Feb. 9, 2003
I'm not a rabbi. I don't play one on TV. But you can take my word on this: John Forbes Kerry isn't Jewish. He isn't half-Jewish. He isn't Jewish in the halachic sense (in Jewish law, or halacha, a Jew is someone who was born to a Jewish mother or converted to Judaism). He isn't even Jewish in the Lenny Bruce sense ("Dig: I'm Jewish. Count Basie's Jewish. Ray Charles is Jewish. Eddie Cantor's goyish. B'nai B'rith is goyish; Hadassah, Jewish.")
The junior senator from Massachusetts is a lifelong Catholic whose paternal grandparents appear to have converted from Judaism long before he was born. Though he has known for 15 years that his grandmother was originally Jewish, he rarely spoke about it in public. He didn't bring it up in his 1996 or 2002 re-election campaigns.
But that changed after The Boston Globe reported on Page 1 that his grandfather, too, had been born Jewish. Within hours, Kerry was in a Florida synagogue, extolling his Jewish roots.
"I am so excited," he told the American Israel Public Affairs Committee during a dinner last week at Congregation B'nai Israel of Palm Beach. "I've embraced what I have learned, and a light has literally turned on within me -- like an epiphany -- and I am proud to share this special measure of connection with you."
At one level, I think, he was speaking sincerely; the revelation about his grandfather, who ultimately committed suicide in a Boston hotel men's room, seems genuinely to have moved him. But I also think he was speaking from a political calculus that never found a Jewish grandparent something to be "excited" about until now -- when for the first time in his career, he has to campaign for Jewish votes outside his home state.
By the same token, it never did Kerry any harm to be universally mistaken for Irish in Massachusetts, a state whose political culture is dominated by Irish Catholics. Not that he overtly lied; if asked, he would say that his father's family was from "Austria." (Actually, it was from a region of the Austro-Hungarian Empire that is now the Czech Republic.) But if others incorrectly assumed he was Irish, did he trouble to set them straight?
Kerry tells the Globe that he has "always been absolutely straight up front about it." His press aides insist he makes a point of speaking up when he sees or hears himself described as Irish. "Kerry has never said he is Irish-American and has always corrected it when people have assumed it because of his name," his spokesman David Wade told The New York Times.
Yet there is no sign that Kerry or his staff have ever alerted the Globe when it mistakenly labeled him Irish, sometimes in front-page stories he couldn't possibly have missed. A search of the Globe's archives turns up no letter to the editor from Kerry making clear that he is not of Irish descent. Over the years, the Globe has run 23 corrections mentioning Kerry; none was about his ancestry.
Does any of this matter? Obviously the details of Kerry's family tree have no bearing on his fitness for office. His reactions are relevant only because they seem to fit his career-long pattern of equivocation and calculation -- trying whenever possible to have it both ways, always maneuvering to leave himself an out.
It's an old story. When it served Kerry's purposes to be seen trashing his Navy medals in an antiwar protest, he put on a show of doing so ("John Kerry of Waltham . . . said before he threw his medals over the fence: 'I'm not doing this for any violent reasons, but . . . to try to make this country wake up once and for all' " -- Boston Globe, April 24, 1971). But when he ran for the Senate and wanted to upgrade his old image, he put on a different show ("Kerry, after showing a reporter his medals and ribbons on display in his Back Bay apartment, said he had disagreed with other protest leaders on throwing away medals" -- Boston Globe, Oct. 15, 1984).
All these years later, he is still bobbing and weaving. Consider his many stands on Iraq.
He repeatedly hit the Bush Administration for being too ready to go to war against Saddam Hussein. Then he voted for a measure empowering President Bush to do just that. He then went back to insisting there must be no war without UN approval, exactly the opposite of the position he had voted for.
In a major speech last month, he demanded that Bush "show the world some appropriate patience in building a genuine coalition." But following Hans Blix's report to the Security Council, Kerry agreed that Saddam was in "material breach" of Resolution 1441 and should be given 30 days to disarm or face attack. That wasn't too different from what Bush would say in his State of the Union address a few days later, yet Kerry derided the speech for its "blustering unilateralism."
Only after hearing Secretary of State Colin Powell's UN presentation did Kerry finally conclude that "there really is a kind of smoking gun." That, at any rate, is what he said last week. If he zigzags again this week, will anyone be surprised?
Ambivalence on a thorny issue is no sin in a politician. An aversion to being pinned down on any issue is. When Kerry's grandparents made a decision, they stuck with it. That's clearly one gene he didn't inherit.