A national conference for the Jewish Learning Institute warmly embraced George Allen as keynote speaker Thursday night, a moment hard to imagine four years ago when his U.S. Senate campaign was damaged by the handling of the revelation that his grandfather was Jewish.
Allen, a former U.S. senator and governor of Virginia, was visibly uncomfortable when asked about his Jewish roots at a debate in Fairfax County.
"It was a big turning point in the campaign," said political analyst Mark Rozell. "When he made that dismissive comment about eating a ham sandwich and his mother makes a good pork chop, a lot of people were just scratching their heads."
Thursday night, Allen told of how he discovered that Jewish ancestry just weeks before that debate. He said he pressed his tearful 83-year-old mother for the truth that her father was Jewish and had been imprisoned by the Nazis. She then swore him to secrecy, Allen said.
"She feared if Pop Pop’s Jewish heritage was known, my father wouldn’t have gotten jobs," Allen said. "She really feared retribution. I said, 'Mom, the Nazis were beat. You don’t have to worry about this anymore.'"
After the debate incident, Allen convinced his mother to free him from his secret. But just a few weeks later, the anti-Semitism his mother feared was on full display as Allen’s wife, Susan, campaigned in Richmond.
"A person said, 'George Allen, that’s the Jew boy,'" Allen said.
Allen's address was rewarded with a standing ovation Thursday night. In 2012, he is expected to try to get the Senate seat back from the Democrat who defeated him, Sen. Jim Webb. Thursday night's speech helps recast what was once a negative issue, Rozell said.
Jewish leaders deny that Allen's appearance was politically motivated.