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September 24, 2006

Allen is Not Comfortable in His Own Skin

I've been trying to get my mind around George Allen's awkwardness with his newly public Jewishness.  I seem to remember people discussing his mother's Jewish heritage shortly after the "macaca" incident in the blogs.  She comes from a very prominent Sephardic Jewish family - the Lumbrosos, originally from Portugal, who escaped to Livorno, a part of Italy where Portuguese Jews became wealthy traders under the patronage of the Medicis, according to an article in the Jewish Daily Forward. 

Some of the family went to Tunisia, including Etty's forbearers.  Her father, Felix Lumbroso, imported wines and liquors, including the Cinzano brand.  It is not known what he did or what happened to him during the brief Nazi occupation of Tunisia in 1942-1943.  He may have been imprisoned; he may have been required to do manual labor; he may have cooperated with the Vichy French government; or he may have been a part of the resistance.  There are no records.  After the war, Felix lived in France with his family.  There are also no records of Etty's mother at any time, although it is assumed, given the conventions of the times, that she too was Jewish.

Allen claims not to have known, something that seems remarkably unlikely.  George Felix Allen was named after his Jewish grandfather.  Can you imagine not trying to find out all that you can about the grandparent you were named after?  Now, having been confronted with the question by reporters, he is clearly not comfortable discussing the issue.  His initial remarks indicate an awkwardness with the topic.  Newsweek captured the following: 

“I still had a ham sandwich for lunch. And my mother made great pork chops.” Being an eater of ham sandwiches and pork chops may go along with Allen’s Red State, cowboy-boot-wearing, Confederate-flag-waving image, but many observers were unnerved by the flippancy of these remarks, and pundits began to debate whether Allen’s Jewishness—and his strange reaction to it—would help or hurt his re-election campaign.

The blog, Raising Kaine, out of Virginia, has a respectful, historical perspective about George Allen's Jewish family background and about what this might have meant to Allen and his family. 

In short, it seems that George and his parents engaged in a lifelong “don’t ask – don’t tell” conspiracy. Etty has since made her true motivation clear. It was not the trauma of her father’s wartime experience that kept her silent. It was, sadly, more mundane than that: fifty years ago, large numbers of Americans were still blatantly racist and openly anti-Semitic. Etty’s relationship with her prospective husband’s family and his career prospects could and probably would have been harmed by disclosure of her Jewish heritage. And so, from her own instincts and at George Sr.’s urging, she kept mum. Hardly uncommon and by no means morally reprehensible.

All of this makes sense. And George Jr.’s studied ignorance of his family history begins to fall into place: he is, after all, his mother’s son. But his professions of ignorance contain a huge dose of implausibility: is he the Bubble Boy? Has he been kept in clinical isolation from his extended and extensive Lumbroso family through all of these decades? No contact, no conversations with aunts, uncles, cousins? I can tell you outright, and from experience, that it is impossible for a grown man to be unaware of the religion of half of his family…especially if it is a Jewish half!

The final explanation is elsewhere. In fact, residual anti-Semitism is far from dead in this country and, while it might no longer hurt so much to be Jewish, it still helps to be Gentile, especially if one is a low-level politician courting a white Southern constituency behind a cowboy persona. This approach turns out to be short-sighted, however, if the politician happens to have nationwide and presidential ambitions: sooner or later his family background – like that of John Kerry or Wesley Clark or Madeleine Albright – is doomed to come under the microscope. Allen should have realized that long ago. His past failure to deal with an impending problem and his current catastrophic attempts at damage control are not an encouraging sign of political competence or moral fiber.

I have a great appreciation for Allen's family's concern with anti-Semitism.  It was certainly real and, as we have learned recently, many families chose that route.  It is not uncommon.  However, others in similar positions, i.e. with Albright, Clark and Kerry, did not make such a hash of it when they found out. 

Family secrets, if not looked at, take a toll.  In George Allen's case, hiding the fact of his Jewishness appears to have contributed to a lack of curiosity about where he came from and an inability to figure out who he was.  So he made up a past for himself, trying on a southern 'ole boy persona that appears to fit unless he is challenged, rather like Bush.  As long as these guys are able to live in the "bubble" world of their choosing, their privilege and unwillingness to consider anything outside that world of privilege makes them fragile and in the end, uncomfortable in their own skin.  That privilege, combined with a lack of curiosity, is hideously detrimental to governing.  We have seen where that can lead us with Bush. 

I, for one, have no patience with it.  I'm done with these guys who have not worked out their personal stuff before trying to run the country.  I want people to lead us who are comfortable in their own skin. 

Posted by Lynn Allen on September 24, 2006 at 11:00 AM in Candidate Races, National and International Politics | Permalink

Comments

And I think back and contrast this with Madeleine Allbright's discovery of her own Jewish background. Her discovery was probably a bit more realistic compared to Allen's belated one yet she met the discovery head on and respectfully. Allen on the other hand throws up his strange denial which can only be described as guilt ridden and tries to sandwich the denial into something along the lines of "but she wasn't a real Jew because she made pork chops" Just who is his base that he's talking to?

Posted by: mainsailset | Sep 24, 2006 12:35:58 PM

As I recall, the first time she was asked about it after she found out, she said, "Oy, vey!" I'd say that was being comfortable in her own skin.

Posted by: Lynn | Sep 24, 2006 4:56:17 PM

George Allen's bigotry has a long history, now spinning out of control. Conveniently, his downward spiral is just in time for the High Holy Days. Perhaps he and soulmate Mel Gibson can attend Yom Kippur services together next weeek.

Between them, they have a century of hateful works to atone for.

Posted by: shoephone | Sep 25, 2006 2:30:03 AM

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