The late liberal activist Allard Lowenstein was fond of recalling the time he bucked a boycott of French President Georges Pompidou’s address to a joint session of Congress in March 1970.
Before his murder in 1980 at the hands of a former aide, I heard Lowenstein speak of the incident when pro-Israel members of Congress stayed away from Pompidou’s appearance to protest France’s sale of warplanes to countries pledged to Israel’s destruction.
But Lowenstein, a left-wing gadfly serving in his only two-year term as a member of the House of Representatives from New York and far from uncritical of Israel, decided to show up.
Entering the chamber filling up with members of the Senate and House, he found himself next to his ideological opposite number: Sen. Barry Goldwater, the conservative icon and one-time Republican presidential candidate from Arizona.
“Well, Barry,” Lowenstein said, “looks like we’re going to be the only Jews in here today.”
The two shared a laugh over that, if nothing else.
I was reminded of Goldwater’s status as the grandson of a Jew (his father converted and married a non-Jew, and the future senator was raised as a Christian) by the latest discovery of a Jewish skeleton in the closet of a leading Washington figure.
In this case, the new crypto-Jew was Sen. George Allen of Virginia, heretofore better known for being the son of a famous football coach, whose service as governor of Virginia and then as a member of the U.S. Senate had made him a contender for the Republican nomination for the presidency in 2008.
In the course of a faltering battle for reelection to the Senate, Allen’s outsized ambitions have come a cropper due to a an epithet he slung at a Democratic campaign worker, and talk of his alleged fondness for Confederate flags and use of racial slurs.
Wedged in among those setbacks was a more bizarre revelation: The conservative politician’s mother turns out to be Jewish. The fact that Mrs. Allen is a Jewish immigrant from Tunisia whose father was interned in a Nazi concentration camp during the Holocaust got on the national press’s radar when a media panelist asked the senator about his mother’s identity during a campaign debate. Allen’s umbrage at the question, whether justified or not, struck many observers as odd.
Like the explanations of former Secretary of State Madeleine K. Albright – who claimed to know nothing of the fact that her parents were born Jewish – Allen’s story of a parent eager to disassociate herself from the embattled existence of her people may not sit well with many Jews.
But those of us who were raised to take fierce pride in our heritage have to accept that some of those who suffered abuse at the hands of anti-Semites were overcome by their fears and embraced not just assimilation but tried to erase their backgrounds altogether. It is a free country, and anyone, even the son of a North African Jew, can masquerade as a son of the old Confederacy (as Allen did in a cameo in a recent awful Hollywood film about the Civil War called “Gods and Generals”) if they so choose.
Yet Goldwater, whose peddler grandfather founded a department store in Phoenix and lived to see his descendants fade into the Christian world of Arizona, had no problems talking about his Jewish forefathers.
In “Mr. Conservative: Goldwater on Goldwater,” a new HBO documentary film about the senator created by his granddaughter C.C., journalist Robert MacNeil spoke of Goldwater’s attitude toward his status as a “half Jew.”
“He often told the story about being born of a Jewish father and an Episcopalian mother,” MacNeil relates in the film. “He would say things like, ‘I went to a golf club where they wouldn’t let Jews play, and I said, ‘I’m only half-Jewish. Can I play nine holes?'”
That sort of comfort with the contradictions of American life – in which a quintessential Western conservative was unashamed to also be branded a “Jew” – is what is lacking in the reactions of Allen and Albright.
While incidents such as Sen. Hillary Clinton’s discovery of a Jewish stepgrandfather during her run for the Senate in New York (Clinton also appears in the HBO film, speaking of her days as a “Goldwater Girl” conservative campaign worker during high school) are more silly than anything else, the awkward scrambles of Allen and Albright seem to reveal the dark underside of fear that once dominated relations between Jews and non-Jews even in this country.