and the article in the Forward -- long before the question was asked at the debate on Monday.

My best guess here: Allen's still lying. Previously, he was covering up the truth about his mother and her family. Now, he is trying to deflect attention from the original lie. It stretches credulity to believe that he did not know all of this earlier -- there has been too much public speculation before. Because of very base political calculations, Allen was trying to hide the truth about his mother's family background. Now that the question finally got some attention from television and major media outlets, Senator Allen realized he couldn't conceal the information any longer. So, he has concocted a cover story to explain why he has not acknowledged his Jewish heritage previously. At least, that's my best guess.

I'm not saying the Senator's version of the facts is impossible. It's not. Maybe, this just isn't a family that communicates much. Certainly, the senator and his sister seem to be somewhat estranged (she wrote some rather unflattering things about her brother, the future senator). Maybe the sister never saw the article -- never realize why the reporter was trying to reach her. Maybe the sister knew but no one else in the family realized this.

It's kind of unfair to have such personal issues playing out in the public eye. If the Senator is being completely honest now, I am sorry for suggesting that he is being less than honest. The story he told the Washington Post is a touching one, showing him as a largely innocent, and loyal son. .

Yet, Senator Allen has been less than open and honest before now, so he has earned any distrust and suspicion. I'm no Johnny-come-lately to this story, and I have to admit that I find these latest disclosures to be less than full and complete. My suspicions regarding the Senator's latest version of events only feeds my more profound suspicion that this story is exposing Allen's deliberate strategy to appeal to a conservative, evangelical base that he perceives, rightly or wrongly, as being receptive to coded xenophobic, anti-immigrant, anti-black, and anti-Semitic messages.

Allen is desperately trying to prove that he is 'one of them.' He is trying to be the political heir to President Bush, especially in becoming the darling of the fundamentalist Christian groups. It is not a big stretch to imagine the Senator would fear that public disclosure of his mother's Jewish childhood might seriously damage his efforts in this regard. Allen’s "macaca" remark, and his references to “Hollywood movie moguls,” contrasting them with “real” Virginians and real Americans, were aimed at certain prejudiced ears.

These remarks betray Allen's own tin ear -- he seems oblivious as to how these things sound to the rest of us. Even in the wake of the disclosures about his mother, Allen says he still had a ham sandwich. It's amazing how insensitive, crude and demeaning he can be, when he wants to be.


MarchDancer said...

I came here through your post on the WAPO article that you and I both commented upon this morning, the one discussing Sen. Allen's handling of his mother's news. I'm just not sure what to think...well, I guess I am. My first take was that he didn't know, momma hid it to protect her husband and children. I suspect she did for many years. She would have had to in Whittier, CA. Now? As adults? No reason now at all to hide what should be their pride in her father and her children's pride in their grandfather. I'm on the very far west coast and had not ever heard the suggestions before. {{SIGH}} caught in naivte again! I've added you to my favorite blogs.

Fisch said...

Thanks. None of knows for sure. Your first instincts could be right -- and Allen COULD be telling the truth now. It just seems so damn unlikely.

And congratulations -- it seems you're the official 500th visitor. I didn't havea counter up for most of the first week, but it reads 500 now. I think that's kinda cool.