George Allen Furious Over Jew Question (Video)

A truly bizarre sequence from last evening’s debate between Senator George Allen and former Navy Secretary Jim Webb: a local reporter asked if Allen’s mother was secretly Jewish, drawing boos from the audience and a tongue-lashing from Allen.
Dana Milbank recounts the event and provides helpful background:

At a debate in Tysons Corner yesterday between Republican Allen and Democrat Webb, WUSA-TV’s Peggy Fox asked Allen, the tobacco-chewing, cowboy-boot-wearing son of a pro football coach, if his Tunisian-born mother has Jewish blood. “It has been reported,” said Fox, that “your grandfather Felix, whom you were given your middle name for, was Jewish. Could you please tell us whether your forebears include Jews and, if so, at which point Jewish identity might have ended?”

Allen recoiled as if he had been struck. His supporters in the audience booed and hissed. “To be getting into what religion my mother is, I don’t think is relevant,” Allen said, furiously. “Why is that relevant — my religion, Jim’s religion or the religious beliefs of anyone out there?”

“Honesty, that’s all,” questioner Fox answered, looking a bit frightened.

“Oh, that’s just all? That’s just all,” the senator mocked, pressing his attack. He directed Fox to “ask questions about issues that really matter to people here in Virginia” and refrain from “making aspersions.”

“Let’s move on,” proposed the moderator, George Stephanopoulos of ABC News.

Yes, let’s — but not before we figure out what that was all about. Turns out the Forward, a Jewish newspaper, reported that the senator’s mother, Etty, “comes from the august Sephardic Jewish Lumbroso family” and continued: “If both of Etty’s parents were born Jewish — which, given her age and background, is likely — Senator Allen would be considered Jewish in the eyes of traditional rabbinic law, which traces Judaism through the mother.”

If that’s true, the Presbyterian Allen joins public figures Madeleine Albright and John Kerry in discovering his Jewish roots. Of the three, the 6-foot-4-inch Allen, a down-home former college quarterback known for opposing laws to keep children out of the back of pickups, seems the least likely candidate for inclusion among the Chosen People. It would be no more surprising to learn that Sen. Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.) has Southern Baptist ancestry.

Here’s the video:

I’m not sure what’s stranger: the rather creepy question or the angry reaction.

Jon Henke, Allen’s New Media Coordinator, refers to the question as a “Religious Identity Probe” and believes it part of a plot to smear Allen with innuendo.

Greg Pollowitz, at Sixers, notes that this is not a coincidence — it is the result of a concerted effort among Webb’s allies to question Allen’s religion for political gain:

[…]

The Webb campaign has avoided issues, instead spreading rumors, innuendo and lies. (and lies, and lies)

It’s what they do.

Dean Barnett agrees and thinks this a huge issue:

The crowd booed, and rightly so. Allen responded with angry indignation, again rightly so. And, I must say, he looked good doing so. The problem with a politician as programmed as George Allen is he often appears phony. This question showed the real man, and it was the best I’ve seen him look during the campaign.

A few quick points of personal analysis. As a Jew, I found Fox’s question profoundly offensive. Trust me, the wounded minority card is not one that I play with much frequency. But the attempt to “tar” Allen as a Jew in a southern state was at the very least disturbing, and I actually consider it sickening. Furthermore, I think asking the question was a hanging offense professionally, and I hope whoever employs Peggy Fox has seen enough of her judgment to deeply ponder severing their relationship with her.

Fox’s inquiry had no place in a political debate. How could this question have spurred an exchange? Was Webb supposed to counter Allen’s answer by saying, “Yes, you are a Jew!”

Which brings us to Webb and his missed opportunity. Webb should have jumped on the questioner with the same vigor that Allen did. (If he did, none of the reports I’ve seen have reflected such.) His failure to do so highlights the lack of political instincts that mark him as the neophyte in this race. It also suggests he wasn’t repulsed by the question. That, too, is disturbing.

Allah believes “Barnett considerably overestimates the significance of this incident.” I agree.

As a secularist, perhaps I’m just naive here. I honestly don’t see what the fuss is all about. The question strikes me as mildly weird (Allah’s title nails it: “Reporter asks Allen: So, are you a Jew or what?”) but hardly offensive.

While there’s plenty of character assassination going on in this campaign (see my TCS piece from this morning for more on that) it’s unclear to me why asking about his mother’s religious heritage is an example. I’m sure there’s still anti-Semitism out there but I wouldn’t think Tyson’s Corner a hotbed.

UPDATE: See, “Allen Embraces Jewish Ancestry.”

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James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College and a nonresident senior fellow at the Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security at the Atlantic Council. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm vet. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.

Comments

  1. DC Loser says:

    Ya know, if Allen had just said something like “yes it’s true my mother’s Jewish, and I’m proud of her heritage,” that would have been the end of it. But to insinuate that somehow having Jewish blood is character assassination, that tells me something about Allen’s own character.

  2. Tano says:

    I agree that this is not much of a real issue. And I also agree that it is a very stupid question, and vaguely offensive. But I also agree that it seems kinda weird that the Allen campaign makes reference to “casting aspersions”, or lies and innuendo, as if having Jewish ancestry were some kind of scandal.

  3. Stormy70 says:

    Sounds like she was accusing him of being a Jew! and the question sounded very anti-semitic. The question was straight out of the swamps of the DU. I bet the next question would have been “Are you a member of AIPAC or any other jewish cabal?”
    This was offensive, thus the booing.

  4. I can’t decide if the question had a twist of anti-semitism, the audience reaction did, and/or his response did. Bizarre exchange regardless.

  5. Stormy70 says:

    Asking when his Jewish blood ended? Come on.

  6. madmatt says:

    “A few quick points of personal analysis. As a Jew, I found Fox’s question profoundly offensive. Trust me, the wounded minority card is not one that I play with much frequency. But the attempt to “tar” Allen as a Jew in a southern state was at the very least disturbing, and I actually consider it sickening. Furthermore, I think asking the question was a hanging offense professionally, and I hope whoever employs Peggy Fox has seen enough of her judgment to deeply ponder severing their relationship with her.”

    So what Dean is saying is that Allens base and or southerners are anti semitic…otherwise what tarring is going on? So he finally agrees with what us dirty lefties have been saying all along!

  7. McGehee says:

    My reaction would have been something like, “Yeah. So?”

    Which is probably a good indication of why I’m not a politician.

  8. Anderson says:

    But the attempt to “tar” Allen as a Jew in a southern state was at the very least disturbing, and I actually consider it sickening.

    You know, declaring that your likely voters are the kind of people who won’t vote for Jews or even part-Jews, well … that’s the damnedest tactic for arousing indignation that I’ve ever heard of.

    Any remaining doubt I may’ve had as to Allen’s fundamental rottenness has been removed by his “aspersion” retort. The Republican Party should expel this guy and put up a decent candidate.

  9. SoloD says:

    I think Allen is trying to obscure his recent Maccaa incident by playing the victim, but can’t quite pull it off. Its a weird question, but politicians get asked weird questions all the time.

    Has any politician more rapidly fallen in esteem recently? A few months ago he was the insider’s choice for the 2008 nominee, now he is in danger of becoming a caricature. He’s the Republican John Kerry.

  10. legion says:

    Yes, Fox’s question was bizarre, and very likely calculated to goad an embarrassing response out of Allen. Bad on her.

    That said, Fox isn’t running for public office; Allen is. Also, it sure did get a reaction out of Allen…

  11. Michael says:

    Ok, so someone asked if Allen was Jewish, or part-Jewish, or had a Jewish mother. I agree, completely inappropriate and worthless as a question in a political debate. But what is with this response from him:

    refrain from “making aspersions.”

    his campaign:

    a plot to smear Allen with innuendo.

    and his supporters:

    attempt to “tar” Allen as a Jew

    Why not just come out and make “Jews are bad” as Allen’s new campaign slogan? If, as his campaign is implying, this is a covert attach by Webb, it was made hundreds of times more damaging by their own handling of it.

  12. Anderson says:

    very likely calculated to goad an embarrassing response out of Allen. Bad on her.

    Y’know, if it’s that easy, he doesn’t need to hold public office.

  13. Anderson says:

    Allen now explains:

    I was raised as a Christian and my mother was raised as a Christian. And I embrace and take great pride in every aspect of my diverse heritage, including my Lumbroso family line’s Jewish heritage, which I learned about from a recent magazine article and my mother confirmed.

    So why did he say “making aspersions”?

    The guy can’t even lie well. He’s utterly disqualified for politics.

  14. I’m surprised that no one has brought up Fox’s lead in to the question using the phrase “the Jewish press”. That phrasing brought up all sorts of conspiratorial images to me that Fox imagined a cabal of Jewish media managers controlling the press. I found that part set up my entire visceral negative reaction to the rest of her question. I was offended at that point and it only got worse from there.

    –Jason

  15. Jack Rich says:

    I’m Jewish by birth. I’m a Republican; that one is learned behavior…I live in Virginia, and have voted for George Allen before. But may not again.

    These responses from him, his campaign, and his supporters (cited by commentor Michael above), now make it likely I will hold my nose and vote for Jim Webb:

    1. refrain from “making aspersions”.
    2. a plot to smear Allen with innuendo
    3. attempt to “tar” Allen as a Jew.

    The obvious conclusion is that Allen and his supporters think that being Jewish is some sort of a handicap in Virginia.

    Allen’s later responses are now back to the overly programmed political machine that he is. Except that he is just so busting with pride about his “Jewish heritage.”

    No. The gut reactions are usually what gives you a clue to a man’s character. His gut reaction was to deny any Jewishness.

  16. andrew says:

    “The obvious conclusion is that Allen and his supporters think that being Jewish is some sort of a handicap in Virginia.”

    No, actually the obvious conclusion is that the Left thinks that Southerners=bigots, therefore we should expose Allen’s Jewish lineage to damage him among the electorate. That, along with the Jew-baiting is why it was offensive.

  17. DC Loser says:

    Andrew, let’s just assume you are correct in your statement. It takes two to tango in that case, and Allen’s reflexive reaction to it demonstrates that it is indeed a handicap to admits to being linked to Judaism, in his and his campaign’s eyes. So, therefore, you have proof that Allen thinks this support base is in fact, antisemitic. In order to invalidate the idea that his supporters are antisemitic, all Allen had to do was embrace his heritage from the beginning, instead of this angered accusations of “aspirtions” and “character assassination.”

  18. Anderson says:

    We had a constable indicted for being a peeping tom, who was running for reelection, and left a charming flyer on everyone’s doorknob the Sunday before the election, emphasizing his opponent’s being a … gasp … Jew!

    He lost handily, is now in jail, and our Jewish constable appears to be doing just fine.

    So a few mouth-breathers may think a Jew can’t win in the South. But why any of us should vote for said mouth-breathers is, um, unclear.

  19. andrew says:

    “So, therefore, you have proof that Allen thinks this support base is in fact, antisemitic.”

    You’re projecting here. The angry reaction is due to the Jew-baiting. The Leftists who support that kind of thing, think it’s important because it’s in the South and they think that Southerners=bigots. That aspect makes the sliminess twice as bad.

  20. DC Loser says:

    I’m projecting??? You’re the one who says this is Jew baiting? Or is Allen the one who’s denying his own identity? How does this appear to a Jewish person? And what’s the big fuss anyway if the electorate in rural VA doesn’t care about it?

  21. andrew says:

    And what’s the big fuss anyway if the electorate in rural VA doesn’t care about it?

    The big fuss is the Jew baiting. Rural VA doesn’t care about whether or not he’s a Jew, the loony Left does, however.

  22. DC Loser says:

    I guess he was afraid he’d lose the loony left vote, huh?

  23. DC Loser says:

    I guess the Jewish Daily Forward (the publication which outed Etty Allen) is also involved in Jew-baiting.

    http://www.forward.com/articles/alleged-slur-casts-spotlight-on-senator%e2%80%99s-jewis/

  24. Marvin Wasserman says:

    As a Jew, I have to say that I was far more offended by Allen’s response than the question itself. It is clear that he has spent his entire career trying to hide his background. This, more than anything else, made him vulnerable to this kind of question. Instead of responding by refusing to answer the question and charging the reporter with “casting aspersions,” he just should have answered truthfully. By assuming his supporters are anti-Semitic and thereby attempting to continue the cover-up, he justifies and allies himself with his supporters’ bigotry and confirms his intent in his “maccaca” remark.

  25. andrew says:

    “It is clear that he has spent his entire career trying to hide his background.”

    http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2006/09/20/AR2006092001965.html

  26. Marvin Wasserman says:

    What is clear is that the Allen campaign is now is overdrive trying to debunk suggestions that he knew his mother was Jewish. As John Mecurio of the Hotline has noted,”If it was discovered that Allen knew this family history, but attempted to keep it under wraps for whatever reason, it could do great harm to any political campaign. He’d face serious questions, in the wake of the Macaca incident and his history with the Confederate flag, of whether he’s both racially prejudiced and anti-semitic. Given the intensely pro-Israel sentiment that exists in this country today, that could be a huge political liability — but on the other hand, if this is something he discovers and promptly reveals about himself, and does so with a sense of pride in his family history, I don’t think he’d face much backlash at all.”

    In her book, “Fifth Quarter,” his sister, Jennifer Allen, does not explictly state that her mother was Jewish, does gives hints, such as her father’s detention in North Africa by the Nazis, her not being married in a Catholic Church because of her refusal to commit to raise their children as Catholics, and her refusal to participate in the Catholic mass.

    Compare Allen’s reaction to his “finding out” about his Jewish roots to the grace of Madeline Albright and the pride of Wesley Clark. In Allen’s mind it was “casting aspersions!”

    Much of what we previously knew about the family was written by his sister, Jennifer Allen, in her book “Fifth Quarter: The Scrimmage of a Football Coach’s Daughter.”