Sunday, September 24, 2006

Jewish Aspersions

I have been trying to see it from Virginia Senator George F. Allen's perspective. The Southern California kid who turned himself into a Confederate clearly has been searching for roots all his life. He had exposed some bizarre vein of prejudice in calling an Indian-American "macaca" – a North African way of calling someone a monkey. It was in that context that reporter Peggy Fox asked him at a public debate about his rumored Jewish roots. "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?"

Dana Milbank, of the Washington Post, reports Allen's reaction this way:

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."

How should we read this? We now know that Allen's mother is indeed Jewish ethnically, though she converted to Anglicanism and raised her son an Episcopalian. Her father, Felix Lumbroso, was imprisoned by the Nazis in Tunisia because he was Jewish and had opposed them. We also know that Allen had only found out about his Jewish roots a month before this public question. And his mother had begged him not to tell, because she had kept it from the rest of the family.

Still, a month is time enough to get used to the idea, and to have an answer ready for the inevitable reporter's questions.

When asked if he had Jewish roots, George Allen took this question as an aspersion.

Now, I am about as Jewish as George Allen is – ethnically but not religiously, from several wonderfully intermarried lines. Like Allen, I carry a middle name from a pretty-Jewish grandfather – Joseph, in my case. My eldest carries my grandmother's maiden name, Blum, as her middle name to honor her beloved ancestor. My daughter is a Christian, an ordinary meat-and-potatoes Presbyterian. But she will Never Forget. We honor our Jewish heritage, as we do the rest of the family lines.

I don't think calling out Jewish roots is "casting aspersions." George Allen does. In that moment, like the macaca moment, he really did reveal his true identity.


Walrus said...

Yes, that word "aspersions" was certainly a red flag, wasn't it? Put me off too.

eusto said...

Thanks for your comment, Gruntled, on the pope thread. Now, I'm not asking this to cause problems, but I'm just curious. Given that you are a Calvinist and given that you accept your Jewish past, how do you reconcile the two? If you're a standard laid-back religious pluralist, no problem. But if you really think Christ is necessary for salvation, does that mean that you think your ancestors are likely in hell now? Do you just not think about it? Since you stated that you think the Bible clearly states that not all are saved a while back, is there any relation at all between one's religion and salvation?

If there isn't, that's cool, because it allows you not to assign a higher than average probability of damnation to non-Christians. But on the other hand, if there is no relation than it would seem to take the wind out of the sails of any desire to "spread the gospel" as seems to be commanded.

How do you relieve this prima facie cognitive dissonance?

Somehow I fear you will tell me that since you believe God is just, you don't worry about these things. But can you at least understand that such an answer would be seen by a non-Christian as a rather evasive and "sleazy" rhetorical non-answer? It doesn't seem right to assume that your system is just when that is what's at issue.

(BTW, Michael Kruse, interesting remarks [on the pope thread] about the notion that the doctrinal nature of Christianity led to human rights etc. in the West. I'm more inclined to attribute these things to our Greek heritage and not to our Jewish heritage. I tend to view the focus on orthodoxy as having the opposite effect. IOW, Christianity chilled progress except on those occasions when the Greek shone through and the Christian part was sublimated.

The fact that Xenophanes, Heraclitus, and Plato could just slam Homer and expurgate the "evil" passages seemed critical to the free-wheeling progress of the Greeks. We didn't have similar progress till the Enlightenment when Thomas Jefferson and others could do the same thing to the Bible.

Finally, your thesis is weakened by the fact that the ancient greeks held an extremely orthopractic view. As long as you made sacrifices, you could think of Zeus whatever you pleased. Sure maybe Christianity had something to do with Western progress but its effects seem far more complex than the clearly positive effects of our Hellenic roots.)

Yeah, Allen seems like a creep to me -- whose political success is based on his image and not his true identity.

Mark Smith said...

They're both wrong.

Senator Allen for showing his true colors - that he is ashamed of any possible link to Judaism.

The reporter for clearly baiting a race-based trap for the Senator. She knew how he'd react, and used Judaism and Jewish ancestry as bait when that particular issue hadn't been mentioned by the Senator previously. I know it's true, but is there ANY good reason that reporters need to play the "gotcha" card?

Shame on both of them.

Stuart Gordon said...


I'll offer my reply to Eusto. The Christian faith is not a monolith. The question of the Jews is far more complicated than you present it.

There are plenty of Christians who will argue, on the basis of Romans 9-11, that God's covenant promise to Israel remains sure. Were that covenant cancelled, then those who trust in Jesus have no confidence that God is faithful.

Paul dares to say that it was God's purpose that Israel reject Jesus, so that the Gentiles would be brought into the covenant. And it is God's purpose that the inclusion of the Gentiles would bring the Jews back into the fold, so that neither may boast.

Those chapters are complex and seem to contain paradoxes, which is how you end up with different opinions. As you likely know, any work of depth will spawn differing interpretations, be it philosophy, theology, literature, or political theory.

Christians are not required to view this issue from the perspective of "world religions." That is the perspective of someone who strives for objectivity. We don't claim to be objective about it. We are "grafted onto" the covenant tree which is the people of God. We were invited into this household, which existed a long time before we were part of it.

What we will say is that God made a covenant with Abraham, a unique covenant that is opened to non-Jews through Jesus. That sets the Jews apart from every other "world religion."

We cannot say how this all works out, though. Further, just as the church is not a monolith, the calling of individual Christians is not monolithic. Some Christians are called to testify to Jews about Jesus as the Messiah. Some are not.

Our task is not to establish odds on who's saved and who isn't. Our task is to testify to what we know. We leave the results in God's hands. We do believe, ultimately, that God is in charge, not we ourselves.

Gruntled said...

Stuart: thanks for an excellent opening reply to eusto's fair question.

My starting point in approaching the question of salvation is that all have sinned, and none deserve salvation. God saves by grace. The Bible says that some are saved, but not all will be saved. I don't think human beings can know God's reasons here. I also don't think that we can know our own destiny, much less other people's. There are other branches of Christianity that believe in assurance of salvation, but I don't.

The gospels are also clear that the whole being of Jesus Christ, including his incarnation, teaching, life, death, and resurrection, are essential to God's plan for creation in general, and plan of salvation in particular. Thus, all who are saved are saved through the action of Christ. As noted above, I don't know how salvation works, or who gets chosen. I believe the doctrine that salvation is through Christ.

As Stuart notes, for Christians, the Jews have a special relation to God unlike that of any other world religion. I do read Judaism in a religious rather than an ethnic sense, so that keeping the law is what makes you a Jew, not having Jewish ancestors, as George Allen and I do.

My faith in God's justice is not primarily tied to God as savior, but to God as creator. I believe that God created the world good. God created us free. We used, and use, our freedom to fall, but God keeps bringing us toward the good. And God saves some anyway.

I know that you are not likely to find that an entirely satisfactory answer, eusto, but perhaps it makes clearer the priorities that Christians have in understanding God.

Jonathan B. Horen said...

"I do read Judaism in a religious rather than an ethnic sense, so that keeping the law is what makes you a Jew, not having Jewish ancestors."

As the Talmud would say, אדרבה (it's the other way 'round). That is, being a Jew is either a matter of matrilineal descent, or of conversion. As for keeping the laws, there are the 7 Mitzvot (commandments) of B'nei Noach, for non-Jews; for "real Jews" there are the 613 Mitzvot.

I read Judaism in a religious AND ethnic sense; but then I'm a Jew, and we don't differentiate (neither does the Bible) between אם ישראל (the people/nation of Israel) and the Laws which He gave us at Mount Sinai.

Just some clarification.

Gruntled said...

Thanks for the clarification, Jonathan. Since Jesus said "I tell you that out of these stones God can raise up children for Abraham" [Matt. 3:9], Jews and Christians will have to agree to disagree on this point until the Messiah sorts it out.

Aaron X said...

I don't have a problem with George Allen's ancestor changing their name, or hiding their Jewish ancestry, many Jews in America did this in the past as a matter of economic and social survival.

Judaism is a religion, anyone can be a Jew, and anyone can choose not to be a Jew. So if his family made that choice, I will not condemn George Allen for that.

But his recent behavior is indicative of someone who harbors prejudicial and racist views, and that cannot be overlooked or excused.

Not only have respected people like doctors, come forward to claim that George Allen made repeated use of the N-word in conversations during his college years, conversations specifically devoid of black folk, but it's also been alleged that he made comments about moving back to Virginia because that's where Black people knew their place. Now it's been alleged that he put a severed deer's head in a Black family's mailbox.

Download Video of Chris Matthews asking the question on MSNBC

If this is true, then he isn't just a racist, he's a criminal and an individual who engages in hate crimes. No surprise that he was the GOP's top choice for presidential candidate before the truth began to come out. These are the values which the Republican Party now holds dear, racist elitist exclusion of anyone who isn't white from the power structure.

The current White House is a prime example.

Stuart Gordon said...


Please don't count me an apologist for the White House, but let's be accurate: this administration has put more non-white people in its cabinet than any other.