Senator Allen’s “Jewish Problem”

by Dr. Rafael Medoff

(Dr. Medoff is director of The David S. Wyman Institute for Holocaust Studies,

U.S. Senator George Allen (R-Virginia), a possible presidential candidate, is at the center of a controversy
over his family’s previously-undisclosed Jewish heritage and the way he has handled questions about it. But Allen is not the first presidential aspirant to grapple with such issues.

Seventy years ago, Secretary of State Cordell Hull faced a somewhat comparable situation. How the two men handled their respective circumstances reveals a good deal not only about them, but also about how much American society has changed since the 1930s.

Hull, like Allen, was a first-term Senator from the South (Tennessee). He was named Secretary of State by President Franklin D. Roosevelt in 1933. Hull’s wife, Frances Witz, had attended an Episcopalian Church while growing up in Staunton, Virginia, but her father was a Jewish immigrant from Austria.

Rumors about Mrs. Hull’s Jewish heritage began circulating soon after her husband became Secretary of State. Antisemitic magazines published vicious articles that cited her ancestry as proof of a Jewish conspiracy to take over the government.

An investigative reporter from Time magazine discovered in 1939 that Hull’s entry in Who’s Who wrongly stated that his wife’s original last name was Whitney, which was in fact her married name from her first marriage. In our own era, when public figures are intensely scrutinized by the news media, a false statement in a Who’s Who entry might be cause for scandal–especially if it was suspected that the entry was written that way in order to hide something. Not so in 1939.

Hull’s most recent biographer, Irwin Gellman, reports that Hull “hid his wife’s Jewish heritage for fear that it would cause controversy and keep him from the presidential nomination he so passionately desired.” Hull’s refusal to help Europe’s Jews escape Hitler or press the British to open Palestine to Jewish refugees was, according to Gellman, partly attributable to the fact that he “feared that [his wife’s] Jewish connection made him vulnerable to anti-Semites, who would argue that his wife had forced him to support Jewish causes … and might cost him votes if he decided to seek the presidency.”

Antisemitism was indeed widespread in the United States during the 1930s. More than one hundred antisemitic organizations were active around the country. More than three million Americans listened every Sunday night to the radio broadcasts of the pioneer of ‘hate radio,’ Father Charles Coughlin. Polls found from one-third to one-half of the public believed Jews were greedy, dishonest, aggressive, and had too much power.

Even FDR, who encouraged Hull’s presidential aspirations (until Roosevelt decided to run for a third term), considered Mrs. Hull’s background a political liability. The president told Senator Burton Wheeler (D-Montana) in August 1939 that a Hull candidacy would be problematic because Mrs. Hull’s Jewishness “would be raised” by his opponents. FDR added: “Mrs. Hull is about one quarter Jewish. You and I, Burt, are old English and Dutch stock. We know who our ancestors are. We know there is no Jewish blood in our veins, but a lot of these people do not know whether there is Jewish blood in their veins or not.”

Senator Allen’s mother, Henrietta, grew up in the Jewish community of Tunisia, which was persecuted by the Nazis during the German occupation of that North African country in 1942-1943. When she immigrated to the United States after World War II, she came to an America where disdain for “Jewish blood” was still very much a social reality. Mrs. Allen says she found it necessary to hide her Jewishness from her future-in-laws, lest they object to the marriage. She and her husband later decided not to tell their children of her Jewish background because, “What they put my father through, I always was fearful. I didn’t want my children to have to go through that fear all the time.”

It may be hard for us to understand how Mrs. Allen could think that her children, growing up in America in the 1950s and 1960s, might be persecuted if their Jewish background became known. Those who did not endure life under Nazi occupation can never fully appreciate the permanent emotional scars which that experience left upon the survivors.

But surely it is unnecessary for Senator Allen, in the America of 2006, to regard Jewishness as a political liability. There are eleven identifying Jews in the United States Senate. A self-described religiously observant Jew was nominated for vice president by the Democratic Party in 2000, without any obvious adverse consequences and, in fact, to the acclaim of many. This is no longer the America from which Cordell Hull tried to hide.

October 2006